Skip to main content

Pi-top [4] Review: Learning Made Easy on the Raspberry Pi

The pi-top [4] is well-designed hardware that deserves a spot on any makers shelf.

Pi-top [4]
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Our Verdict

The pi-top [4] is a clever machine that makes learning programming intuitive and accessible with the help of a Raspberry Pi 4.

For

  • Comes with pre-installed OS
  • Kid-friendly learning platform
  • Clean Design with easy-to-use components and sensors
  • Plenty of free learning resources online

Against

  • Requires additional peripherals to get started
  • Can be a pricey investment because of accessories
  • Uses proprietary connectors

From the moment you have the pi-top [4] box in your hands, you can tell you're handling a well-designed system. From the clean packaging to the sheer abundance of accessories and adapters, it's obvious that nearly every possibility was considered when developing the pi-top [4].

Pi-top is a line of Raspberry Pi-based computers designed for new and intermediate makers in a learning environment. They make programming easy to tackle by cutting through some of the intimidating factors that come with wiring and soldering. The pi-top [4] is the latest edition, bringing 4 GB of RAM and a 1.5 GHz quad-core CPU.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The pi-top [4] is geared toward anyone new to programming and developing on the Raspberry Pi. It was definitely made with teachers and learning environments in mind. The system includes a 4 GB Raspberry Pi 4 Model B housed inside a custom pi-top case.

The unit is equipped with a battery pack that can be recharged using the USB-C port on the Pi 4. It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to charge from 0% all the way to 100%. If completely idle, it can last 5 hours. It also comes pre-loaded with a Raspberry Pi OS skin called pi-topOS. This custom package comes with pre-installed apps to help makers get started.

Pi-top [4] Specs 

Specpi-top [4]
Raspberry PiRaspberry Pi 4 Model B
CPU1.5 GHz quad-core
RAM4 GB
StoragemicroSD (16 GB included)
PowerUSB-C / Rechargeable Battery Pack
Battery Life1-2 Hours (Light Use)
Network SupportWireless / Ethernet
Softwarepi-topOS

Pi-top [4] kit contents 

The pi-top [4] kit includes the pi-top [4] unit, a Foundation Kit and selection of accessories. The Foundation Kit is a pack of sensors and buttons designed just for the pi-top. The accessories include things like a power supply, microSD card, an HDMI cable as well as adapters for more compatibility. 

Foundation Kit 

The Foundation Kit includes a variety of components that are also available individually on the pi-top website at $9.99 USD each (€8.45 EUR). These components are designed to work exclusively with the pi-top [4]. We wrote about these modules in April, highlighting the environmentally friendly packaging that can be used as starter pods for planting seeds in a garden. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The Foundation Kit includes: 

  • One Foundation Plate
  • One Ultrasonic Sensor
  • One Sound Sensor
  • One Light Sensor
  • Two Buttons
  • Two Buzzers
  • Two Potentiometers
  • Two Red LEDs
  • Two Green LEDs
  • Two Yellow LEDs
  • Eight LEGO® Connectors

Accessories of Pi-top [4]  

The accessories included are enough to get any maker started. It comes with an HDMI cable, a mini HDMI adapter, a 16 GB micro SD card as well as a USB-C power adapter.

The power adapter is branded with the pi-top name and puts out a range of voltages. It has a minimum output of 5V 3A and a maximum output of 20V 2.25A. The pi-top [4] is powered by 15V from the USB-C PD specification.

Hardware Design of Pi-top [4]  

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Overall, the pi-top [4] is a very fun little box. It fits nicely on a desk, it looks fantastic and it feels good to interact with physically when connecting sensors and components. The case is made from plastic and has a very clean finish.

Inside, the Raspberry Pi 4 can be powered with the internal battery pack or with a consistent connection using the wall adapter. The battery can last up to 5 hours at a time with light use. If you disconnect the power cable, the battery will continue to power the device so nothing shuts down to interrupt your work.

On top of the pi-top [4] is a 128 x 64 OLED miniscreen. It's programmed to display basic hardware stats like battery life, CPU usage, your current IP address and volume for the built-in speaker, but you can program your own output to display sensor data and more. You can also access the GPIO pins from the top of the device.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The Foundation Kit component snaps easily into place on the bottom and can be removed by pressing the release lock on the bottom. However, it is important to note these components—including the sensors—are proprietary and will only work with the pi-top system.

I was lucky enough to get ahold of the pi-top [4] external case. This is a thin, somewhat flexible exterior shell that snaps on top of the pi-top box. It doesn't offer much in the way of protection, aside from avoiding scuffed corners and edges. The external case is a nice aesthetically pleasing addition to the setup and still provides full access to the ports and buttons.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The hardware was obviously designed with the Raspberry Pi 4 in mind. It takes advantage of the Pi 4's performance while catering to its needs like the need for external cooling. The result is an efficient platform better suited for students and beginners eager to learn. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Instead of worrying too much about positive/negative wires or grounding cables, users can connect peripherals directly into the pi-top with a single cable. This eliminates some of the more intimidating aspects of developing projects and takes users straight into the code. You can purchase the proprietary sensors, switches and buttons individually from pi-top, as well.

