Why there are better alternatives than Raspberry Pi

These are my own thoughts regarding Raspberry Pi and why I suggest you to choose another single-board computer.

When Raspberry Pi was released it was a pioneering machine. Small, yet running Linux.
But things have changed and as of the time writing this there are many problems
with Raspberry Pi as I see it.

This article is about model A, B, B+ and the compute module.

- The machine is way too underpowered and it cannot be upgraded enough. The specifications are 700 MHz ARM CPU, 256 MB RAM for version A or 512 MB RAM for version B and a maximum SD card memory storage of 32 GB. As CPU and memory are in a SoC you can forget about upgrading those. Some said the performance is equivalent to a Pentium II.

- Power problems. The Raspberry Pi has a big power problem. As you power it with a micro USB cord and an USB charger you have a limited power supply in most cases. Combine this with the need to connect things  to the USB ports like a mouse, a keyboard, a wifi adapter, some external disk, a webcam or a game controller and you have a system that is unstable due to power consumption.

- Most data goes through USB. Ethernet, audio and more are internally wired onto the USB chip of the machine, so the USB chip is already quite busy when nothing is connected.

- Form factor. This is a small thing. That's the beauty of it. What is not so nice is that the ports are scattered around the board, making it hard to find a back and a front of the board. You need to have cables going in and out everywhere. Imagine connecting HDMI, mouse and keyboard through USB, power through USB and audio and you have 5 cables all around the circuit. It will wobble around on the desk as it is so light and will probably not stay where you want it.

- Raspberry Pi Foundation, the community around it and the purpose. The purpose of Raspberry Pi is not what you probably are going to use it for. It is designed to be an educational soldering base for teaching first grade schoolkids how to develop assembler code and make automatic toasters with a fixed price of $35. Every attempt to talk about the very low hardware specifications, some possible upgrades, or futural slightly more expensive versions will result in responses telling you that it is a perfect machine and you are the problem not using it correctly. The community defends the machine and denies seeing the problems.

In fact, this is the biggest problem of Raspberry Pi. The project is going in a totally wrong direction. Instead of focusing on building a better single chip computer the project focuses on making something else. What exactly I'm not sure of as recently (as of july 2014) the foundation released a compute module version that is even worser than the model B in its specifications. It's fine to sell outdated small-form-factor-computers, but don't deny that there are other customers than first grade schoolkids, like people trying to build a HTPC.

- The purpose. Lining up next to the foundation problem you have the purpose. There is not one, not at least if you are a computer interested person with some kind of server at home or already have a web host. With specifications like your mothers old P2 you won't be happy with this as an HTPC, maybe not even as a server unless you don't do heavy things on that server. Of course if you really are planning to build something specific you have a purpose, like an automatic coffee machine or a RC-controlled server-boat. But for us that uses regular computers the purpose is weak. You will most certainly put your Pi on the shelf and it will stay there.

- The casing. As this is a very small machine and the target audience are children which will not think of ESD then of course you need a case for the board. Sadly it is not provided. Not even a power adapter, a cord or anything except the circuit board. So you have to order that separately, and it will not cost $35 anymore.

- Broadcom. It's based on Broadcom, and if you have been in the computer business for a while you know to stay away from them. The specifications for the SoC are closed and there are more worries, like the locked RAM of maximum 768 MB (although you won't get more than 512 MB anyways), just search the web.

- The CPU is ARM based. Forget about running "normal" 32- or 64-bit executable files that can run on regular computers, not without hassle. What you need are ARM based executables, and if you don't have them you must waste time in compiling them, which usually is no problem with a fast CPU - but this is not a fast CPU. So expect to waste time. You can boot Windows XP inside an emulator like qemu, but why would you waste your time on that? It will eat hours as you emulate an x86 CPU. For a single chip computer you mostly want an x86 based machine, like minnowboard. ARM is also a closed platform with no open documentation.

