Tickling the fancy of tinkerers, the Raspberry Pi is a tiny circuit board with memory, a CPU, and several I/O connectors. It has long promised to offer anyone access to the building blocks of computer programming—from making an app to controlling a hobbyist robot—for the price of a good dinner. The newest model, the Raspberry Pi 4, still promises all of this, but it adds the tantalizing possibility of serving as a basic desktop PC with minimal setup effort, in the form of the Raspberry Pi 4 Computer Desktop Kit. At $ 120, the Desktop Kit, which includes an upgraded version of the Pi 4 board, is much pricier than a Pi board on its own. (They start at $ 35.) It delivers good value, though, and indeed gets Pi first-timers up and running quickly. But persistent Pi quirks mean it’s still not a realistic substitute for an actual PC. Prospective buyers who have used Pi before and own the supporting accoutrements will be better off getting the Pi 4 board by itself.
Same Size and Shape
The Raspberry Pi 4 is the same basic size and shape as all of its Model B predecessors, though significantly bigger than the Model A and Zero versions. It’s a 2.2-by-3.4-inch rectangle, and its various components stick up about 0.6 inch tall. Among those components are a Broadcom quad-core processor running at 1.5GHz, four USB Type-A ports, two micro HDMI video outputs, a gigabit Ethernet port, and radios for 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0.
These are all recognizable specs to people shopping for a new laptop or desktop to use as their main computer. But a few other unique aspects to the Raspberry Pi 4 hint at its true identity as a building block for tinkerers and makers.
The first is the General Purpose Input-Output (GPIO) header, a versatile 40-pin connector that can power and communicate with virtually anything you might want to create, from a DIY weather station to a motor for a small robot. All of its uses require a fair amount of tinkering to both write code and attach hardware like sensors and lights. Taming the GPIO connector is far outside the consumer-PC use case.
The second unique aspect is the microSD card slot on the bottom. It looks like any other microSD card reader you might find on a laptop, but since the Raspberry Pi 4 lacks a hard drive, an SSD, or any other form of onboard non-volatile storage, you must download and install the operating system you want to use onto a microSD card (which you buy separately) using a different computer. You’ll need to insert this OS-readied card into the slot before you can actually turn on your Raspberry Pi.
In the past, this represented a significant barrier to entry for people who just wanted to buy a Raspberry Pi, plug it in, and perform basic computing actions like surfing the web. Sure, you could buy an SD card pre-formatted with Raspbian, the Linux-based operating system designed for the Raspberry Pi, but it was still an additional step that also added to the price.
With the Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit, that’s much simpler, if not cheaper. For a single $ 120 price, you get everything you need to plug the Raspberry Pi 4 into an HDMI-equipped monitor or TV and start surfing the web. In addition to the Pi 4 itself and a pre-formatted 16GB microSD card, you also get the official Raspberry Pi keyboard and mouse, two micro HDMI cables, a power adapter, an adorable plastic case for the Pi 4, and a hard copy of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide. The book’s subtitle (“How to use your new computer”) suggests that the Desktop Kit could be a rival to any other cheap PC you might find while roaming the aisles of your local electronics shop.
Breaking Down the Bundle Value
The Desktop Kit represents an $ 85 increase over the cheapest ($ 35) Raspberry Pi 4 board alone, which Pi veterans may find extravagant to spend on some peripherals, cables, and a book. Looking closer at the details, however, softens this seemingly outsize impact on your wallet.
First, although the peripherals are basic plastic, they are all well designed and unified in look, branded with the Raspberry Pi logo. The keyboard includes a USB hub and even the Raspberry Pi logo in place of the Windows key, which, in Raspbian, launches a menu of shortcuts similar to the Windows Start menu. It’s clad in the same red and white colors as the case and the mouse. The color scheme would look great on a kid’s desk.
Second, the Desktop Kit includes a version of the Raspberry Pi 4 board with an upgraded 4GB of memory, compared with the 1GB included in the $ 35 entry-level version. The idea of differing memory amounts is a new one in the Raspberry Pi world—previous models have had only a single memory amount (1GB, in the case of the Pi 3 Model B+). But increasing the onboard memory is crucial to using the Raspberry Pi as anything approaching a consumer PC. A gigabyte of memory is simply not enough to stream video smoothly or run multiple modern apps at the same time. If you want a 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 on its own, it will cost you $ 55, which takes the effective cost of the rest of the Desktop Kit components down to a more palatable $ 65.
Finally, you’ll almost certainly need to buy a Raspberry Pi 4 case and power supply, anyway, if you’re planning on using your Pi 4 as anything resembling a desktop PC (as opposed to integrating it into a hobby project or other DIY environment). A case is necessary for protecting the exposed circuits, and the Pi 4’s new component layout and I/O complement mean that cases designed for previous Raspberry Pi generations won’t fit. The Raspberry Pi 4 is also the first Pi to use a USB-C port for power delivery, and it works best with the official power adapter. (Some third-party USB-C cables will work, but others won’t, as some early adopters found.)
The USB-C port is only for power delivery—peripherals like external drives still need to connect to the USB Type-A ports, two of which support USB 3.0 speeds (a first for any Raspberry Pi). So if you’ve got a USB-C device to plug in, you’ll still need an adapter or a USB Type-A-to-C cable.
