With more than 34 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 $75, anyone can afford to buy one. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of Raspberry Pi.
Choosing a Model and Getting Started with Raspberry Pi
If you don’t own a Pi, you should definitely get one. We have a detailed guide to help you decide which Raspberry Pi to buy, but if you just want the quick answer: get 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. You can also splurge for the new Raspberry Pi 4 (8GB) if you want to future-proof your investment, though few apps take advantage of all that memory. You’ll also need:
- A microSD card of at least 16GB. We maintain a list of the best microSD cards for Raspberry Pi to help you choose. However, once you've set up, you can boot a Raspberry Pi 4 from a USB SSD for maximum performance.
- 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 pointing devices for our Pi, and the best of these is the Lenovo ThinkPad Trackpoint Keyboard II, which is super compact and connects via both Bluetooth and 2.4-GHz.
- 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.
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, 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.
Every month, we document the best new Raspberry Pi projects. The list of best Raspberry Pi projects for August 2020 includes a trash delivery robot, a biscuit dipper and a working geiger counter with a steampunk aesthetic Here are a few notable use cases that most people can try at home or work.
- PC Webcam or IP Camera: With USB webcams in short supply, it's good to know that you can use a Raspberry Pi as a PC Webcam or follow similar steps to use the Pi as an IP camera that broadcasts from anywhere. You just need a Raspberry Pi camera module, which is easy to get, and costs anywhere from $10 to $30.
- 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.
If you want to play old games, see our tutorial on how to set up RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi.
- 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.
We recently published a review of the Elecrow CrowPi2, a fully-functional Raspberry Pi laptop and learning kit that has a smorgasbord or sensors available when you lift up the keyboard. It comes with a series of helpful lessons for both Scratch and Python 3 that show kids how to manipulate those sensors via code.
- Hand-Washing Timer: You can create a variety of smart-home devices, including ones that will open your garage door, but one of our favorites is a device that activates when you have your hand in front of it and makes sure you are washing your hands for at least 20 seconds. See how to build a Raspberry Pi Hand Washing Timer and you can make it yourself.
- Body Camera: Whether you're hiking, playing with the kids or need to capture video from a protest, you can build an inexpensive ($40 - $50) but highly-effective Raspberry Pi Body camera that uses a Pi Zero W. The camera will upload to the cloud so your footage will be saved even if something happens to the camera.
- Robot: You can attach lights, motors and sensors to the Raspberry Pi, allowing it to power just about any kind of robot, from a Raspberry Pi-powered robotic security guard to a mechanical arm that can pick up objects.
A maker named Vlad recently designed a Raspberry Pi-powered robot that can retrieve balls, which it identifies using image recognition.
- A.I. Camera: Higher-end Raspberry Pis are powerful enough to recognize objects and classify them, based on machine learning. For example, Engineer Robert Lucian Chiriac has designed a Raspberry Pi License Plate detector that reads the plates of every car on the road.
- 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.
- Game Streaming Client: Yes, you can run Google Stadia on a Raspberry Pi. You can also use a Pi as a Steam Link device that runs games off of a PC in another room.
- 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.
Adding Raspberry Pi HATs
If you want to do make some really cool Raspberry Pi projects, it helps to wear a HAT. A HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) is an expansion board that plugs directly into the Raspberry Pi's 40 GPIO pins and gives you additional functionality such as lights, motors, sensors, cameras or a screen.
We maintain a list of the best Raspberry Pi HATs, which includes everything from general-purpose boards that let you add sensors easily to HATs that have colorful LED matrixes. Our favorite HAT overall right now is the Pimoroni Explorer HAT Pro, which has built-in motor controllers, four analog inputs (for potentiometers or joysticks) and four capacitive touch pads.
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, 4 or 8GB of RAM ($35, $55 or $75): This is the latest model, and the 8GB 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. The 8GB model is overkill for most current users, but as more software and a 64-bit OS come out, it will become more useful. See our Raspberry Pi 4 B guide for a lot more detail on the top-of-the-line Raspberry Pi.
- 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. If you plan to use the GPIO pins, you will need to attach your own (unless you buy one with them presoldered, which is rare). See our Raspberry Pi Zero guide for more information on how to get started with Zero and what you can do with it.
- 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 slower than Raspberry Pi 4s, but they have some pluses in that they use regular HDMI cables (rather than micro HDMI), and they run cooler than the 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 Boot a Raspberry Pi 4 from a USB SSD or Flash Drive
- How to Back Up Raspberry Pi as a Disk Image
- How to Build a Raspberry Pi Hand Washing Timer
- How to Create a Raspberry Pi Light Show with Analog Inputs
- How to Make a Raspberry Pi-Powered Print Server
- How to Run Google Stadia on a Raspberry Pi
- How to Capture Screenshots on Raspberry Pi
- How to Set Up a Raspberry Pi Web Server
- How to Change Raspberry Pi's Hostname
- How to Use Raspberry Pi and Arduino Together
- How to Use Raspberry Pi as a PC Webcam
- How to Install Ubuntu on a Raspberry Pi
- How to Fight Coronavirus with a Raspberry Pi
- 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
- 3 Simple Raspberry Pi Sense HAT Projects
- How to Fix Raspberry Pi's 'Cannot Currently Show the Desktop' Error
- 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.
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 any Raspberry Pi, including pushing the Raspberry Pi 4 all the way up to 2.147 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. In 2020, an 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 joined the lineup.
Today, after more than 34 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 / 4 / 8GB||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|