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Raspberry Pi (Model B) review

Verdict

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

Review Date: 24 Apr 2012

Reviewed By: Barry Collins

Price when reviewed: £25 (£30 inc VAT)

Overall Rating
5 stars out of 6

Features & Design
4 stars out of 6

Value for Money
6 stars out of 6

Performance
4 stars out of 6

PCPRO Recommended

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.

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User comments

Jealous

Still waiting for mine, and I got my order in early! Last I heard, mid-May.

The demand for this device goes to show the pent-up need for a low cost, low power, essentially disposable computer. Once you start thinking of it in those terms, the possibilities are endless.

By KevPartner on 25 Apr 2012

Potential as a great media centre

XBMC has already been shown off ported to one of these little wonders - and it looked very good playing 1080p video even before being fully optimised.

The obvious solution to lack of WiFi is to use a micro WiFi router - fairly cheap from eBay and you don't have to worry about faffing with WiFi drivers.

If only you could actually buy one... I've been trying for months.

By colin52 on 25 Apr 2012

Even more affordable...

I reckon the government should make this VAT free to encourage the uptake further for education.

By Steve_Adey on 25 Apr 2012

VAT

@Steve - but schools don't pay VAT anyway.

By Chris_K on 25 Apr 2012

To anyone who ordered one, I read this on their website:
http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/1081

By tech3475 on 25 Apr 2012

Teach our kids to program

I'll be interested to hear how this piece of kit will enable our children to suddenly start programming. There is nothing that you can do on a Raspberry Pi that you can't already do on any other type of PC.

By llcoolj40 on 25 Apr 2012

Teach our kids to program...

...it's the price, isn't it, not the spec? £30/unit, very affordable.

By tobymathews1 on 25 Apr 2012

It's what happens when 'amateurs' interfere

Rather agree with llcoolj40 - well-intentioned and all that, but long on sentimentality, short on educational realism.

Based on this device, we'd solve the shortage of Surgeons by outfitting schools with anatomy books & scalpels... :-)

By wittgenfrog on 25 Apr 2012

And while they are at it ...

The government could look at the ludicrous tariff situation that makes it cheaper to import the components already assembled on a circuit board rather than importing the components for assembly in the EU!

By JohnAHind on 25 Apr 2012

@tobymathews1

But by the time you add screen, keyboard, mouse and SD card you are in the same ballpark as a Netbook or tablet.

I'd get the point if the board was micro-controller based: the kids could make something useful cross-compiling on a PC and the stand-alone target board would be cheep enough that they could keep the finished product.

This could potentially teach them electronics, robotics and product design as well as programming.

By JohnAHind on 25 Apr 2012

Learning to Program?

Sorry guys, what exactly was the point of this review?

This cheap device is supposed to rekindle an interest in all things computing, particularly programming, so what exactly can you do with this board? What tools exist to allow you to program it? - that is the point of a device like this isn't it? I mean anyone can stare at the chips and tell you what they are, but given that expansion is so limited, the hardware is irrelevant. What about a review of the software tools - come on guys earn your pay with a proper review not a 5 min glance at the product spec sheet, we can all read those - this is PC PRO not PC Gamer isn't it?

By pauld1024 on 25 Apr 2012

@JohnAHind

Totally agree. I teach undergrads computer systems design and programming. For about 60 quid, they buy an FPGA based general purpose board from Altera where they can learn to do hardware design using schematics or VHDL/Verilog (a great intro to digital design). Then they can download soft core processors like NIOS (from Altera), 68k, 8051 etc and do pretty much all the stuff they could do with this PI (sound/graphics/USB/Networks). Then there are free tools like C/C++ compilers, assemblers, OS kernels they can play with - the list goes on. All way more interesting than this device

By pauld1024 on 25 Apr 2012

Rekindle interest

The reason it will re-kindle interest is its availability and interest. Its cheap, so schools can afford it. And there is alot of hype around it, so people will consider getting it. My uni is already thinking of buying them. Sure there are already similar products, but not quite this cheap and hyped up. Stuff like the iphone and ipad existed before, but apple created enough hype about them, that they are now cutting edge! now they sell by the truck load..

its not like putting scalpels etc in a school to get more doctors. when the kids see all the chips etc on it they will be curious, and once you teach them how to make games on it they will be fascinated. Then when they learn they can get their own easily enough they will. That opens the gateway. and its sure as hell an improvement on teaching kids 'IT' by showing them how to use MS office, a rather expensive piece of kit, on an expensive OS on expensive hardware.. bored the hell outta me.. But once I learnt java at uni I was hooked on coding.. good thing i stuck out through all those years of glorified data input relabelled 'IT'..

