The king of tiny and cheap computers finally has a successor. The first Raspberry Pi computer made a big impact on the technology world, offering a full computer on a $35 chip roughly the size of a credit card. It has since proved to be a popular tool for students and hackers alike, providing easy and accessible software and hardware. Now, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is back with the Raspberry Pi 2, which crams in even more computing power while keeping the same price and roughly the same form factor.
With this extra power, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is calling the Pi 2 a more flexible tool for learners. Will these claims hold up?
Editor’s note: The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently announced the Pi 3, which also costs $35, but has a faster 1.2-GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1.
At first glance, it might be easy to mistake the Raspberry Pi 2 for its predecessor. That's because the Pi 2 uses the same size circuit board, measuring 3.37 x 2.13 x 0.67 inches and weighing only 1.2 ounces. That's roughly the size and weight of a deck of cards.
The real design difference between the older and newer models relates to the ports. The Pi 2 now has four USB 2.0 ports, double the number on the older model. There's no longer a dedicated composite video output; it's been replaced by a dual-function 3.5mm audio and composite video jack. The SD card slot on the first Raspberry Pi has been replaced by a smaller microSD slot that supports cards up to 64GB. Hardware tinkerers will love the 40 general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins, up from 26 on the older model.
The essential ports are still there — HDMI, a micro-USB power connector and an RJ45 Ethernet jack.
The Pi 2 is sold without a protective case, so many users may want to purchase one along with the Pi. Our Raspberry Pi 2 came with the official case, which costs less than $10 and has a lid that easily snaps on and off. A case is a definite must-have if you're hoping to throw the Pi 2 in a bag and bring it along with you.
When the first Raspberry Pi launched, there was a fairly steep Linux learning curve for new users to get up and running. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has removed most of that complexity with the Pi 2's easy install manager called NOOBS (New Out Of the Box Software). The NOOBS installer is available on the Raspberry Pi website in two versions: the complete installer, which has a total size of 1.14GB, and the NOOBS Lite installer, which is only 28.5MB but requires a network connection to complete the installation.
I used the most common installation option, the complete NOOBS installer, and unzipped the downloaded files to a freshly formatted microSD card. The Foundation recommends using a microSD card with no less than 8GB, especially since the Raspberry Pi has no onboard storage, so that card will serve as the device's only internal storage.
Next, I inserted the microSD card into the Pi 2, and connected an HDMI monitor, a USB keyboard and mouse, and Ethernet cable. Because there's no power button on the Pi 2, the micro-USB power was connected last, which immediately launches the OS installation process.
I was immediately greeted with an install screen asking me to choose the operating system I wanted to install. At the top of the list is Raspbian, a special version of Linux based on the popular Debian distribution that's designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi. This is the Foundation's only officially supported operating system.
The NOOBS installer also includes various third-party operating systems, including OpenELEC, which is a version of Kodi (formerly Xbox Media Center); and Microsoft's Windows 10 IoT Core, a slimmed version of Windows 10 designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi.
After I selected Raspbian, the installation took a total of 21 minutes. While I waited, the screen displayed various features and apps that I would soon be accessing, such as a graphical user interface (GUI) that works similarly to that of traditional PCs, and different tools for learning how to code.
After the installation was complete, the Pi 2 launched directly into the desktop environment.
Debian names major version releases of its operating system in the same way that Apple names major OS X releases (El Capitan, Yosemite). The most current version of Debian is 8.0 Jessie, named after the character in Toy Story (just like version 7 Wheezy and version 6 Squeeze). Raspbian, the version of Debian created specifically for the Raspberry Pi, is based off the latest version of Debian Jessie.
This newer operating system won't feel too foreign to anyone upgrading from the previous Raspbian Wheezy OS, but it's a vast improvement over the "squeeze" that was available when the original Raspberry Pi launched. The operating system now launches directly into the GUI desktop environment, rather than simply entering into the command line terminal. This can be helpful for anyone new to Linux and expects a functional desktop at launch.
If you'd prefer your Pi 2 to launch directly into a terminal, rather than load up the GUI, this can be changed easily in the Raspberry Pi Configuration screen, located in the Preferences menu in the Menu dropdown. Here, the user can also adjust other login preferences, enable/disable various interfaces, tweak performance and update localization. This last setting is important, as the Pi 2 doesn't have a real-time clock (which would require a battery) and may need some date/time adjustments depending on usage.
Also new to Raspbian Jessie is an Eject button at the top right of the screen that can be used to safely eject external drives. This is a welcome addition for users doing most of their computing inside the desktop environment, as it was trickier to safely eject drives in previous versions.
Raspbian includes various apps, tools and games with its default installation. The operating system feels geared specifically to students, and offers programming tools such as two Java integrated development environments (IDEs), two Python IDEs, both Wolfram and Mathematica, and Scratch, which gamifies the code-learning process.
There's also a version of LibreOffice that's been optimized for running on the Raspberry Pi. This suite of applications compares to Microsoft Office, and includes LibreOffice Writer, Math, Base, Calc, Draw, and Impress. These applications let you open and edit Microsoft Office files, allowing the Pi 2 user to pick up on productivity without too much file-conversion hassle.
Browsing the Internet still feels like a second-class activity on the Pi. While much more powerful than its predecessor, the included Epiphany Web browser was slow to load Tomsguide.com, crashing the app twice before finally displaying the complete website. I was able to load YouTube, which was not available at all on the original Raspberry Pi, but pages were slow to load, and video playback stuttered from time to time. At least stackexchange.com, an online resource for developers, loaded quickly and remained stable throughout our browsing.
