With more than 31 million units sold, the Raspberry Pi is not only one of the world’s most popular computers; it’s also one of the most important. Originally designed to help kids learn about technology, this inexpensive single-board system is the leading choice for makers, developers and hobbyists who want to do everything from building industrial robots to setting up retro arcade machines.
Whether you’re eight or 80, if you love technology, the Raspberry Pi is made for you. And with models ranging in price from $5 to $55, anyone can afford to buy one. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of Raspberry Pi.
What You Do with a Raspberry Pi
The idea of sub-$50 computer sounds cool at first, but what exactly do you do with one? For most adults, even the highest-end Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi 4 B (4GB), isn’t powerful enough to serve as a primary PC. However, its small size, low-power usage and ability to connect to all kinds of electronic components via its 40-pin GPIO port make it ideal for tasks that a PC couldn’t perform.
In December, we documented the best Raspberry Pi Projects of 2019, which included a remote-controlled hand, a 3D scanner and a hologram machine. Here are a few notable use cases that most people can try at home or work.
- Robot: You can attach lights, motors and sensors to the Raspberry Pi, allowing it to power just about any kind of robot, from a robotic toy car to a mechanical arm that can pick up objects.
Professional robotics companies are using the Raspberry Pi also. At CES 2020, we saw a Pi-powered robot called Reachy that could pick up small objects with its arms and hands.
- Retro emulation machine: Due to the popularity of emulation environments, such as Retropie and Lakka, you can easily build a gaming console around your Raspberry Pi that can play old arcade games and titles on classic systems, like the Nintendo 64, Atari 2600 and Gameboy Advance. A number of third-party products, including the Pimoroni Picade, give you the parts to build your own Pi-powered arcade machine.
- Web server: It’s really easy to set up Apache and get it running on your local network. Our tutorial on how to set up a Raspberry Pi Web server shows you how.
- Kids’ learning computer: The Raspberry Pi was originally designed to get children interested in programming by giving them an inexpensive, infinitely configurable computer. The Raspberry Pi runs Scratch Desktop, the offline version of the kid-friendly Scratch programming language and has built-in Python support. It’s also powerful enough for kids to surf the web, play some games or write school papers.
- Sensor station: With the addition of add-ons like the Pi Sense Hat, you can monitor the temperature, humidity, light or even air quality of any location. This means that you can see the current weather or just build a fart detector.
- Security camera: Using one of the many Raspberry Pi camera attachments or a USB-powered webcam, you can turn any Pi into a security system.
- Magic mirror: You can build a system which displays your daily information, such as the weather and your calendar on a two-way mirror.
- Smart clothing: We’ve already built a smart shirt that displays a news feed on front, but there are plenty of other things you can do when you attach a Pi and a battery to your apparel.
Choosing a Model and Getting Started with Raspberry Pi
If you don’t own a Pi, you should definitely get one; we recommend the Raspberry Pi 4 B, ideally with 4GB of RAM ($55), though you can settle for the 2GB ($35) config if you want to save money (we explore other Pi models in the Noteworthy Raspberry Pi Models section). You probably won’t find one at your local big box retailers, but there are lots of places to buy a Raspberry Pi. You’ll also need:
- A microSD card of at least 16GB
- A compatible AC adapter. For the Pi 4, you need a USB Type-C charger with 5 volts and at least 3 amps. For earlier Pi models, a 2.5 amp, 5-volt charger with a micro USB interface fits the bill.
If you choose to do a Raspberry Pi headless install, which lets you control the Pi from another computer, those are the only things you’ll need.
However, if want to use the Pi as standalone, you will obviously need:
- Keyboard / Mouse: The Pi has USB ports you can use to connect these. All recent models except the Raspberry Pi Zero (non-W) have Bluetooth you can use as well. We like using wireless keyboards that have built-in touchpads for our Pi, and the best of these is the Corsair K83.
- Screen: While you can buy screens that attach to the Pi’s GPIO pins, the easiest thing is to run an HDMI cable from the Raspberry Pi to a monitor or TV. If you have the Pi 4, you’ll need a micro HDMI to HDMI cable, because that board has micro HDMI out. The Pi Zero / Zero W use mini HDMI out.
