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Apr
16

Raspberry Pi review – the price is right, but the software is not…

by Gareth Halfacree

It is selling faster than they can make it, with global demand proving insatiable, but can the Raspberry Pi live up to the hype? Gareth Halfacree reveals all…

Pros: The Raspberry Pi can’t be beaten on price, and it offers surprising power for its tiny size and power draw.
Cons: Software for the Pi is still very immature, while other – admittedly more expensive – devices are significantly faster.
More info:
Raspberry Pi homepage
Version reviewed: Model B (£29)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have at least heard of the Raspberry Pi. Since the creation of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a not-for-profit charity created by Eben Upton and David Braben, the credit-card sized computer has rarely spent a day out of the press – despite delays caused by manufacturing issues and unprecedented demand.

The Pi’s problems look to be at an end, and customers are finally receiving their long-awaited boards – but does the device deliver on its promise of affordable, hackable computing in a tiny package?

Raspberry Pi review - the price is right, but the software is not…
Display Serial Interconnect (DSI) and MIPI camera connectors are present, but not yet supported by software

It’s the size that first grabs you when you handle a retail-model Raspberry Pi. At 85.60mm×53.98mm it’s the approximate size of a credit card, and with a total weight of 45g it’s certainly pocket-friendly. Very few development boards offer the same power in as compact a layout, with the notable exception of the BeagleBone at 86.36×53.34mm.

Raspberry Pi review - the price is right, but the software is not…
Only the Beaglebone can challenge the Pi in terms of size

A compact layout doesn’t mean a lack of features, however. The Model B variant of the Raspberry Pi, as reviewed, boasts HDMI digital video and audio output from a full-size connector, two USB 2.0 ports powered by an internal hub, a 3.5mm jack for analogue audio, an RCA connector for composite video, a 10/100M Ethernet jack and a microUSB socket for the required 5V power input.

Those are just the readily-accessible ports, too: the Pi also features a Display Serial Interconnect (DSI) header for connection to a smartphone- or tablet-style screen, a MIPI camera interface, and a 26-pin general-purpose IO (GPIO) header which offers UART serial, Inter-Integrated Circuit (IイC) two-wire, Serial Peripheral Interconnect (SPI) and eight addressable general-purpose pins on 2.54mm male headers.

Notable in its absence is an IEEE 1149.1 JTAG connector for debugging. It’s not something that will cause end-users any heartache, but those looking to the Pi as a cheaper alternative to the likes of Qualcomm’s Dragonboard or Samsung’s Origen would do well to consider whether a development system can really live without it.

Raspberry Pi review - the price is right, but the software is not…
In its current incarnation, the Pi has no mounting holes – so any third-party cases need to grip the board at the edges instead

Another issue prospective buyers will need to consider is the SD card support. With no on-board storage, the Raspberry Pi is reliant on an SD card for its operating system. The faster the card, the better the system performs – but issues with the SoC’s bootloader mean that many Class 10 cards simply don’t work. As a result, users are advised by the Foundation to use a Class 4 or Class 6 card.

When the right SD card is chosen, the Pi is nothing short of a marvel. Booting into a customised build of Debian, compiled for the somewhat outdated ARM11 processor at the heart of the system, is surprisingly quick. Even loading a graphical user interface, via the lightweight LXDE desktop, is pain-free, although scrolling in the included Midori web-browser can be jerky on the more complex pages.

The Pi does show its shortcomings in benchmark tests, however. Running the SysBench CPU benchmark on the Pi results in a 95th percentile request time of 106.72ms, compared to a more reasonable 77.56ms on a Ferroceon 1.2GHz-based DreamPlug (reviewed back in issue 100).

Raspberry Pi review - the price is right, but the software is not…
The Dreamplug, while more powerful, is also considerably more expensive

In terms of its price-performance ratio, the Pi is hard to beat – and the sheer power of the Broadcom VideoCore IV GPU makes it a great choice for multimedia tasks, especially where hardware accelerated decoding is supported.

