Raspberry Pi 4 Is the Future of Desktop Computers

By Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Update: 4 Aug. 2019

The CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 Complete Starter Kit arrived yesterday evening. I got it up and running before turning in and did more extensive testing today. My overall early impression is “Wow!” Pi4 has all the earmarks of a desktop disruptor. Its tiny size and outrageousy low price is a dramatic departure from clunky and expensive desktops. I’ve always wondered why desktop computers have changed so little in the last ten to twenty years. Laptops, notebooks, tablets, and other computing devices are shrinking in size and price every year or so, but desktops seem to remain the same.

It was only a matter of time before a breakthrough like the Pi4 would occur. Earlier Pi versions didn’t have enough power to replace desktops. The Pi4 is a tipping point, marking the beginning of an era that might eventually see the decline of today’s major desktop producers as well as Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems. For approximately $150, I have a desktop that can do almost everything my $1500 desktop can do1.

The Raspberry Pi 4 is the tiny box to the right of the keyboard. I have it set up for two monitors. The screen on the right is running a 1080p YouTube video. The screen on the left is running four apps: a webpage, an email page, a word processor, and a spreadsheet. The keyboard, mouse, and power supply are official Raspberry accessories. The two mini-HDMI and power cable with in-line power button are CanaKit products.

For example, I’m writing and publishing this article with the Pi4. The interface after booting up is similar to any Windows computer. The browser, Chromium, is nearly identical to Chrome. Both are from Google. Once in browser mode, the differences between Pi4 and standard desktops disappear. LibreOffice suite2, included in the operating system, is uncannily similar to MS Office. I’m amazed at how quickly and naturally I’m adapting to Pi4.

For an idea of its actual size, here it is next to a box of playing cards. The in-line power button (Pi 4 PiSwitch) is clearly visible in this photo. It didn’t come with the CanaKit 4GB Complete Starter Kit ($119.95 USD), but it’s worth the extra $5.95.

For those with lighter needs or looking for a second desktop for limited or mobile tasks, the Pi4 might suffice. For power users, the Pi4 isn’t quite ready for prime time. But it’s an intriguing glimpse into the future of desktop computing. Its diminutive size is its greatest appeal, and its mind-boggling low price is the clincher. The fact that it’s very user friendly adds to its appeal. A quality that’s rarely mentioned in reviews of computers is enjoyment. Truth is, the Pi4 is flat out fun to use. It’s also designed for ease of use. The operating system setup is automated, leading users through a few simple steps. After it’s done, users are also connected to their home Wi-Fi system and ready to go online.

Here’s another comparison — next to my iPhone 6P. The kit included one mini-HDMI cable. I ordered a second to run the two-monitor setup. The $6.95 is very reasonable.

True to the disruptive process, the early adopters aren’t from the usual desktop customer population. They are mostly computer professionals or enthusiasts. But as the Pi advances, it becomes more like a traditional desktop, and, after a certain point, when it can do nearly everything desktops can, the customer base will gradually grow, with longtime desktop users attracted by the huge value differential.

Here’s a closer look. The kit contains an official Pi 4 case, but I also ordered a third-party acrylic case with cooling fan ($8.29) on eBay. Heat build-up can be a problem. The official case doesn’t include a fan. Instead, a set of three heat sinks is included. This acrylic case includes a fan and is open-sided. The case arrived unassembled. It took about 30 minutes to assemble it and install the board. The bolts and screws are tiny, so if you have big hands, be forewarned3. The included directions aren’t the best. For example, this critical step of connecting the fan is missing: With the 40 GPIO pins facing you, insert the red wire (hot) in the far right outside pin (#2). Next, insert the black wire (ground) into the third outside pin (#6) from the right. The two cables are separated by a single pin. Btw, apologies for the dust on the case in the photos. I didn’t take the time to clean it up.

I was skeptical about the Pi4 operating system, Raspbian. Would it be a steep learning curve? What about basic functions and apps such as file management, browsers, word processors, spreadsheets? Would the Pi4 equivalents be good enough? What about power? Can this tiny toy-like machine operate just as quickly as desktops? Thus far, after a day of testing, I’m optimistic that this is a prototype of future desktops. It’ll take a few more iterations in the next five to ten years to fully replace desktops, but I believe it will happen.

