Raspberry Pi: Tutorials, Models, How to Get Started

Everything you need to know to use the world's most popular single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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 $4 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 Raspberry Pi 4 (8GB) if you want to future-proof your investment, though few apps take advantage of all that memory. 

The recently-released Raspberry Pi Pico carries the Pi name but is a completely different kind of board. This $4 product is a microcontroller like Arduino (see Raspberry Pi Pico vs Arduino) and has no operating system; you program it by connecting it to another computer. It's great for electronics projects but is not what most people think of when they say "Raspberry Pi."  

For every Pi model, except the Raspberry Pi Pico, you’ll also need:

  • A compatible AC adapter. For the Pi 4, you need a USB Type-C charger (see our list of best USB-C  chargers) 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 and, if you get a Raspberry Pi 400, the keyboard is part of the chassis. All recent models except the Raspberry Pi Zero (non-W) and the Pico 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.

If you've got a Raspberry Pi Pico, all you'll need is a computer to connect it to (via USB) and likely you'll want to solder on GPIO pins, which it comes without.

We’ve got a detailed article that explains how to set up your Raspberry Pi for the first time and, for Pico users, how to set up a Raspberry Pi Pico. 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.

The Raspberry Pi Pico can do many of the same projects and sometimes it's the simpler choice. If all you're doing is a simple repeating task that doesn't involve A.I., a lot of processing or a complex interface, the Pico is cheaper, lower power and it starts / shuts down right away.

Every month, we document the best new Raspberry Pi projects, from all types of Pi. The list of best Raspberry Pi projects for April 2021 includes a Pico-powered mechanical keyboard, an A.I. cat detector gun and an online chessboard. Here are a few notable use cases that most people can try at home or work.

  • 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.
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • 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 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. 
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • Time-Lapse Camera: Using a Raspberry Pi with the official Raspberry Pi HQ camera, you can capture amazing videos that document an event that happens slowly such as a sunset or maybe even a flower blooming.  We have a tutorial on how to take time-lapse photos with Raspberry Pi
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • 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.  

    One of our favorite Raspberry Pi projects is a tic-tac-toe robot that writes its moves on a post-it note and uses A.I. image recognition to see the board.
(Image credit: 3DprintedLife))
  • Image-recognition Camera: Higher-end Raspberry Pis are powerful enough to recognize objects and classify them, based on machine learning.  You can recognize everything from license plates to cucumbers and even the human face. We have a tutorial on how to train your Raspberry Pi for Facial recognition.
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • KVM Over IP: With a few simple parts and the right software, you can turn a Raspberry Pi into a KVM Over IP, a device that lets you remotely manage a PC, even if that computer doesn't have a bootable operating system. Use this to access the other computer's BIOS or even install Windows / Linux on it.
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Adding Raspberry Pi HATs

Pimoroni Explorer HAT Pro for Raspberry Pi (Image credit: Pimoroni)

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 more than a dozen 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 64-bit software comes 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 Pico ($4) is very different from all of its siblings as it's a microcontroller rather than a Linux computer. Like Arduino or ESP32, it has no operating system of its own and requires you to upload code by connecting it to an existing PC, Mac or full-fledged Raspberry Pi.

    The Pico is a better choice for some projects than a traditional Pi, because it has analog-to-digital conversion built-in, starts right away and uses very little power. The Pico is powered by the RP2040 chip, Raspberry Pi's own custom CPU. Other vendors can license the RP2040 and make their own Pico-style boards.
  • 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. 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, both for regular Raspberry Pis and Picos.

Non-Pico Tutorials

Pico Tutorials

GPIO Pins

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.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The Raspberry Pi PIco also has 40 GPIO pins, but the layout and functionality are different and, in ways, more expansive. The Pico has three, on-board ADC (analog-to-digital) converters that allow it to work with analog devices such as joysticks and potentiometers, without the need for an additional board.

Raspberry Pi Pico Pinout (Image credit: Raspberry Pi Foundation)

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

Eben Upton

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.

In 2021, Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Raspberry Pi Pico, a whole new kind of Pi that serves as a microcontroller, rather than a standalone computer. The Pico uses the RP2040 CPU, Raspberry Pi's own custom silicon. Other companies can also use the RP2040 on their own boards.

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.

ModelReleaseCPURAMI/O PortsConnectivity
Raspberry Pi 4 BJun 20191.5-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2711 (Cortex-A72)1 / 2 / 4 / 8GB2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, 2 x micro HDMI, 3.5mm audio802.11ac, Bluetooth 5, Gigabit Ethernet
Raspberry Pi PicoJan 2021133-MHz, dual-core RP2040264K, 2MB storageN/AN/A
Compute Module 4Nov 20201.5-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2711 (Cortex-A72)1 / 2 / 4 / 8GBN/A802.11ac, Bluetooth 5, Gigabit Ethernet (optional)
Compute Model 3+ LiteJan 20191.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)1GBN/AN/A
Compute Model 3+Jan 20191.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)1GBN/AN/A
Raspberry Pi 3 A+Nov 20181.4-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)512MB1 x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audio802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Raspberry Pi 3 B+Mar 20181.4-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 (Cortex-A53)1GB4 x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audio802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, Ethernet
Raspberry Pi Zero WFeb 20171-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB1x micro USB, mini HDMI802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1
Compute Module 3 LiteJan 20171.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)1GBN/AN/A
Compute Module 3Jan 20171.2-GHz, 4-core Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)1GBN/AN/A
Raspberry Pi 2 B (v 1.2)Oct 2016900-MHz, 4-core, Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)1GB4x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, Ethernet
Raspberry Pi Zero (v 1.3)May 20161-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB1x micro USB, mini HDMIN/A
Raspberry Pi 3 BFeb 20161.2-GHz, 4-core, Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53)1GB4x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, Ethernet
Raspberry Pi Zero (v 1.2)Oct 20151-GHz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB1x micro USB, mini HDMIN/A
Raspberry Pi 2 BFeb 2015900-MHz, 4-Core Broadcom BCM2836 (Cortex-A7)1GB4x USB, 3.5mm audio, HDMIEthernet
Raspberry Pi 1 A+Nov 2014700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB1x USB 2.0, 3.5mm audio, HDMI, composite videoN/A
Raspberry Pi 1 B+Jul 2014700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB4x USB 2.0, HDMI, composite videoEthernet
Compute Module 1Apr 2014700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MBN/AN/A
Raspberry Pi 1 AFeb 2013700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)256MB1x USB 2.0, HDMI, composite video, 3.5mm audioN/A
Raspberry Pi 1 BMar 2012700 Mhz, 1-core Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM1176JZF-S)512MB2x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm audioEthernet

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