That, sadly, brings us to the final negative of the review: software for the Pi is still at a very early stage, with many features missing compared to rival development boards. Now the systems are finally shipping to customers, however, that will change – and given the popularity of the project, expect to see rapid improvements in the coming months.

Verdict: 5/5

It’s easy to mark the Pi down for its lack of JTAG, underwhelming CPU and immature software – but to do so ignores the key advantage the Pi has over its rivals: price. Simply put, there is nothing yet on the market that comes close to offering the Pi’s functionality at the same price point.

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    • Guyon

      Can you still get a Model A?

    • Guyon

      Also, this link is broken: “More info: Raspberry Pi homepage”

    • Patrick

      As I read the review, only one thing touched my mind. You’re writing of the board as if it’s for the geekmarket, when it’s intended for rookie children wanting to learn programming. It’s not their main focus to give the geeks pocketpower, but rather create more geeks. Just my 2 cents. Otherwise, great review, could have tried more distros though as I hear Arch is a bit faster…

    • http://www.patrickological.com PatrickEB

      After reading the heading I was prepared for a pretty negative score.

      Gareth, nice article. Listing the good and not so and then placing it in context.

      More people ought to write in the same manner.

      A G+ posting for you :)

    • RussellBarnes

      @Guyon
      Thanks for the heads up on the broken link – fixed!

    • lurch2

      Average review of the Pi —- in +/- format obviously. Even with the optimistic tilt at the end, I still got a bit of a bad taste of the Pi though…….ugghhhh.
      Since Gareth seems to emphasize the lack of available software here, I’ve gotta wonder if he’s a closet sourgrapes Ubuntu-on-everything writer??

    • http:/freelance.halfacree.co.uk Gareth Halfacree

      @lurch2
      No, he isn’t. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this comment on an Arch Linux system.

      I emphasized the lack of available software because not everyone is a developer, and not being able to play audio, view Flash or HTML5 content or a dozen other things is something of a drawback from an end-user’s perspective.

      As I said in the review, though: that will change sooner, rather than later, now boards are being delivered to those who are eager to get to work porting their favourite distros and software to the device.

    • jamesH

      With regard to the lack of software, I’m not sure what you mean. For example, all the libraries for the 2D/3D acceleration are there – and conform to the same API as the mesa libraries so if the software you want to use supports OpenGL ES2.0 or OpenVG via the standard Mesa API’s, then they should work.
      Many programming languages are also present (or easily downloaded from the very large Debian archive of Armv6 compiled software) and work fine.
      There is a beta also driver provided for sound.

      There are limitations on the decoder software though, but a command line video player is provided. Yes, Flash is missing (and will never be there), HTML 5 will come, but what else? What ‘dozen other things’? I’d like to know because then we can put them in!

    • Miguel Miguelito

      Well we living in the World of opportunities and new smart brains,try to show the WORLD no everything have to eb too costly,and by my own experience don’t matter how secure can claim to be you system the are many brain juniors will braking or violate the funny security,don’t be jealous. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jealous and regards developers they are many around the Globe and have many freeware or some are affordable prices.I’m proud to be peruvian and very clever with Technology and real security.

    • bernie

      I or one of my friends have most of the popular names in this niche field, Arduino, Beagle, Dreamplug, pandaboard,
      And really, the price point cant be beaten especially like you said with the video advantage.
      right now, audio is still a little iffy I find but anything software based will only get better as more and more devs get their hands on one.

      i think that if done right by the foundation, the biggest benefit could come from their educational mission.
      if you can have an interesting curriculum with fun and interersting expirements, it would be amazing because lets face it, even in middle class families parents dont like for kids to experiment with the family computers or heaven forbid the laptop…
      adding a whole new part of the socioeconomic realities that the tech world seem to so easily overlook to the computer game is very exciting. for bob who loves gadgets and is willing to shell out 40-50$ for a cover for their smart toy, 25-35$ is nothing… Thats how much our extra large pizza cost last night.
      but for many families this could be simply surreal.

      volunteering at a food bank, you get to see the reality of the dwindling middle class on its way down…. people who never thought they would be poor as well as those who have been firmly ensconsed in it…. you meet enough single mothers who save and scrimp to buy their kids a 2nd hand laptop and who cry when you tell then that they DONT have to buy MS Office but can use a free office suite like LibreOffice and you realize that 35$ price point is important to a lot more people than many in the tech fields realize. Or care about.