By spoonassassin on 25 Apr 2012

Teach our kids to program

I'll be interested to hear how this piece of kit will enable our children to suddenly start programming. There is nothing that you can do on a Raspberry Pi that you can't already do on any other type of PC.

By llcoolj40 on 25 Apr 2012

Flash

The idea of a cheap and easy to maintain computer like the Pi is very attractive to our school, BUT...

...we use a lot of software across the school that needs Flash. Which is limiting for the deployment of devices that don't support it, like iPads and the Raspberry Pi. I'm sure over time these packages will migrate away from Flash, but that is looking like it is still years away.

We're also moving away from fixed screens and keyboards and towards laptops because they're more flexible in their use of space - you can easily pack away a laptop and reuse the table in a classroom for something different. Not possible with a Pi or desktop PC.

By mrtrilby on 25 Apr 2012

Unbreakable

@ llcoolj40 - yes, there's nothing it does that a normal pc can't, but it's not the end of the world if you break it - just reflash the sd card and you're back to normal.

My six-year-old managed to do Weird Things to the fonts on the family mac, so we had to give him a restricted account. He can have his *own* pi and the rest of the family don't have to worry about him breaking stuff - he can delete files to his heart's content, write programs and prod it with a soldering iron. Wire it up to lego motors, make a burglar alarm with lasers which emails him (or plays an mp3) if someone enters the room.

By sarabob on 25 Apr 2012

It's a little marvel

I got my Pi last week. I bought a power supply for £2.80 and a 16" telly with Freeview, USB recorder and of course HDMI sockets from Kogan, £59 delivered. I had a spare mouse and keyboard. So I am still the right side of £100.

It's a wonderful little device and I am sure as it evolves it will see a huge devoted following.

You can follow my progress with the RasPi at http:/raspi.co.uk

I just designed a laser cut acrylic case which I hope will be modest cost and it will include a donation to the Raspberry Pi Foundation

By RasPi on 25 Apr 2012

Only the beginning...

This is only the beginning. There are loads of other projects with far better specs and even lower price points in the works. Take a look at Olimex and a few others. These project are really open source not like the R-PI.

By ameriswede on 25 Apr 2012

Heh, looks like every Dad in the country wants a Raspberry Pi. I wouldn't mind betting the kids'll prefer their laptops.

By c6ten on 25 Apr 2012

Software side

@pauld1024 while I agree that the software is the most important part for the education side of things.

It currently runs pretty standard Debian and Fedora and some education packages have been pre-installed.

The hardware is ready, the software side hasn't been worked on yet.

By rgbstock on 26 Apr 2012

lots of ppl missing the point.

Well we can all say we missed the point, we are the ppl who read a PC Pro magazine and are already interested in PC and etc...
This is aimed at the chav mother of kid who is not as cool as his mum who is given a cool pair of trainers when all he really wants is a cheap pc his mum wont scream at him for wrecking. we should get over ourselfs and the fact we have knowledge, like the other 0.1% of this country and think of the poor stupid ppl out there that can only use a computer if it has windows (and they think the window refers to the screen) on it and haven't even thought of what is inside the black box from pc world they bought 3 yr ago and has started getting really slow cos they have never "De-frag'ed" it in all that time.

This is the first time I've been at work and the cleaner has asked me if I know how to order something of the internet cos its only £30 and she has heard it might help her kid who isn't interested in any thing but might like this is just what he wanted for his birthday but they couldn't get another computer as its to expensive.

