Raspberry Pi 4 kicks the specs up yet another notch, and offering multiple versions with up to 4GB of RAM,but is it enough to work as a cheap little desktop PC? The Raspberry Pi Foundation lent us a board to find out.
Raspberry Pi 4 – Design and Features
The Model B brings a noticeable spec bump from its predecessor, starting with its 1.5GHz quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A72 CPU. The Pi 3 B+ ran a 1.4GHz Cortex-A53, which may seem like a negligible difference if you’re only looking at clock speed. But the Cortex-A72 architecture is actually much faster than the Cortex-A53, even at the same clock speed, so the Raspberry Pi Foundation says the Pi 4’s CPU should be about three times as fast as the previous model. The Pi 4 also sports a 500 MHz VideoCore VI GPU and anywhere from 1 to 4GB of RAM, depending on the board you purchase.I/O sees a noticeable improvement as well, with Gigabit Ethernet replacing the old 330 Megabit port on the 3 B+. Two of the four USB ports have been upgraded to USB 3.0, and the power supply now uses USB-C which allows for an increase in current to 3A over the old 2.5A microUSB port. The Pi 4 has two mini HDMI ports instead of a single full-size port–a small inconvenience if you need to buy a new cable, but great if you want to set the Pi up with dual monitors. And thanks to the new GPU, those ports can support either one 4K monitor at 60Hz alongside a 1080p monitor, or two 4K monitors up to 30Hz. And, of course, it comes with the same 40-pin GPIO header that previous models have, so you can wire in all kinds of accessories for your DIY projects–or slot in the ones you’ve already built on the previous Pi 3.
The Raspberry Pi 4 costs $35 for the model with 1GB of RAM, $45 for 2GB, and $55 for 4GB. That doesn’t include necessary accessories like a power supply, mini HDMI cable, and microSD card, however, which you’ll need to buy separately. My review unit came in a Desktop Kit that included these plus the official Raspberry Pi case, mouse, and keyboard, and a book for beginner users. The kit retails for $119 for the 4GB version, which isn’t terrible, but you can probably save some money if you already have a mouse and keyboard lying around. Other USB-C power supplies and microSD cards may work too, though in the past I’ve found it easiest to go with models designed for the Pi, since some chargers or microSD cards can cause problems (and the Pi 4 has a non-compliant USB-C charging port, similar to the Nintendo Switch).
Raspberry Pi 4 – Testing
The Pi 4 runs a new version of the Raspbian operating system based on Debian Buster, which came pre-installed on the microSD card in our kit. Other single-purpose operating systems, like LibreELEC for the Kodi media center or RetroPie for video game emulation, are not ready for widespread usage yet since they need to be updated for the Pi 4–so I focused most of my testing on Raspbian’s desktop experience, with a few hints at what might lie ahead for these other use cases.
Navigating around Raspbian is much smoother than previous Pi models, and while there are some occasional slowdowns–particularly under heavier apps like Chromium–I found the desktop quite usable. In fact, most of this article was researched and written on the Pi itself, including editing the images in GIMP. Even with all my Chromium extensions installed and 10 tabs open, my 4GB of RAM was only half full, though loading that many tabs at once would crank the CPU to 100%, causing a slowdown while the browser caught up.
I learned, however, that Chromium is really not the ideal browser for the Pi 4. Some tasks, like streaming video, just crumbled under its weight. I had to turn YouTube down to 480p to keep it from stuttering like crazy, and even then, I couldn’t watch videos full screen. Switching to the Chromium-based Vivaldi browser, though, made things much smoother, and allowed me to watch even 720p videos in full screen mode. DRM-laden services like Netflix require a bit of extra work to get up and running, but again, played without stuttering in Vivaldi, albeit with some screen tearing.
Locally stored videos played decently as well. I was able to play multiple 1080p clips in VLC, though they were a tad choppy in windowed mode and actually played better in full-screen mode. 4K video, sadly, does not work in VLC as it can’t hook into the Pi 4’s H.265 hardware decoding, but using an alpha build of LibreELEC, I was able to get 4K videos playing quite well. I did notice some occasional stutter on a couple clips, but even LibreELEC’s developers note they still have a lot of work to do on the software side of things, so I’m hopeful that the Pi 4 might actually make a cheap, usable 4K media center when all is said and done. (Though if you have the cash, I’d still recommend the incredibly reliable, more mature Vero 4K+ for your 4K Kodi needs.)
I wish that I could have tested some higher-end emulation on this bad boy, but unfortunately, RetroPie (and the emulation software it relies on, RetroArch) are still under development for the Pi 4. Early tests look promising, but they’re just that: very early tests. It’s too soon to say how the Pi 4 will handle Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, and other later-generation systems until we get a more mature build of RetroArch and RetroPie. All we can do is hope.
There’s one other thing to keep in mind with the Pi 4: heat. This thing can get quite toasty, particularly when mounted inside a case. When watching the aforementioned 480p YouTube videos in Chromium, for example, CPU temperatures hovered around 80-81° C. Above 80°, the Pi will start blinking a temperature warning icon in the corner of the screen, and will throttle the CPU down to 1GHz intermittently to try and reduce heat.
Removing just the top half of the case dropped temperatures down to about 75° C during that same video, though, so it’s clear the official case isn’t doing this chip any favors. Thankfully, there are third-party cases on the way, including the aluminum FLIRC case that should be better at passively dissipating heat–not to mention cases with built-in fans, which have proven useful on previous Pi models. The Pi 4 isn’t compatible with Pi 3 cases, though, so we’ll have to wait until more new cases come to market. (Note that these temperature readings were taken with the latest firmware, which improves temperatures over the firmware that came on the Pi 4 at launch.)
The Raspberry Pi 4 isn’t going to replace your Windows machine as a daily driver–after all, this is still a low-power, $55 Linux computer we’re talking about. Certain things take extra tinkering, you don’t have as much choice in the programs you use, and not everything will be completely smooth. But the desktop is still shockingly usable, and I’d go so far as to say it could serve as a basic web browsing PC for your workbench in the garage, or some other secondary location where you only need barebones functionality. If you want a seamless power-on-and-go experience, a cheap Intel-based Chromebook is almost certainly a better bet. But the Pi 4’s extra power will be hugely welcome for tinkerers, DIYers, and beginner coders that want a little more juice than previous models.
The Raspberry Pi is available with 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB of RAM for $35, $45, or $55 but they are all out of stock at the official Pi store. Because demand is exceeding supply, you can still buy one on Amazon, but it’s quite expensive (at least for the 4GB model).
Raspberry Pi 4 Model B