Equal parts whimsy and innovation, the tiny Raspberry Pi computers have captivated the attention of children and grown-up programmers alike since the first model went on sale almost exactly six years ago. The latest version, the Pi 3 Model A+ ($ 25), brings a new level of performance to the diminutive, primitive micro-desktop. It’s essentially the Goldilocks of the Raspberry Pi world; both its computing power and its physical size split the difference between the Pi Zero W (the smallest and cheapest Pi) and the Pi 3 Model B+ (the largest and most powerful). The Pi 3 Model A+ is an excellent way to teach kids to code or build your own Internet of Things (IoT) device, and it’s a no-brainer for Raspberry Pi enthusiasts. If you’re a Raspberry Pi newbie, however, you’ll likely be better off parting with an extra Alexander Hamilton to buy the $ 35 Pi 3 Model B+.
A Cheap, Single-Board Computer
For the uninitiated: The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer whose components all fit onto a single circuit board. It’s not the only single-board computer—the Intel Compute Stick and a handful of similar designs match the Raspberry Pi’s size—but it’s one of the cheapest. It’s sold by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a nonprofit that, in addition to making the hardware, supports educational initiatives to teach people young and old about computer programming.
There are three flavors of the latest-generation Raspberry Pi. The cheapest and smallest is the Pi Zero W, which is about the size of a stick of gum and costs a mere $ 10. The next step up is the $ 25 Pi 3 Model A+, the subject of this review. Finally, there’s the largest and most expensive, the $ 35 Pi 3 Model B+. The Raspberry Pi Foundation still supports older first and second generations of the Zero, the Model A, and the Model B, and many retailers still sell them. If you want the current generation, though, double-check that you’re not buying an original Pi or a Pi 2.
If you’re in the market for a Raspberry Pi, the main reason why you’d want a Pi 3 Model A+ is its smaller board size. It measures by 0.33 by 2.6 by 2.2 inches (HWD), compared with the 0.63 by 3.5 by 2.2 inches of the Pi 3 Model B+. There are some significant compromises to slimming down, however. The most painful loss is three USB ports: The Pi 3 Model B+ has four, while the Pi 3 Model A+ has just one. This leaves you with no option but to use Bluetooth peripherals or buy a USB hub to connect a keyboard and mouse at the same time.
Also missing from the Pi 3 Model A+ is an Ethernet jack. That’s less of a hassle, though, since the Pi 3 Model A+ comes with 802.11ac Wi-Fi built in.
Pretty much everything else is the same between the Pi 3 Model A+ and the Pi 3 Model B+. Both include a full-size HDMI port, a 3.5mm audio port, connectors for the optional Raspberry Pi camera and touch-screen display, a 40-pin general-purpose input/output (GPIO) port, and a microSD card slot.
This card slot, located on the bottom of the Pi 3 Model 3 A+, is one of the Raspberry Pi’s most distinctive aspects. This tiny computer has no solid-state drive or hard drive of its own, so the only storage it can access is a microSD card, which is not included in the price. Everything from the operating system to your files goes on the card, which means that you’ll have to install everything—including the system image—by yourself. Fortunately, Raspberry Pi makes this easy to do by offering a high-quality 8GB microSD card with the installer for the Raspbian Linux OS already loaded. (It’s a $ 10 optional extra.) All you have to do is pop the microSD card in, connect an HDMI monitor, a mouse, and a keyboard, and then plug in a micro-USB power cord. (Bring your own or buy one; it’s not included.)
The Raspberry Pi will immediately boot up and offer to install the Raspbian operating system, a process that’s as simple as setting up a Windows PC or Mac for the first time and takes just a few minutes. If you instead opt to use your own microSD card, Raspberry Pi offers straightforward instructions for downloading a Raspbian disk image and installing it.
You don’t have to use Raspbian, of course. You can install nearly any operating system of your choosing, at least any one that will run on an ARM-based processor. One major exception is Windows 10—even if you’re able to install it on your Pi, using it will almost certaintly be an exercise in frustration. There is a version of Windows explicitly designed for devices like the Raspberry Pi, but it’s a special Windows 10 IoT version that lacks a graphical user interface and requires a fair amount of technical knowledge. Newbies and children will likely find it much easier to stick with Raspbian, which includes several useful apps, such as the Chromium web browser and the LibreOffice productivity suite.
