Raspberry Pi (Model B) review

24 Apr 2012

An inspired, affordable, almost-Heath-Robinson means of encouraging a new generation of computing tinkerers

Price when reviewed 
30
5

Thirty years ago, pushing primitive hardware to its very limits is what gave Britain a home computing heritage to be proud of. The makers of the BBC Micro, for instance, spent months rewriting the BASIC interpreter just so that it would squeeze into the available 16KB of ROM.

Since then, developers and users have grown fat on the excess processing power, memory and storage available in today’s PCs, and even the cheapest of supermarket laptops will cope with several flabbily coded programs simultaneously.

PC Pro Feature

Read more about the background to this tiny device, as we ask: Can the Raspberry Pi save computing?

Now, a Cambridge-based charity is attempting to reignite Britain’s interest in programming with a computer so stripped to the bone that it uses the equivalent of a 15-year-old processor, contains barely a quarter of the memory of a mobile phone and doesn’t even have a case. And, most thrillingly of all, it costs a mere £30. It’s called the Raspberry Pi and we’ve finally got our hands on one for review.

Little wonder

The first thing that shocks you about the Raspberry Pi is how tiny it is. The board is roughly the same size as a credit card, with ports and sockets jutting out from every side. The device is so light (45g) that it becomes a hostage to the tension of the cables plugging into it: our chunky HDMI cable lifted the body clean off the desk, like a child holding a bunch of helium balloons.

The Raspberry Pi comes in two flavours: the £30 Model B, which we have here, and the lesser-specified Model A, which is due to be released in the coming months. (The Model A and Model B monikers are a nod to those BBC Micros of 30 years ago, which bore the same names.)

Raspberry Pi (Model B)

At its heart is a Broadcom BCM2835 System on a Chip (SoC) running at 700MHz. This is based on an ARM11 processor, which means the Raspberry Pi won’t run x86 operating systems, be that Windows or even some better known Linux distros, such as Ubuntu. Instead, it operates on specially adapted versions of Debian or Fedora Linux.

If you’re trying to locate the processor on the photo above, forget it: it’s beneath the 256MB Hynix memory chip in the middle of the board. Unsurprisingly, the combination of a smartphone-class processor and a fairly meagre dollop of RAM doesn’t result in a processing powerhouse. Our Real World Benchmarks don’t run on ARM processors – and even if they did, we’re fairly confident they’d bring the Raspberry Pi to its knees.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation claims “real world performance is something like a 300MHz Pentium II”, and we wouldn’t disagree. The CPU meter in the corner of the Debian screen is frequently maxed out for even the most conservative of applications, such as multitabbed web browsing. CPU-intensive applications are almost off limits: the GIMP art package took 1min 27secs just to load. In the SysBench CPU benchmark, the Model B took 107ms to complete one calculation of the purely synthetic prime number test; a mid-range desktop Core 2 Duo E8400 took only 0.85ms.

Such performance benchmarks are somewhat missing the point, though: the Raspberry Pi is intended as cheap kit for tinkering, not a desktop replacement. Anyone harbouring thoughts of using one as a cheap general-purpose PC had better think again.

Yet, if the Raspberry Pi lacks general processing grunt, the graphics are a different story. The part of the quote about performance we cruelly lopped off above is “…something like a 300MHz Pentium II, only with much, much swankier graphics”. So while the Raspberry Pi tends to grind to a halt with three or four browser tabs open, the VideoCore IV GPU churned out near-flawless Full HD video in our tests with the Debian distro. It can even play Quake III at 1,280 x 1,024 with maximum textures at a decent 40fps.

Details

Price ex VAT £25
Price inc VAT £30
Overall rating 5
Performance 4
Features & Design 4
Value for Money 6

Basic specifications

RAM capacity 0.26GB

Processor

CPU nominal frequency 0.70GHz

Motherboard

Wired adapter speed 100Mbits/sec

Graphics card

Graphics chipset VideoCore IV
HDMI outputs 1

Case

Dimensions 85.6 x 53.98 x 17mm (WDH)

Rear ports

USB ports (downstream) 2