Sure, you can buy a ready-made internet-connected weather station, security camera, or bathroom mirror that displays weather and traffic, but as tech tinkerers know, it’s a lot more fun to build your own. In the past few years, the brains of many such DIY projects have been a tiny Linux-powered desktop PC known as the Raspberry Pi, which got an update this month to make it a bit more powerful and flexible for the same low price as its predecessors. The improvements in the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ ($ 35) aren’t revolutionary—they mostly amount to increased CPU, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet speeds—but when coupled with your imagination, technical expertise, and willingness to spend money on additional hardware, this tiny circuit board can easily turn into the best PC you’ve ever owned.
Raspbian and Exposed Circuits
At first glance, it really is little more than a circuit board with a few components bolted on, measuring just 0.63 by 3.5 by 2.2 inches (HWD). If the Model B+ is your first foray into the world of tiny PCs, you might be taken aback when you first open the package. Everything is visible, from the 1.4GHz ARM-based Broadcom processor to the 40-pin general-purpose input/output (GPIO) connector which can serve a vast array of purposes, from accepting readings from a thermometer to powering a small DC motor. There are a lot of familiar components, too, including four USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a 3.5mm audio output, a micro USB connector, and a micro SD card slot.
It’s this last component that is one of the most unique aspects of the Raspberry Pi, which has no traditional hard drive. It’s also the one that represents the most significant barrier to entry for people who are buying their first Pi. That’s because you must install the operating system onto a micro SD card (which you buy separately) using a different PC before you can actually turn on your Raspberry Pi. Fortunately, the Raspberry Pi foundation has created an easy installer (appropriately nicknamed NOOBS) for a customized version of Linux called Raspbian, which is the recommended OS for beginners. Installing it isn’t as easy as dragging and dropping, but it’s close. If you’d rather not bother, you can also buy an SD card with Raspbian pre-installed.
Once the SD card is loaded with an OS and inserted into the slot on the bottom of the Raspberry Pi, all you have to do is connect a keyboard, mouse, and external display. Then, you plug in the micro USB power cord (which you either buy separately or repurpose from an old cell phone) and watch four Raspberries display on the screen as your creation is born.
It’s nearly as easy as setting up an off-the-shelf PC from Best Buy, and way more fun. If you’ve chosen Raspbian, the four tiny fruits are almost immediately followed by a Linux desktop interface, complete with icons to connect to a Wi-Fi network and launch the Chromium web browser. Raspbian also comes with LibreOffice and more than a dozen other open-source apps preinstalled, most of which are designed for budding or professional coders.
If you’re buying a Raspberry Pi to use as your child’s first computer, you’re pretty much done at this point, other than perhaps setting up a few parental controls. But for most Raspberry Pi owners, arriving at the Raspbian desktop is just the start of an enjoyable foray into the world of silicon and code. To help you along the way, there is a vast amount of resources available online, both officially published by the Raspberry Pi foundation and on unofficial user forums. Yes, intrepid owners really have made futuristic Raspberry Pi-powered bathroom mirrors, and much more.
A Big Speed Boost
The Model B+ looks nearly identical to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, a far more revolutionary device that graced the Pi lineup with built-in wireless connectivity and a 64-bit processor, hallmarks of modern computing. There isn’t nearly as much new about the Model B+, but there are a few specific tasks that will be much easier to accomplish with it than with any other Raspberry Pi. Perhaps the most noticeable upgrade is a faster processor, which is especially important if you plan to set up a home theater PC or use the device for similar tasks that require a non-negligible amount of computing power. The Model B+ uses a CPU that’s 200MHz faster than the one in the Model B, although memory remains the same at 1GB.
It’s still not a substitute for a Roku or a Google Chromecast, though. In my testing, I found that the Model B+ was unable to smoothly play a 1080p video from YouTube. However, when I connected an external hard drive and loaded a short HD video directly onto the SD card to play it back locally using the VLC app, the stuttering disappeared. That method is significantly more hassle than using a Roku, especially since you have to install VLC using a command line or by wading through a cumbersome menu structure of available apps. But that’s just how Linux works, and it’s part of the Raspberry Pi’s charm.
I couldn’t complete the JetStream 1.1 benchmark, which we’ve used to test Raspberry Pi devices in the past, because each time I ran it, a temperature warning icon would flash in the upper right hand corner of the screen and the system would shut down. That means that if you plan on taxing the processor frequently, you’ll probably want to invest in a heat sink. Or, even better, just set up the Raspberry Pi in front of a tiny USB-powered fan, as any true tinkerer would do.
Speaking of heat sinks and fans, such add-on hardware is all but required if you plan on using your Raspberry Pi to do anything unique or complex. That means you’ll end up spending more than $ 35, and in some cases a lot more. Even if you just want to use the Model 3+ as a kid’s first computer and you already have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and SD card, you’ll at least want to buy a case to protect it. I used the excellent, official $ 9 Raspberry Pi case, which includes perfect cutouts for all the ports and disassembles for easy partial access to the motherboard.
A new add-on option introduced along with the Model B+ is an adapter that powers the system using current delivered via the Ethernet cable. That will be especially appealing in you’re using your Pi to power a motion detector or some other form of sensor in a building replete with network jacks but lacking in power outlets. The adapter, called a PoE hat, screws onto the top of the motherboard. It also includes a tiny integrated fan to help with overheating.
In fact, an upgrade to the networking equipment in the Model B+ will make it especially useful for throughput-intensive use cases. The Wi-Fi radio offers far better performance in the 5GHz band (up to 102Mbps transfers), and the Ethernet port itself now supports gigabit speeds. Unfortunately, the USB interface that connects it to the motherboard does not. Transfer speeds will therefore max out at 315Mbps, but that’s still faster than the maximum 95Mbps that the Model B can achieve.
All told, the Raspberry Pi foundation offers 13 official add-on modules, including a camera, and there are hundreds more third-party attachments available. Want to set up your Raspberry Pi to receive transponder signals that identify aircraft passing overhead? You can, thanks to flight-tracking firm FlightAware. Interested in a Pi that sends you a text or tweet when your pork roast reaches the ideal temperature? You could do that too.
It Can’t Do Everything
Perhaps the only thing the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ isn’t good at is serving as a substitute for a traditional desktop or streaming stick. If you’re in the market for a wallet-friendly consumer PC that will work out of the box with no tinkering, you should stick with a budget desktop. Likewise, if you just want a simple solution for beaming internet video to your TV or monitoring your home while you’re on vacation, you’ll want to consider a streaming stick or camera that’s designed for such tasks. If you love to tinker, or have a child who’s interested in coding, though, the Model B+ is a delightful next step for the Raspberry Pi.