What’s Like to Use a Raspbian PC
To test out the Desktop Kit’s potential to serve as a fully functioning consumer PC, I devised a simple set of tasks: plug it in, turn it on, and surf the web. To keep the testing on a mainstream focus, as well as demand more of the Pi 4, I decided to surf the web using the familiar Mozilla Firefox web browser instead of the open-source Chromium default, and to do it at a 4K screen resolution. Thanks to its twin HDMI outputs and upgraded graphics processor, the Pi 4 can—theoretically—power up to two 4K displays simultaneously, something that’s impossible with previous Pi generations and many cheap Windows desktop PCs.
Plugging in and powering up proved very easy. I first dropped the Raspberry Pi 4 into the case and snapped the lid on. I then plugged in the peripherals, inserted the bundled microSD card, and connected one of the included HDMI cables to a 27-inch 4K monitor. Finally, I plugged in the USB-C power adapter. Plugging in the cable automatically powers up the Pi 4. (There’s no power button.)
The Raspbian desktop appeared after a few seconds, and the only first-time setup steps were choosing a keyboard language, connecting to a Wi-Fi network, and checking for updates. So far, so good—that’s several steps fewer than are required for setting up most Windows 10 or macOS computers.
Installing the Firefox web browser proved a bit more difficult. As with most Linux-based operating systems, Raspbian doesn’t just let you download an app from a store or website. You must compile the software package yourself using a command-line interface, and instructions can be sketchy and hard to find, depending on the program. Fortunately, I found the command for installing Firefox after a single Google search. Once you type the command into the terminal (accessed via an icon in the task bar) and execute it, the OS does the rest, and I soon had a Firefox window open and ready to browse.
Basic browsing and opening and closing app windows are very smooth with the Pi 4, a benefit of its upgraded processor and RAM. The Pi 4’s processor runs at a base clock speed of 1.5GHz, versus 1.4GHz of the Model 3 B+, and uses newly upgraded ARM Cortex cores.
Changing the resolution to 4K from the default 800 by 600 pixels proved easy enough (there’s a straightforward settings menu) but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stream video from YouTube at this resolution. Each time I tried, the Pi 4 froze and shut down, likely a victim of overheating—the board itself was very hot to the touch. Even at a resolution of 800 by 600, streaming HTML5 videos over the web is jerky, though at least the Pi 4 doesn’t crash. Overheating has been a consistent problem with Raspberry Pi boards I’ve used in the past, including the Pi 3 Model B+, which periodically overheated and shut down during benchmark testing.
Features for Makers
Raspberry Pi fans, though, would categorize this overheating and many of the Pi 4’s other quirks as challenges to be solved, not design flaws. Some have simple solutions. For example, you can install the official Raspberry Pi 4 Power over Ethernet (PoE) add-on module, which includes a built-in fan. (It also lets you run the Pi off of the power from a networking cable—no separate USB-C power connection required.)
Other solutions depend on specific use cases. Using a Raspberry Pi to monitor data from a weather station, for example, is far less resource-intensive than using it as a general-purpose desktop. Overheating is less likely with less-demanding tasks. And, if you want to push the limit of your Pi 4 now and then, you could always just connect a USB-powered personal cooling fan and point it at the Pi 4 board with the chassis lid off.
In fact, that sort of creative solution-finding and experimentation is what the Pi is all about. Sure, you could easily buy an off-the-shelf streaming device or a bathroom mirror with a built-in TV, but if you’ve got the programming and tinkering expertise, it’s much more satisfying to build your own with a Raspberry Pi. For more tinkering ideas, check out the Raspberry Pi forums. The book included with the Desktop Kit is also a good starting point, offering several different Python coding projects. These include creating a traffic-light system, and even creating a simple video game using a button plugged into the GPIO connector.
So, Bare Board or Kit?
If you’re already in the Pi camp and are just pining for more able hardware, the Pi 4 definitely deserves your attention. The Raspberry Pi 4 board itself is arguably the best Pi yet, from a strict board-hardware standpoint. It’s the most powerful Pi we’ve tested, and if you don’t need as much computing power, you can get a version with less memory to keep the price at the same $ 35 level of its predecessors. It’s an obvious upgrade for the maker crowd, even if you’ve already got a Pi 3 Model B+.
The Pi 4 Desktop Kit, though, is less of a no-brainer, except perhaps as a keepsake item or a gift for an aspiring young coder or maker. If you understand the Pi 4’s limitations, from software quirks to overheating, the Desktop Kit is the quickest way to transform this single-board computer into a desktop PC with attractiveness in spades. If you’re expecting to get an experience akin to a cheap Windows desktop PC—and many refurbished ones can be had for $ 150 to $ 200—you’ll be disappointed, however.
Ultimately, most people interested in using a Raspberry Pi as their main desktop should first buy the 4GB version of the Pi 4 as a standalone board. Add the necessary power adapter ($ 10) and a micro HDMI cable ($ 9), connect a mouse and keyboard you already own, and see if you can deal with the limitations. If you’re interested in pursuing things further, buy a Pi 4-specific case ($ 8) for a more permanent installation, check out a library book or two to learn coding basics, and enjoy the wonderful world of Pi computing for significantly less than $ 120.