We’ve got a detailed article that explains how to set up your Raspberry PI for the first time. The whole process should take no more than 10 minutes. If you want to save money and desk space, we recommend trying a headless install of the Pi and logging into your Pi from your primary PC.
Noteworthy Raspberry Pi Models
There have been over different Raspberry Pi models released since the original, the Model B, launched in spring 2012. The company continues actively manufacturing all of them but the original Model A and B, because there are some companies that still use these legacy boards in their own products. However, there are really only a few models that the average shopper should consider getting right now.
- Raspberry Pi 4 B with 2 or 4GB of RAM ($35 and $55): This is the latest model, and the 4GB edition is the top-of-the line. If you are planning to do physical computing (build a robot or gadget), 2GB should be fine, but 4GB is better if you plan to do web surfing and run programs on the Pi itself.
- Raspberry Pi Zero W ($10): This is the least powerful Pi, but it’s also super tiny (about the size of a USB Flash drive) and super cheap, so you can use it in a lot of different projects. It has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it can connect to your network and devices. There’s also a Raspberry Pi Zero that has no wireless connectivity, but we wouldn’t recommend that because it’s not much cheaper and in some places is the same price as the Zero W.
- Raspberry Pi 3 B / 3 B+ ($35): These were the current-generation Raspberry Pis up until June 2019 and they are still easy to find for sale. They are better supported by game emulation software, like Retropie, which still doesn’t officially support Pi 4. While they are similar, the 3 B+ is 200 MHz faster than the 3 B and has better Wi-Fi.
Further down the page, we have a complete table of all the Raspberry Pi models ever made.
Tutorials and Support
Perhaps the best thing about the Raspberry Pi is the community of enthusiasts that stand behind it. If you’re looking for help, you can find support on Tom’s Hardware’s own Raspberry Pi forum, the Raspberry Pi’s official forums or on Reddit’s /r/raspberry_pi.
There are tons of great tutorials on the Internet that help you customize the Pi and use it for your specific needs. We have published a few helpful how-tos here at Tom’s Hardware:
- How to Set Up a Raspberry Pi for the First Time
- How to Capture Screenshots on Raspberry Pi
- How to Set Up a Raspberry Pi Web Server
- How to Run Raspberry Pi 4 or 3 Off an SSD or Flash Drive
- How to Create Custom Keyboard Shortcuts on the Raspberry Pi
- How to Run Emulators on the Raspberry Pi 4
- 25+ Linux Commands Raspberry Pi Users Need to Know
- How to Make a News Ticker Shirt With Raspberry Pi
Perhaps the most important feature of the Raspberry Pi is its set of 40 GPIO (General Purpose Input / Output) pins. The Raspberry Pi GPIO pins allow you to connect to all kinds of electronics, including LED lights, sensors, motors and controllers.
Each of the 40 pins serves a different purpose; some are grounds, others provide 3.3 or 5 volts of juice and still others can send data to different kinds of devices.
To learn what each pin does, see our article and chart on the Raspberry Pi GPIO pinout.
Raspberry Pi HATs
While you can run wires to the GPIO pins or create your own circuit board to put on top of them, there are dozens of premade HATs (Hardware Attached on Top) you can buy. Some of the more interesting Raspberry Pi HATs are:
- Raspberry Pi Sense HAT ($37): Used on the International Space Station, this first-party attachment has a series of sensors, including ones for pressure, humidity, temperature, along with an 8x8 LED light panel and a small joystick.
- Power over Ethernet (PoE) HAT ($29): Lets you juice your Raspberry Pi over Ethernet and also has a cooling fan.
- DC & Stepper Motor HAT ($28): Lets you add up to four DC motors and two stepper motors.
- Picade X-HAT ($22): Provides inputs for an analog joystick, buttons, power and audio output. Just what you need to make an arcade machine.
- Pimoroni Piano HAT ($22): A tiny musical keyboard that attaches to your GPIO pins.
