The Raspberry Pi is small - 'a credit-card
sized computer' says its blurb - and flexible, good for both general desktop
use and electronics projects. And
there's a new version out.
If the Raspberry Pi were a car, what would
it be? Not a Bugatti, appealing as it
does to the Heath Robinson end of IT society.
It's cheap, so Bristols and Rollers are out too. It isn't as ubiquitous as Ford nor as staid
as a Volvo. And you wont see it on Top
Computer Weekly has therefore rolled up its
sleeves and taken the new Model B+ for a test drive.
With literally no expenses spared, the
squad was recruited from top experts. Running the CW driver's team was a senior enterprise architect who works
for a global financial services firm.
For the sake of professional anonymity, we shall call him 'Jim'.
Our three teenage drivers - 'James',
'Edward' and 'Nicholas' - were picked for speed and resilience. And also because they happen to live in a
house where there is always at least one computer nearer than the nearest
London rat, ie within twelve feet (3.66 m).
So, what's under the bonnet? The new Pi is really an upgrade, rather than
a new model, improving the B type's performance and layout.
The B+ has the same processor, the same RAM
and can run the same software. Although
it is the same size, however, the B+ won't fit into the case designed for a
B-type, due to the rearrangement of the board.
new B+ upgrade
All the ports are now neatly arranged
on two sides, rather than distributed
around the board, and there are now four USB ports compared to the model B's
two. A four-pole composite and audio
interface - a jack of all trades, one might say - has replaced the video and
Pi aficionados are excited by the
replacement of the old plastic SD slot - which could also handle micro SD -
with a metal micro SD-only slot. This
reviewer was not so pleased, as it meant finding a new micro card.
And while the new slot is undeniably sturdier,
compared to other computers the rest of the Pi is physically as delicate as a
The Pi's fragility belies the robust new
power circuitry, which has been rearranged and made more efficient with a
switching regulator. If you use
batteries, they should last longer, and the Pi should be better equipped to
tolerate irregular or low voltages .
Despite its exposed components, encasing
the Pi in Perspex makes less sense for the B+, than its predecessor. The back
of the board is almost as interesting to the adventurous as the front, with
lots of test points included. And for
those looking to hook their machine up with real world objects, there are an
extra 14 General Purpose Input Output pins, making a grand total of 40.
A Pi shares some of the characteristics of
the human baby. Cute to behold and costing
next to nothing itself, the bill for accessories can stack up.
One bundle that CW has admired (and would very
happily review if one is sent over) is the very pretty and pretty useful
portable HDMIPi screen
Made by CynTech and designed especially for
your favourite cheapo computer, the HDMIPi monitor comes in various packages,
from the no-power-cord-included version (£75) to full bells and whistles (£160),
with assorted cables and wireless inputting devices.
For this enterprise, however, we fitted our fitted B+ into a more
traditional rig of monitors and mice. Wired
up into a networked testbed, it faced a punishing schedule, designed to answer
three key research questions.
(1) Does the Pi meet its PR claims? (2) More importantly, can you run a high
graphics game on it? (3) Is it useful for odd standalone projects?
Other than the features that can be checked
off visually (yes, all pins present), the testable upgraded features are the
improved power circuitry and audio. With
no particular desire to hit the Pi with transformers, testing was restricted to
seeing which Pi, the B type or the B+, played a certain Rodrigo y Gabriela
flamenco number more impressively.
It's an audio jack, Jim, but not
as you know it ...
The Results were inconclusive due to a dead
heat. Neither would play anything. This may have been
down to tester error or, more likely, according to our technical specialist, "something
up with the speakers".
For those with more time, or less need to
move on to more pressing tasks such as playing Minecraft, audio configuration instructions
are available online.
Cue the teenage driving team. There were two options for Minecraft, the
open world game of building and territorial exploration.
The game can be run with the RAM and
processor-challenged Pi acting as server or as client, but not both.
For the first pass, we decided to set it up
in server mode. Nicholas slid behind the
controls with what can only be described as practised ease. The Pi was less responsive, striving gamely to
deliver but running with a 9 second lag
and stalling at critical moments.
"Oh look, I'm playing Minecraft on
a bad server"
The Pi was much happier serving as client,
although its tester clearly was not. The
game was at its most basic with, critically, no pigs, an essential ingredient in the modern version of the game. Nearly as bad, the TNT barrels did not
explode in this rudimentary version. Check
All three testers piled in joyfully to play
a variety of early computer games, all written in Python, including Snake,
Tetris - "Ha! It's just one block at a
time!" - and the messy favourite, Ink Spill.
Scoring not very highly for graphics use, the
B+ was then dedicated to a nobler cause.
Our testing team finished late in the
evening, after testing the Rasperry Pi's capability with encryption. More on
Our conclusion: the Pi is not an
all-terrain vehicle. Something of a
rugged but not so speedy army Land Rover on the encryption front, it is,
quaintly, the Robin Reliant of gaming.
In terms of neoclassical looks and general
desirability, it seems more Mini Cooper than Lamborghini. And with the exchange rate set at over five
hundred Raspberry Pis to the modern Mini Cooper, we're not complaining. Perhaps a trip to the Arduino trailer-park is