Because the Raspberry Pi 4 is notorious for running hot, the pi-top [4] housing includes a fan that does the job well-enough with everyday use. I decided to run a stress test on the pi-top [4] using Stressberry. It puts the CPU under stress while charting the temperature changes throughout the test. This chart shows the feedback report from the stress test. The CPU fan kicks on around 50°C. The fan does get a little bit loud at times, but the temperature tradeoff is ultimately worth it.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Powering the module is interesting. When first examining the hardware, I expected a power button or switch. But the pi-top team opted to use a slide button, instead. This button must be slid and held in place for a second or so for the device to power on. I appreciate the extra step taken to prevent any unwanted power disturbances.

The system comes with a 16 GB SanDisk microSD pre-loaded with pi-topOS. If you have a monitor, keyboard and mouse, you're pretty much ready to go out-of-the-box. Even though the OS is pre-loaded, it's still a good idea to check for updates as soon as possible during the setup process.

Pi-top OS 

Pi-top OS is a reskin of Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) that comes with a few packages made just for the pi-top. It looks modern in design and is definitely intuitive. Like most operating systems, you'll find a taskbar at the bottom, a start menu and a folder-based file management system. 

The hardware is about as user-friendly as it can get with custom labeled ports and single cables used to attach modules and sensors to the Pi. You can still access the GPIO pins on top of the device if you want to use components that aren't from the pi-top Foundation Kit.

Using a HAT might be tricky because of the case design, but it's not impossible. The GPIO access utilizes female pin headers. Most hats will require a male to male header in order to connect.

You can flash pi-topOS onto any compatible micro SD card, using either Raspberry Pi Imager or Etcher. The custom OS image will work with older editions of the Pi going as far back as the Raspberry Pi 3B and 3B+ models.

Additional Applications on  Pi-top [4] 

Pi-top OS comes preloaded with a few useful applications that aren't exclusive to pi-top. Scratch is a visual, block-based coding language geared toward children who want to learn programming. Pi-topOS comes with both Scratch 2 and Scratch 3. Mu is a popular Python code editor with the ability to both write and run Python scripts. 

There are a few additional and free image editing applications to choose from like mtPaint and ImageMagick. You can use Sonic Pi to create some original music and incorporate audio into your Python projects using the SonicPi library.

You can browse the internet using the included Chromium web-browser and edit Microsoft Office files with an Office-compatible suite. And of course, if you're itching to play a game, you can always load up Minecraft: Raspberry Pi Edition.

Projects and Usability of  Pi-top [4] 

The pi-top [4] system absolutely shines in a learning environment. It's an easy-to-use tool that cuts corners for beginners, making a much-needed friendly approach for creating with the Raspberry Pi. If you're looking for a system to help educate in any of the areas mentioned in this post, the pi-top [4] is a reliable asset.

The system comes with a selection of projects that can be incorporated into a curriculum. But there's also plenty of room for creativity and original projects created by teachers and students alike. This is not a one-trick-pony, your primary limit with the pi-top will more often than not be your own imagination.

Resources from Pi-top 

As soon as you boot up the pi-top [4], you're given a welcome screen which includes a link to Further, as well as a few applications like Scratch and Mu. Further is a free online resource with projects for the pi-top [4] (and older editions) and one of the best resources you'll have when it comes to figuring out the pi-top. There are tons of easy to intermediate projects available for both the pi-top [3] and pi-top [4].

I experimented with the ultrasonic sensor using some LEDs. You can check out a live demo of that experiment on this previous episode from our Raspberry Pi podcast Picast, the demo starts about 20 minutes in. Here are some other cool projects that use the same components and more:

Bottom Line 

The pi-top [4] is well-designed hardware that deserves a spot on any makers shelf. It's an excellent learning tool and a fun little box for intermediate makers, as well. The accessories may be proprietary but they provide a clean, seamless experience when tinkering with project ideas.

The current package includes a pi-top [4] along with a Foundation Kit for a total of $299 USD (€254 EUR)—a little bit less than the Advanced CrowPi2 kit (which runs at $330 and also comes with a built-in display). Earlier this week, Pi-top announced the new pi-top [4] DIY EDITION. At $99.95, it provides a better bargain for anyone looking for just the barebones pi-top [4] hardware. If you want something with all of the accessories and sensors, you need to check out the pi-top [4] Foundation Kit. To get your hands on any of the pi-top [4] SKUs, you can visit the official pi-top web store