The target ordiance is not you!! its not me!! its not the Tech guy from scholl!! or the geek in the she with the soldering iron. Its Mrs smith who thinks it might help her son/daughter and is willing to try to make there lives more rounded.

sorry if this is a rant but many people are getting the wrong end of the stick with this exp. people in the industry who think this is aimed anywhere remotely in there direction.

By averagejoe1256156 on 26 Apr 2012

how capable would this be at running a live web cam. Currently have full blown tower under my snakes vivarium just to run a live web cam. This would be great nested inside a DIY box, freeing up a lot of space.

By DazTevil on 26 Apr 2012

Re: missing the point

I think 'Avergagejoe' has hit the nail on the head. Maybe most people here are too young to remember the ZX81. A pretty naff computer in many ways but one that not only spawned an industry dedecated to it but introduced a lot of kids to the concept of programming, even in machine code (how many pro's can code that now!).
Times have moved on of course and the Pi probably won't be as big but if it can get kids interested in the more serious aspects of computing it will certainly (in the long term) do the UK IT industry a lot of good. I look forward to seeing what hardware and software enterprising third parties will produce for the Pi.

By russv1 on 26 Apr 2012

Hide it

Pi is absolutely ideal for embedded systems use. Anyone wanting to run an information board (and let's face it, we've all seen the Windows BSOD in airports, cash machines and active advertising boards), or make an in-car PC entertainment system, or needs a tiny media centre behind the TV, will now have a much cheaper and more compact option than anything else on the market. After considering peripherals the cost isn't quite so attractive but there's a niche that needs to be filled, even if 90% of the people who buy one are probably only doing so because it has a lower case i in the name.

By baldmosher on 26 Apr 2012

The Point

There is a buzz around this product and averagejoe1256156 is right – it’s not aimed at those of us who read PC Pro. Like the BBC Micro or ZX80, this little gem throws the doors wide open to anyone with an imagination. Unlike the average PC running Windows, this awesome device comes with development tools as soon as you install the operating system and has a big row of pins to connect things to even before it’s got clothes on. (No case but I/O ports that let you connect it to… anything you want!). It’s not that we can teach kids, rather, it allows kids to go off and learn and then teach us!
What can you do with it? Well I know what I intend to do with it but I’m an oldie, institutionalised by a career in IT so I’ve not thought much beyond building a media centre and combined web server so I can host my own web site from home. It’s the 14 and 15 year olds who frown and look at us as if we’re stupid when we ask “what does it do?” – these are the guys who will answer the question over the next few months.

By JonPick on 26 Apr 2012

The point of the Pi

The project is trying to get kids interested in the underpinning technologies. For less than the cost of an Xbox game they can buy this. Then the curious will want to make it do something entertaining, which will motivate them to find solutions to its limitations.
I bought a BBCmicro to write up a thesis and to play some games. It was easy to write your own programs and even interface it to other hardware.
Today, the learning curve to do the same with a PC is too steep. If Raspberry Pi can distract even a thousand teenagers from the Xbox long enough that they learn some computer architecture and software skills it will be a success.

By GWhite12 on 26 Apr 2012

The art with this device will be to create a set of software for it, hand crafted in assembly language and using openGL calls to run at full speed and that consumes virtually no power.Once that happens and then someone devises a way of putting a rack of 1000 of these together for a vary powerful/ cheap Raspberry Bramble server.The article was correct in one thing.The art of crafting fast apps using so little ram and computing power has been lost in a sea of bloatware running of elaborate pc hardware that consume far to much power.

By Jaberwocky on 26 Apr 2012

Re:Re:missing the point

@russv1. My first computer was a ZX81. I had to learn how to program in Z80 machine code because BASIC was too slow to do anything useful, and there was no assembler available until several years later. With only 16k of RAM, programs had to be compact and well coded. My second computer was an Amstrad 6128. I rewrote the disc operating system to use normal floppies, and sold it for a small fortune

By ewenflint1 on 26 Apr 2012

Re: What's the point?

