The recent popularity in single-board computers is almost exclusively due to the now ubiquitous Raspberry Pi. Learn all about the various Raspberry Pi types.
Dating back to 1976, a single-board computer (SBC) is a fully-integrated computer that has all the critical system components on a single circuit board. This is in contrast to the typical desktop computer configuration in that all of the system memory, CPU, GPU, network interfaces, and other I/O adapters are all one unit. In the typical desktop computer, most, if not all, components are connected via slots or cables to a mainboard.
The key advantages of the SBC are cost, size, reliability, and mass-producibility. These systems are designed to operate as single units and are manufactured at high volumes. Thus, the software and hardware that execute on the system are much more reliable.
The drawbacks are related to upgradability, computing power, and application compatibility. Typically, once an SBC design is complete, few to no modifications or upgrades are possible. As time progresses, so does computational technology. But with the design of an SBC being so purpose-built, hardware quickly becomes obsolete, except for specific applications.
The real magic of an SBC came when the creators of the Raspberry Pi Foundation set out to bring computer science and digital technology education to youth in developing countries. They considered the advantages of an SBC and coupled it with the portability and flexibility of the Linux operating system to create what is now known as the Raspberry Pi.
They saw an opportunity to teach computer science in a way never before realized. Using small ARM-based processors, a vivid open-source community, and the power of mass production, they offered a computer the size of a deck of cards at a mere price point of $25 to $35. Even better, with new models of the Raspberry Pi becoming available, their developers preserve future compatibility.
What that means is that all Raspberry Pis run on the same 5 VDC power supply and they all share roughly the same form factor between the different generations. While the amount of amperage and power drawn is different for each model, using a power converter rated at greater than two amps is sufficient.
As one can imagine, the tiny computer inspired millions and launched what is now a global phenomenon of DIY computer extravagance. These little devices are used in everything from 3D printer controllers to rover demos from NASA. Take a step back and review this list to get all the information you need to navigate this plethora of computing wizardly.
One thing to note before starting: With the exception of the first generation of Raspberry Pi, Models A versus B designate the form factors of the generation. Size A is compact, at 65.0 x 56.5 mm, whereas size B is standard at 85.6 x 56.5 mm.
The latest and greatest SBC from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, theoffers the highest processor speed, embedded Wi-Fi, embedded Bluetooth, expanded networking capabilities, boot from USB, and now power over Ethernet (PoE). This version is a much-needed upgrade in feature set, allowing for a more integrated experience.
What makes this model unique is the inclusion of the onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules. Before this version, the first thing everyone bought alongside their new Raspberry Pi was a USB Wi-Fi adapter. This version allows you to free up that USB slot by keeping the Wi-Fi onboard. In addition to more memory and processing power is the unique ability for this Raspberry Pi to boot from a USB stick instead of needing an SD card.
Release date: March 14, 2018
Retail price: $35.00
The initial SBC from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Raspberry Pi 1 Model B started it all. It is one of the first computers in this category and opened the world of computer science to millions. Although not as powerful as its successors, this little computer packs some serious punch.
Since it’s the original, it has the least amount of RAM and processing power, but what it lacks in processing prowess it makes up for in extra abilities. The unique addition of a composite output port makes this a great old school game emulator, commonly used in projects to recreate famous arcade cabinets. Note, this version uses a slightly different form factor than the rest of the Raspberry Pis. Thus, a separate mounting case is required if you switch later.
Reception of the first Raspberry Pi was a hit in the developer and education markets. It’s now reported that, back in 2017, roughly 5 million of these units were sold! With such numbers, it’s no wonder that the open-source community became so rich and diverse with content. The first generation Raspberry Pi will forever be known as the little computer that started it all.
Release date: April 2012
Retail price: $35.00
The first significant upgrade from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers substantial improvements in capability, the addition of more USB ports, an expanded GPIO strip, and more SDRAM. The Raspberry Pi 2 had the ability to execute even more applications, including video processing, which was previously not possible, providing a real pivot point for the growing community.
With a more professional and compact look, the Pi 2 nixed the composite output to make more space on the PCB. The added space allowed for the second set of USB ports, which are arguably the most important connection on this Raspberry Pi.
Yet, this Pi has a minor caveat in that it lacks an onboard Wi-Fi chip. No worries — it just means that one of the additional USB ports is going to be consumed by a compact Wi-Fi adapter.
The Raspberry Pi 2 also features the first significant step up in processing power, going from the single core 700-Mhz ARM processor to a shiny new quad-core Cortex operating at 900 Mhz. Additionally, the second Raspberry Pi expanded its RAM from 512 MB to a whopping 1 GB. These numbers may sound small, but that’s some serious horsepower for something about the size of your wallet.
The community also gobbled up this version, which sold over 3 million units worldwide back in 2017.
Release date: February 2015
Retail price: $35.00
The smallest and cheapest package from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Raspberry Pi Zero offers a minimalistic approach to the tiny computer giving up the standard GPIO, SD card, HDMI, camera I/O, and micro USB. What it lacks in feature set it makes up for in size and price. This computer is a perfect tiny soldier to power your robot army.
What makes this unit so special? The size! At roughly the same length but half the width, this Raspberry Pi is stripped down on peripherals but packs a mighty mean punch when it comes to processing power per gram. Especially considering the price of $5, the Pi Zero is a robust and cheap device to train young engineers and hobbyists alike.
The reception of this model was a little less than the others, at roughly 2 million units sold. One could argue that the lack of direct USB ports, Wi-Fi, and other peripherals makes it a less approachable model for the masses. (Instead of USB A ports, it features USB Micro B as inputs, thus an adapter is required.)
Release date: November 2015
Retail price: $5 – $10 (depending on vendor and model)
Despite being small in size and price tag, the Raspberry Pi packs a whole lot of punch for your project needs. While there are other SBCs on the market, there is none with a more popular following and open-source community than that of the Raspberry Pi.
If you have an old project that could use a fresh computer brain to control it, or if you’re looking to create something new and trying to decide the module you’ll need, the Raspberry Pi comes highly recommended.
Additionally, the Raspberry Pi is great for projects involving 3D printing and CNC. Check out some of our related articles:
Feature image source: Maker Club / Pinshape
License: The text of "Raspberry Pi Types – Compare the Different Models" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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