With 8 million units shipped, the Raspberry Pi is the UK’s top-selling computer. The Pi is a credit card-sized computer designed to be affordable but capable. It was created by a charity in order to get more children learning computer science and improve access to truly open computers in the developing world. At the same time, hobbyists have taken to the Pi computers for use in DIY projects ranging from retro games consoles to cat flaps that tweet. The previous full-size computer, the Raspberry Pi 2, was an amazing piece of kit for £30. I used it as a Linux computer in its own right but it also became involved in various projects such as tweeting genomes, Twitter bots, and robotics. To mark the Pi’s 4th birthday, the Foundation just released the new Raspberry Pi 3, which is faster and more connected.
The Pi 3 doesn’t look too different at first glance, but there are a few important additions to the adorable little circuit board. There’s an HDMI port; an SD slot for your storage (and operating system); connectors for the camera and LCD modules; and the usual 40 input/output pins for all your hobbyist needs. Beside the ethernet port there are 4 USB ports, which is welcome as some projects will require various dongles plus a keyboard and mouse. My first Raspberry Pi Model B had only 2 USB ports meaning I had to sacrifice an input device if I wanted wireless connectivity.
Not only are there plenty of USB ports and other ways to connect physically, but the Pi 3 finally brings built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to the little computer. This is easily one of the most important improvements the Pi has ever received. As a computer it’s more capable since it can connect to routers and bluetooth keyboards, but it also works better in DIY robotics projects with access to the internet without the need for a USB dongle or an ethernet umbilical cord.
As important as the new wireless connectivity is, I’ve been most impressed by the new processor. The 32-bit, 900 MHz processor of the Pi 2 has been replaced with a 64-bit, quad-core, 1.2 GHz processor and it makes an incredible difference. The Raspberry Pi has always been capable of being a “real computer”, but you have to be realistic and realise that it costs £30. It’s never going to be like using a £1000 desktop PC. But the Pi 3 just doesn’t leave me with that impression. Everything works smoothly and according to the Pi Foundation it’s 50% faster than the previous model. Windows and menus open and close instantly and applications like LibreOffice or Minecraft take just a few seconds to load. Yes that’s right, it plays Minecraft and the Raspbian OS actually comes with it installed.
The Raspbian OS also comes with Libre Office and a few other useful applications but there’s no bloat. Several programming languages are ready for use including Python, Java, and the child-friendly Scratch. There’s everything you need here to create your own games using a £30 computer but you can also play the games already created by others. You can install emulators that turn the Pi 3 into the ultimate retro gaming console that supports DOS games, SNES games, and even N64 games. I played Ocarina of Time with no issues at all.
The Pi 3 is faster and more convenient with its wireless connectivity. It’s better than ever for hobbyists building robots but the big change is how it runs as a computer. It doesn’t feel like a lesser experience now. Last year the foundation released the Pi Zero, an even smaller computer for only £4. It wasn’t as fast or connected but was perfect for projects that require a simple controller that’s small enough to fit in tight spaces. With the Zero making the Pi more portable and the full-size Pi 3 creating a more authentic PC experience, we might be seeing a divergence in the Pi line-up. The full-size Pi computers will always have a place in DIY projects and the Pi 3 is no different, but the Zero’s successors might become the primary choice for robots and surveillance systems moving forward.
The Pi 3 is the best Raspberry Pi yet and can proudly call itself a “real computer.” It won’t run 4K video and it won’t play your Steam library but it’s an entire computer that costs less than a console game. You can pick it up for £29.99.