The learning curve isn’t very steep at all — except for a few spikes that I’ve covered in the list below. The basic apps are, from what I’ve seen thus far, clones of Windows desktops. Power and speed doesn’t seem to be lacking for the tasks I’ve tried. In Youtube, some 1080p videos experienced hiccups, but most ran smoothy, including other 1080p videos. Graphic quality seems to be a shade below what’s expected in desktop workhorses.

Gaps in the Pi4 instructions or quirks that I’ve discovered thus far:

1. Gareth Halfacree’s The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide: How to Use Your New Computer (“Fully updated for Raspberry Pi 4”) can be found, in PDF, here. It’s free for viewing or downloading. The instructions included with the CanaKit and on Raspberry sites that I searched are minimal and don’t link to this comprehensive guide.

2. The Micro SD card is inserted with the front (label side) facing down, away from the board.

3. Like the iPhone Lightning USB power cable, the Pi4 power cable can be inserted into the USB-C charging port without concern for up or down.

4. If you insert a device, such as a thumb drive, into a USB port, you need to eject it correctly. The manual says to click the eject button (icon) on the top right of the screen. The only problem is, there is no eject button. You’ll need to add it via the command line. (Funky leftover from the early days of computing. Surprisingly, Windows has something similar for some systems functions.) Click the Raspberry icon on the top left. In the drop-down menu, click RUN. Next, at the prompt, type “sudo unmount/mnt” without the quotes (source). Once installed, the eject icon will appear only when an ejectable device is inserted in a USB port.

5. If you’re not getting any audio (sound), right click the SPEAKER icon on the top right of the screen. In the drop-down menu, click the unchecked option. (There are only two options.) For example, I’m using headphones for audio. To get sound, I clicked ANALOG, and it worked. It had been set, by default, to the other option, HDMI.

6. The keyboard and mouse seem to be compatible with standard Windows PCs.

7. In FILE MANAGER, to open a folder or document, double-click quickly. If you’re too slow, a renaming window will pop up. If you’re having problems, an alternative is to right click the folder or file name and select OPEN in the drop-down menu.

8. If you’re running two monitors and the right-left position needs to be switched, simply shut down and switch the HDMI ports on the Raspberry.

9. My standard-size SD card reader isn’t recognized by Raspbian.

10. Raspbian, the Debian operating system for the Raspberry Pi 4, is on the SD card. To switch to a different OS, simply insert and set it up on a different card.

11. The mouse can be connected to one of the USB ports on the keyboard.

12. My external CD/DVD drive isn’t recognized by Raspbian. The drive has two USB connectors but no power supply of its own.

13. External hard-disk drives with power supplies are supposed to work with Raspbian. In my case, the drive was recognized, but the files weren’t. I guess the drive will have to be formatted via Raspbian. [Update 8/3/19] After a Window’s scan and repair, my WD 1TB external hard drive (with its own power supply) now works with Pi4. This means that Pi4 is compatible with hard drives that work in Windows systems. This will allow file sharing with Windows computers.

In closing, I must acknowledge and thank the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, a nonprofit charity devoted to universal access to the power of computing and digital devices, for this amazing gift to the world.

See related posts:
Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop: Upgrades and Updates (8/14/19)
A Palm-sized Desktop Computer for $35 – Raspberry Pi 4 (7/24/19)

__________
1 See Ray Rose’s comment about this price comparison.
2 Consider downloading LibreOffice free for testing or use on your Windows, Mac, or Linux system.
3 The nuts are all hand tightened. I didn’t want to risk a socket on the tightly packed motherboard.

10 Responses

  1. Great post. Sharing!

    • Thank you, Bonnie! In fact, the initial audience for the Raspberry Pi was (and still is to a large extent) school-age children. The goal was to provide a low-cost computer for learning programming basics. The programming apps are designed to make programming fun. Of course, professionals and hobbyists have quickly latched on to its potential for other uses, including as a desktop replacement. -Jim

  2. Jim:
    I really like the direction the Raspberry Pi 4 is taking, but you initially distorted the difference in price between your $150 Pi configuration and a $1500 desktop. You forgot you already had those two big monitors and the keyboard… Whoops, those add considerably to the $150 price. Of course, if you have them for that $1500 desktop then there is no additional cost, but it would be better had to talked about the CPU prices and then the full configuration.