Overclocking the Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi was built for people who like to tinker so all current models are unlocked for overclocking, which is really easy to do. We’ve got an article that shows you how to overclock the Raspberry Pi 4 B all the way up to 2 GHz, but you’ll definitely want to add a fan like the Pimoroni Fan Shim or the 52Pi Ice Tower Cooler.
Brief History of Raspberry Pi
This world-conquering computer has some humble origins. In 2008, Raspberry Pi Founder Eben Upton started working on the project in an attempt to simply increase the number of young people applying to Cambridge University’s computer science program. Upton only planned to make 1,000 units in total, but when the Pi launched in 2012, there was so much interest from adult makers that the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the non-profit which develops the computer, had to mass produce it.
In 2014, the Foundation released the Raspberry Pi 1 A+ and B+, which were the first to have the 40-pin GPIO set all models still have today (earlier models had a 26-pin set). In 2015, the Raspberry Pi 2 launched, moving to a faster processor and 1GB of RAM (earlier models had up to 512MB). Also in 2015, the Pi Zero, a tiny model that’s the size of a USB stick and costs $5, hit the market. That same year a pair of rugged Raspberry Pis were installed at the International Space Station as part of a program that lets kids submit code to be run on them.
2016 saw the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 B, which offered a faster processor with a 1.2 GHz clock speed. In 2017, the Pi Zero W, which adds Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to the Zero, appeared. And in 2019, the Raspberry Pi 4 B launched, upgrading to a quad-core, Cortex A-72-powered CPU, providing dual micro HDMI outputs and, for the first time, 2GB and 4GB RAM capacities.
Today, after more than 31 million Raspberry Pis have been sold, half of the units are being used by businesses that need them to perform industrial tasks or use them as part of products. However, children and schools are still a core constituency. According to the Pi Foundation, 250,000 kids a week take part in Raspberry Pi competitions, clubs or other programs.
All Raspberry Pi Models
Here’s a list of all major Raspberry Pi models released since 2012. Note that the Compute Modules have no ports, because they are designed to plug into custom PCBs and are usually used by businesses that build them into products.
|Raspberry Pi 4 B||Jun 2019||1.5-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2711 (Cortex-A72)||1 / 2 / 4GB||2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, 2 x micro HDMI, 3.5mm audio||802.11ac, Bluetooth 5, Gigabit Ethernet|
|Compute Model 3+ Lite||Jan 2019||1.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||N/A||N/A|
|Compute Model 3+||Jan 2019||1.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||N/A||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 3 A+||Nov 2018||1.4-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)||512MB||1 x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audio||802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Raspberry Pi 3 B+||Mar 2018||1.4-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||4 x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audio||802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, Ethernet|
|Raspberry Pi Zero W||Feb 2017||1-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||1x micro USB, mini HDMI||802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Compute Module 3 Lite||Jan 2017||1.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||N/A||N/A|
|Compute Module 3||Jan 2017||1.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||N/A||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 2 B (v 1.2)||Oct 2016||900-MHz, 4-core, Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||4x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI||802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, Ethernet|
|Raspberry Pi Zero (v 1.3)||May 2016||1-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||1x micro USB, mini HDMI||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 3 B||Feb 2016||1.2-GHz, 4-core, Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)||1GB||4x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI||802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, Ethernet|
|Raspberry Pi Zero (v 1.2)||Oct 2015||1-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||1x micro USB, mini HDMI||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 2 B||Feb 2015||900-MHz, 4-Core Broadcom BCM2836 (Cortex-A7)||1GB||4x USB, 3.5mm audio, HDMI||Ethernet|
|Raspberry Pi 1 A+||Nov 2014||700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||1x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI, composite video||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 1 B+||Jul 2014||700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||4x USB 2.0, HDMI, composite video||Ethernet|
|Compute Module 1||Apr 2014||700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||N/A||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 1 A||Feb 2013||700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||256MB||1x USB 2.0, HDMI, composite video, 3.5mm audio||N/A|
|Raspberry Pi 1 B||Mar 2012||700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)||512MB||2x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audio||Ethernet|