What I found missing in this review was a bit more information about what's available - to many assumptions. Software wise - you've got the whole world of S/W development tools available to any Linux hacker. Being on the tight side memory wise, not sure I'd want to try Eclipse, but most editors will work fine, as will all the many languages available (Python, PHP, Perl, bash, c/c++, FORTRAN, assembly, etc. ad nasum). Given its Linux who cares.

The COOL part even for PC Pros is that this is a cheap play-thing the way I used to play with the odd micro kit of the 70's and 80's (or the erector-set of my childhood). I wish the review at least mentioned that there is a header available to gain access to various GPIO lines of the SoC! My grandkids can learn all about system's programing as they create projects to drive stuff. Ardunio is another lilke project, but I like this one - being a software hack that I am.

So the point is that this is a simple, easy, cheap way for my grandkids to build/play/learn without destroying a more expensive box in the process.

By MrBear on 26 Apr 2012

Learning to program

Here's your chance guys. I can see a whole new section of the magazine dedicated to programming the Rasperry Pi, beginners and advanced levels alike. I just listened to the podcast where you were reminiscing about learning to program on the great computers of the 80s. This is the same sort of thing for the modern age. The potential of the Pi is much greater than that of a Spectrum but someone needs to lead way. I suggest that this is your new mission, should you choose to accept it. If only I could buy one!

By llcoolj40 on 26 Apr 2012

Missing the point

All the people who have been ranting about super expensive PCs or laptops are missing the point. Most schools in the world cannot afford expensive computers or tablets. This gives you a good enough computer that you can use to program and do some basic cool stuff. Do you want school students to play high end games or you want them to learn computers with basic stuff like programming and softwares like Open Office. As per my understanding these specs are more than enough and this is also very affordable. I could easily donate a couple of these to my old school which does not even have acomputer lab. And the Linux version can be configured to haev all the compilers etc. One monitor (50$) and a Pi and keyboard and mouse and SD card should cost around 100 $ and good enough for someone who does not have anything as of now. I studied at such a school and I know what we were missing. Atleast this will help set things right. My schoold could not even affort a library with enough books, just imagine what a boost if you can have cheap computers enabling you to surf the net and gain knowledge.

By indianuser on 27 Apr 2012

Let them miss the point!!

The educators and nay-sayers that miss the point of the Raspberry Pi are missing one more very important point. That point being 'their opinion is irrelevant'. Back in the early '80's when I got my ZX81 I didn't need any 'expert' or teacher to get me enthused by it, or coach me on it's use. I decided how I would use it and learn about it. My computer studies teacher borrowed literature from me to use in class, but even then, the lessons were a joke, just as they are today. The difference today is the majority of kids are not way ahead of the teachers, like we were back then. That, I believe, is something the RasPi and whatever it may spawn will turn around.

Worry not if it doesn't fit into your teaching agenda. The ones that are important will just bypass you, like we did 30 years ago.

By v12cat on 27 Apr 2012

The point...

Let's dispel all the ZX80 \ 81 BBC B \ Spectrum \ etc nostalgia.

As I recall my ZX80 cost me about £60 which was serious wedge back in the day. My BBC B cost around £350 I think. The Pi is around 10% of the cash cost and probaly only 1 or 2% allowing for (substantial) inflation.

We PC pioneers were laready pretty committed, and well-off to find the dosh!
We were also (mainly) not the sort of unmotivated 'yoof' that the Pi is allegedly gong to magically transform into the next generation of innovative IT entrepreneurs.....

The whole BBC B thing was heavily supported by schools and by HMG. Is a re-run planned?

I'm sure that a LOT of already fairly geeky people will immensly improve their skills and\or develop many new ones using the Pi. I'm confident some previously uninterested kids will be turned-on by the hype. All good.

There really is no 'silver bullet' to take us back to the genesis of the PC revolution. On the contrary the PC is itself being disrupted \ replaced by ever more 'walled garden' devices or should I say 'appliances'. Use, but don't tinker! is the order of the post PC world.

'Educating' really is the key, but what are you going to turf out of the National Curriculum to make way for 'programming'. Specifics please.

By wittgenfrog on 30 Apr 2012

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