    Bottom line however… Pi 4 is moving into the world in ways that will make computing very affordable —

    ray

    • Ray, thank you for pointing out the need for clarification. You’re right. With the addition of a monitor, the cost would soar by an additional $150-$250 (double that for two monitors). In the article, the “$1500” is the cost of the desktop computer, keyboard, and external CD/DVD drive. It doesn’t include the monitors. The “$150” is the cost of the Raspberry Pi 4 kit, the in-line power button, the second HDMI cable, and acrylic case. It, too, doesn’t include the monitors. -Jim

  3. I was titillated when I saw the announcement. Can such a small unit have enough power to be useful — today? Will the software be more than toys? Is the learning curve steep? What about malware?

    Thank you very much for your thorough dissection of this device. Personally, I expect an upgrade in less time than five years and an upgrade that will make this acceptable to all but hard-core gamers and high-end graphic artists. It might cost $200 by then, but it will be worth it.

    If you buy a desktop, you also must obtain a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Of course, this is unnecessary if you follow most people and purchase a laptop computer. No matter which, the price comparison truly is mind-boggling.

    Thinking about it, can you package up this machine with a battery and make it portable? Someone will do that eventually, IMO. It’s not a laptop that I think about here. It’s a small, hard briefcase that you open up and take out the monitor and keyboard/mouse from, turn on, and compute. I am sure that an enterprising engineer can improve on that.

    • Harry, you’re probably right about the timetable — less than five years! Raspberry is trying to keep the entry-level price low ($35), but better graphics, faster CPU, and more RAM will probably raise the cost for enhanced versions. Hopefully, the entry-level version will remain low, from $50-$99.

      You might want to experiment with the $35 model to see if it can serve as a SmartScience lab learning tool. There are numerous input-output features that can be tapped into, including video cameras and tiny touchscreens. Many 3rd-party companies (many in China) are offering accessories, and the prices are insanely low. For developing countries, the Raspberry Pi is a godsend. You may not need a hard briefcase to house a science learning unit. You may be able to patch together a small unit with a touchscreen for classroom use. To keep it small and cheap, you may want to stay with AC. This prototype could then become a learning unit, with students building their own units as part of the lesson. -Jim

      • Jim,

        Let me thank you again for this absolutely scintillating review. Very valuable. Yes, I messed up on the price. I had forgotten how small it was and fastened on the number in your review instead.

        I really, really, really wish to stay out of the hardware business, even as an OEM. “Cobbler, stick to your last.”

        Keyboards, mice, and monitors are becoming really inexpensive if you are not seeking bells and whistles.

        I was thinking personally about the briefcase. I like to be able to carry my Macbook about with me. I definitely never will have a Windows machine again for many reasons even though I had them for many years. I do use lots of software that is niche, such as Movavi, Inkscape, and Audacity. I do much of my work in Unix clones.

        Still, the notion of a briefcase with computer, probes, and fantastic software for learning science has potential. Instead of a cart with 30 machines and ten dataloggers, you have a per-student (or student pair) solution. I may partner with someone doing this, but I really have my hands full with the pure software part. I am not diving into the empty swimming pool of hardware, a commodity.

      • Because you mentioned Smart Science Education Inc., my company, I would love to share that we have upgraded just about everything about the interface, have a new Guide feature that leads students by the hand through the process of learning, including videos of how to take data, and a HINT feature that turns the initial quiz into more learning.

        I am working on something new that will turn our system into the next best thing to a science tutor.

        It has been a long, dusty, and dry road that we have been traveling for 20 years. You cannot measure the cost of blood, sweat, and tears. If anyone chooses to become an entrepreneur, I suggest you choose a market that is not education.

  4. […] Raspberry Pi 4 Is the Future of Desktop Computers — Educational Technology and Change Journal […]

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