- The total price is too high. Raspberry Pi B+ (which as of writing this is the recent one) is 369 SEK including freight. You need one 8 GB SDHC microSD card too for it, with the highest speed class 10, cheapest one is a Kingston for 76 SEK including freight. Then you need power for it as you do not want to waste your cell phone charger all the time, for a 2A 230V charger (1A works barely considering you'll want to connect external disks) it will cost you 129 SEK. 369 + 76 + 129 = 574 SEK. For a machine with 700 MHz CPU and 512 MB RAM. You can get better performance in the local container without paying anything. People out there are throwing away machines with higher specifications.

Some alternatives, I have not tried these, but they look promising:

- Banana Pi
- Hummingboard - fits into Raspberry Pi cases with better specifications
- Minnowboard - x86-based
- Beagleboard



2015-12-16 - Update for Raspberry Pi Zero


At the end of november 2015 a new version of Raspberry Pi was released, named Raspberry Pi Zero. Unsuprisingly this new model did not meet much of my wishlist for what a new version should include. In fact, they've made a classic and removed features instead.

The biggest selling point for Zero is the price, it costed only $5. That's right, the price WAS $5 for the first ones released and they quickly ran out of stock and are at the time of writing this selling on eBay for 10 times the price. So, currently you can buy a computer by the makers valued to $5 for over $50.

If you manage to accept the price (I would not), then what do you get? The same old BCM2835 SoC with the processor speed clocked to 1 GHz instead of 700 MHz, still 512 MB of RAM, one mini-HDMI socket, one functional USB OTG port and one dedicated for power, an unpopulated(!) 40-pin GPIO header, a micro-SD card slot, an unpopulated composite video header and a form factor of 6,5x3x5 cm. Of all things, the only thing that should rise eyebrows should be the form factor - the rest was crap when the first version came out.

In fact, the makers should be proud of themselves in a reverse way. Since the first RPi version came out in 2012 for about 3.5 years ago they have not managed get wifi onboard and not managed to supply anything faster in data communication ports than USB 2.0 which was released year 2000 - over 15 years ago. Instead, they have chosen to walk backwards - this new Zero version is missing audio, normal non-OTG USB ports, physical Ethernet ports, soldered composite video port and other traditional RPi stuff like camera port and a soldered GPIO header. If you take a look at what the market for just a little bit bigger computers can offer - like Banana Pi - you possibly also want wifi, gigabit Ethernet and SATA-ports. It also would be nice with USB 3 and if the ports was located on one side instead of all around.

But of course, this has to do with 2 things that are repeated over and over again. First but not least - the price. It would cost too much, which it sadly already does. As of writing this (again) this machine is not selling as a complete product for $5, you get the mainboard for much more and then if you are not only planning to use it to stir your drink only you'll at least have to get an microSD-card (boot from USB? Ha, don̈́'t even think of it, this is RPi) and a mini-USB power supply. So it must keep a low price tag of $5 which in reality is $60+.

The second one. It is not the purpose! This is also a RPi classic you can use to protect the utterly low specifications. For nearly whatever complaint the RPi get you can say that it is ignoreable because the complaint has to do with invalid usage. Low CPU/RAM specifications and locked down documentation? It is not the purpose of RPi to run fast and handle large data in working memory. Few USB ports? It is not the purpose to connect many things, in fact you should/could prepare your microSD card and not connect anything but the power. No Ethernet/Wifi - why should you have that, it is not the purpose of RPi to connect to the outside world and share data. No soldered GPIO ports? This one's hard as the purpose somewhere down the line was told to be for kids to experiment. But let's say it's so small that many people don't want it rising the height of the whole construction won't we? There you have it - there is an RPi explanation for everything.

The same old RPi problem hangs on too. What's the purpose with it? Many people that buy it will just have it floating around as a filler in their already messy desktop drawer. Still there are no usable NAS cases for the old RPi:s out there. With usable I mean NAS cases that can take 1-2-3+ 2.5" harddrives and a RPi. But of course, this is not the purpose of it.

In fact, it is hard to understand the purpose of the Zero model. Sure, it is for teaching first graders of hardware development and programming. But then why does the GPIO header not have any soldered connections? I would not recommend an untrained person to solder so small and delicate parts as the GPIO header. The risks that you damage the circuits are too big. As for programming where are the ports to connect keyboard and mouse? If the purpose is to develop the code offline and then put it on the microSD card for testing, then we're back at the question of where the GPIO header to connect your beloved blinking LED:s is.