Starting up Raspbian
So once you’ve connected everything, powered on your Pi 3 Model A+, and installed Raspbian, what can you do with your new tiny computer? That depends on your experience level.
If you’re just looking for a first computer for your child, you can put your Model A+ into an official Raspberry Pi case ($ 8) to protect it, and be done with it. For instance, I was able to begin typing part of this story and browsing several rich web sites (including PCMag.com) just seconds after I finished installing Raspbian. The process wasn’t entirely seamless, with lots of lag while loading web pages, but it’s usable enough.
The main appeal of a Raspberry Pi, though, is its potential if you know how, or want to learn how, to code. Thanks to the versatile GPIO connector, you can attach sensors like a thermometer, an infrared camera, or even a tiny motor…
Whip up a simple custom script, and the Pi could serve as the brains of a weather station, a means of controlling automatic window shades, or a dizzying array of applications in between. To help you along the way, a vast amount of resources is available online, both officially published by the Raspberry Pi Foundation and on unofficial blogs and forums. Fancy a Raspberry Pi-powered bathroom mirror, perhaps? This guy made one.
As for my testing, I opted for a very simple setup using several official accessories. In addition to the Model A+ itself and the official Raspberry Pi microSD card, I also used an official Raspberry Pi HDMI cable to connect to an external full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) monitor, a four-port USB hub from Lenovo to plug in a wired keyboard and mouse, and an official Raspberry Pi micro-USB power adapter. The power cable’s quality is important! If you use a low-quality one or connect it to a USB port on another PC instead of a wall outlet, inconsistent voltage might cause the Pi to experience freezes or slowdowns.
Once everything was connected, in addition to simulating use as a kid’s first PC by browsing the web and using the LibreOffice word processor, I also tried to stream a few HD YouTube videos. Alas, this last task proved too much for the Pi 3 Model A+, with stuttering playback that made the clips essentially unwatchable. That’s not to say you can’t use the Raspberry Pi as a makeshift video-streaming device, but you’ll have to tweak some settings to get it to output smooth video. (Here’s a detailed guide for using the popular Kodi home theater software on a Raspberry Pi.)
Top Performance Marks (for a Pi)
Part of the reason for the laggy web browsing and video viewing I experienced comes down to the Pi’s limited memory. That’s especially true of the Pi 3 Model A+, which includes half the memory (a measly 512MB) of the Pi 3 Model B+. With such limited memory, you can really use only one app or browser tab at a time without the system lagging.
Both models are powered by a quad-core Broadcom BCM2837B0 64-bit processor running at 1.4GHz. Interestingly, you can overclock the speeds of the CPUs slightly in some older Raspberry Pi computers (but not the Pi 3 Model A+ or Model B+) by typing “sudo raspi-config” into the command line.
There are no Raspberry Pi-compatible versions of PCMag’s standard benchmark tests for Windows PCs and Macs, so I quantified my anecdotal testing experience by running a few browser-based benchmark tests. The Pi 3 Model A+ completed the SunSpider 1.0.2 test in 1.85 seconds, roughly equal to the Pi 3 Model B+’s time of 1.93 seconds. Meanwhile, the Pi 3 Model A+ achieved a score of 15.4 on the JetStream 1.1 benchmark.
Those are excellent results in Pi terms. The Pi Zero W, for instance, took more than 20 seconds on the SunSpider test, due to its far slower processor. But they’re also light-years behind even budget PCs and Chromebooks, which typically finish the SunSpider test in mere milliseconds and score above 50 on JetStream.
A Hobbyist’s and Tinkerer’s Bargain
Put in these stark terms, it’s clear that the Pi 3 Model A+ is not a “real” PC from the point of view of general use or productivity. If you’re in the market for a wallet-friendly consumer PC that will work out of the box with no tinkering, you should stick with a budget desktop. Likewise, if you just want a simple solution for beaming internet video to your TV or monitoring your home while you’re on vacation, you’ll want to consider a streaming device or a camera that is designed for such tasks.
If you’re already a Raspberry Pi enthusiast, though, the Pi 3 Model A+ is easy to justify. In return for giving up a few USB ports and an Ethernet jack, you get roughly the same performance as a Pi 3 Model B+ in a smaller, cheaper package. On the other hand, if you’re just starting out in the Pi world and you need to buy accessories anyway, the extra flexibility of the Pi 3 Model B+ makes it well worth its $ 10-higher asking price.