      So yeah, I got the others but I will by Pi’s whenever its my turn. and if I have to wait long, it only means that things are going well and I couldnt be happier about it.

      Im not sure about the title.
      i run Puppy Linux on some rather ancient hardware and even at that end of the FLOSS rainbow, youve got pretty much everething you need. I love the screen on an old Celeron laptop and its nice keyboard but the HD, WiFi and trackpad are gone.. i got a 10$ hub, and added, mouse, wifi dongle and 4Gb USB key and my son loves to use Frankenstein Linux as he calls it when he’s at my inlaws where I left it for when the grandchildren do their homeworks there. My sons and nieces prefer that one to my inlaws Dell laptop with Kubuntu 11.10.

    • Barry Smith (@TheTurnipKing)

      I think it’s a fair article. Slightly negative, but it highlights legitimate issues with the device that buyers should be aware of – the last thing the Pi needs is overwhelmingly positive feedback, and then unaware users get smacked in the face by the current state of the software, souring them on the board forever.

      This is precisely what this initial release of the Pi was intended for: Dedicated developers who’ll get day to day software packaged up for installation by the common user. We’re already seeing more distros appear, which suggests that the plan seems to be working.

    • spoonassassin

      Considering its only been out for a week, and is a development board, so development for it in any meaningful sense will only have been going on for a week, i rekon its pretty damn good!

    • http://members.apex-internet.com/sa/windowslinux apexwm

      You mention the software is not so great. What software, are you talking about the GNU/Linux installation on it? And if so, what is wrong with it? I don’t have one of these but I was glad to hear they chose to install Fedora on it which is a great GNU/Linux distribution.

    • Barry Smith (@TheTurnipKing)

      I should point out that I’ve not hand a lot of time to play, and it’s possible that I’m simply doing something wrong. Also, that I habitually use Debian or Debian-derived distros.

      The thing is, it’s “Debian” or “Fedora” as you might run it on an x86 processor. Much of the software you may wish to install needs to be compiled specifically for a different processor than usual..

      This is not a problem if you’re used to compiling code from scratch, but if you rely on the repositories, you might find them a bit sparse and/or poorly optimised – at the moment. I fully expect this situation to start changing as the board makes it’s way into more and more developers hands, though.

      And I’ll be very surprised if we don’t start to see distributions emerging intended for specific tasks, too – as an XBMC box, for example.

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    • http://chaosbits.net/ Jesper Juhl

      @TheTurnipKing (Barry Smith) – you should check out OpenELEC (http://openelec.tv/) especially http://openelec.tv/component/k2/item/235-openelec-on-raspberry-pi-our-first-arm-device-supported

    • graham

      Totally agree, i had the cash so i got the beaglebone. I’m keeping a keen eye on the pi and i’m really hopeful the community will meet the challenge.

    • Jeremy Birch

      1) it does have a JTAG port on the schematics (P2) just they have not soldered in a connector
      2) XBMC runs really nicely on it – have watched several hours of HD video either live or from iplayer without a hitch
      3) 2d performance is slow at the moment cos it is all in software, but 3d and video are quick
      4) compiling is incredibly slow – may be linked to SD card speed but I think I have one of the fastest it can work with – perhaps gcc has been built a bit slow!?

      Overall very impressed and a big step up from an Arduino which is a similar price

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    • mj

      The price is right? Yeah, I believe you, I’m gullible.

      Thought of in the UK, designed and developed in the UK, made in the UK. The UK order books are full to overflowing, so we are told.
      So why is it cheaper in the USA? I can buy it from a USA dealer and even with shipping charges i can get it cheaper than buying it here.

    • JD

      I just hope they also include two USB 2.0 ports for the model a ,then I wouldnt have to waste ten bucks just so I can connect both the USB keyboard and mouse to the pi.But anyway,good review and I’ll think I get another Pi for my home xbmc media center

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