Over and over again it has been stated that this is not a high-end machine for video and gaming. Then what is the 1080p HDMI port doing there? You have an HDMI port, no soldered GPIO pins and one USB OTG port.

For a server you're missing the relevant ports too. Say you want to run some kind of disk server, like a NAS. Then you will want to connect a storage solution larger than what the microSD card of 32 GB can offer. But there is only one USB port, and that is OTG, so you will need an adapter too. But if you want to run a server, then you also most likely want to reach the outside world. So you must also add an wifi or ethernet adapter, which boils down to that you must have an USB hub too for sharing the single USB port.

Someone said that this would be perfect for a server cluster, but I don't understand how as it still does not supply enough ports to be relevant. It cannot by default take input data or send output data fast or easy enough. The ethernet version of the original RPi was some years ago sent in to data centers for remote hosting as they "only" needed an ethernet cable, an operating system prepared microSD card and USB micro power. But this one also requires an OTG adapter and some kind of USB network adapter. Why buy something that is not better than the previous version?

Is the purpose a riddle, where the name tells the answer - zero. There is no purpose, or what?

So, what could be great about this weird invention? The big thing is that this may trigger other manufacturers to shrink their designs and make better boards. Do not expect the foundation to make an improved version. Maybe they'll add some more USB 2-ports but I guess that will be the final touch. 

Instead have a look around. FriendlyARM NanoPi2 (http://nanopi.io/nanopi2.html) is a clear competitor for example with dimensions of 7,5 cm x 4,4 cm and a quad-core CPU with 1 GB RAM for $32. Did I pass $5? Sorry, but Zero does too.

A guess is that the sold out status is a way to try to make it popular. According to sources online there were only about 20000 copies made for the first batch, where there as of february 2015 was five million original RPi devices sold. 20000 Zero units / 5000000 sold original RPi = 0,004 * 100 = 0,4%. Did they really expect that only 0,4% of the five million RPi owners out there would be interested in the Zero version?

Or let us take it this way. The official online forums of RPi has above 147500 users if you look at the forum stats, and if you've been there you are aware of that there is a huge fan club who steadily comes with reasons for the greatness of the RPi invention. 20000 Zero units / 147500 registered users = 0,13559322 * 100 = 13,559322034 %. Did they really expect that only 13,5% of their fan base would be interested in their new product?

If you look at the eBay price and the initial price you can guess what item amount that should have been produced. They were sold for $5 and they are resold for $50. One initially sold is worth ten times more. So they should not have produced 20 000 items but 200 000. That would have possibly met the market needs.

The idea of RPi Zero is not bad. A smaller single-chip computer than the original RPi is nice. Making it smaller means that it can fit into smaller places. But the board layout and the component selections are not good enough. The choice of included ports is weird and at least to say not overthought. When it comes to the SoC in use it is surely questionable why they still stick with the old Broadcom BCM2835 when competitors like Banana Pi have shown that there are much better components out there. To fake a low price tag is not a suitable reason. 

One word describes the Zero model and that is weird. It is not a learn-to-make-code-machine due to the lack of normal USB ports, it is not a beginners hardware development board due to the lack of soldered easy to use GPIO pins, it is not a network server of any kind due to the lack of normal USB or SATA ports and network controllers, it is not a media centre due to the lack of a powerful CPU or more RAM. It is not even a paperweight as it only weights 9g as stated in the forums.

Maybe it is something to brag about on the local pub? Are you supposed to throw it on the bar desk completely unattached to show the nearby people what a small Linux running device you have, like you were some kind of IT professional? 

You may have a short career in the drink world with it, because as soon as someone slams their well weared smartphone with a cracked (but still working) screen aside the Zero then you need to crawl back down into the hole you came from. Why? Because the average smartphone out there outclasses your board in performance, communications, usability and possibly also the circuit board size. Sure, the phone is slightly bigger - but add a touch screen, a battery, audio output and other stuff that the phone has to the Zero and you will soon have a bigger but not better device than the phone.




This is a personal note. Last updated: 2015-12-17 00:48:07.



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