In addition to Python Games (a series of games that helps teach the Python programming language), there's a version of Minecraft called Minecraft Pi that's been optimized specifically for the Pi 2. While I couldn't get full-screen Minecraft to work (there appeared to be an issue with the window resizing), the app ran perfectly in a smaller window in the middle of the screen. I was able to instantly start a new game and generate a new world to explore. Gameplay was smooth sailing the entire time.
As with the original Raspberry Pi, there will be no "serious" gaming on the Pi 2. But focusing on the Pi 2's limitations is a big mistake, as this new computer is significantly more powerful than its predecessor.
The biggest upgrade between the old and new Raspberry Pi is the amount of power under the hood. The Pi 2 contains an ARMv7 quad-core Broadcom BCM2836 SoC clocked at 900 MHz. This chip has four ARM cores, compared to the original Pi's single ARM core, and packs Broadcom's VideoCore IV graphics and multimedia IP GPU. There also double the RAM in the Pi 2 — 1GB instead of 512MB — adding to the computer's zippier feel.
It took a full 45 seconds to boot the Raspberry Pi into its default desktop environment — approximately the same time as on the original Pi. Once it was loaded, however, everything worked much faster, although obviously not as fast as modern desktops and laptops. The Epiphany Web browser opened in just 4 seconds, and I was able to load StackExchange in 5 seconds, YouTube in 10 seconds and Tom's Guide in 27 seconds.
Nor were there issues playing videos on the Pi 2 — an improvement over the original Pi —provided that I used the preinstalled omxplayer command line media player. I loaded a 720p MP4 trailer for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie, and it ran smoothly in full-screen mode with a single CLI command.
The Pi 2 held up surprisingly well during multitasking. I opened up Scratch, an educational programming game; launched a game of Minecraft; and started launching numerous tabs in the Epiphany Web browser, and saw no noticeable degradation in speed. The Pi 2 is by no means a fast computer, but loading speeds didn't feel slower when the Pi was running multiple processes. With all of these apps open, however, the Pi's resting CPU usage hovered between 18 and 26 percent, so there's obviously a limit to its multitasking capabilities. While resting with no apps open, the CPU usage was zero.
In addition to Raspbian, the Raspberry Pi can serve as a set-top box, much like the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku. These media center capabilities are thanks to the OpenELEC operating system that, like Raspbian, is included in the NOOBS installer.
OpenELEC is a version of Kodi (formerly Xbox Media Center) that's optimized to run on the Raspberry Pi. There are two different versions of OpenELEC included in the NOOBS installer: a version for the Raspberry Pi 1, and a version for the Raspberry Pi 2.
The Raspberry Pi 2 can run only a single operating system at a time, because it has only one microSD card reader, so I had to format and reload the NOOBS installer in order to load up OpenELEC. After inserting the freshly loaded NOOBS microSD card into the Pi 2 and connecting the power, I was able to select OpenELEC for the Raspberry Pi 2 from the list of installation options, right below Raspbian.
OpenELEC installed much faster than Raspbian; the entire process took just 1 minute and 43 seconds. The Pi 2 launched directly into the familiar Kodi interface, with a menu bar running along the middle with different media types and settings and the Kodi icon in the top-left corner. Along the bottom of the screen, in the RSS news ticker, scrolled the latest OpenELEC headlines.
Kodi immediately asks how you'd like to remotely access the system — either SSH or Samba. These protocols are completely optional, and are used only if you need to connect to the Pi from a remote device such as your laptop computer. I chose SSH, although most of the system is entirely read-only. That meant I wasn't able to edit the file system, or even mount an external drive, through traditional Linux commands. Rather, OpenELEC wants users to use the primary user interface to set up the media player.
In the main Kodi interface, I browsed to Videos and then Files, and was able to instantly connect to my network attached storage drive using OpenELEC's default NFS setup process. I selected my Movies folder, told OpenELEC to scrape information from The Movie Database, and the scan started immediately. Within a few minutes, I had full access to my movie library on the Raspberry Pi 2.
OpenELEC's Kodi interface ran incredibly smooth on the Pi 2 — there was never any noticeable lag when I was navigating through the interface, adjusting settings or browsing through my fairly large media collection. There was some slight lag when I used the mouse while a movie was playing, such as when I tried to mouse over the Pause or Stop buttons, but the system responded immediately after I clicked these buttons.
As it stands, the OpenELEC Kodi experience doesn't quite rival that of the popular set-top boxes offered by Apple, Amazon or Roku. Turning the Pi 2 into a media player takes significantly more work than other plug-and-play options, and there's certainly a learning curve for those who have never used the platform before. Additionally, you won't find services such as Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Go for Kodi.
However, the Raspberry Pi costs $35, compared to the $100+ price tag on established competitors. Users with a large personal media collection will love the flexibility and customization offered by Kodi, and there are several video add-ons that allow access to several free streaming video sources.
There is no onboard storage with the Pi, which means users are limited to what's available on the microSD card (which also houses the operating system, roughly 1.2GB for Raspbian) and any attached storage. Therefore, the Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends using a microSD card with at least 8GB, and the Pi 2 can support up to 64GB.
You can always attach an external USB device — either a thumb drive or larger external drive — via one of the four USB slots, for more storage. Users running a media server on their Pi may also want to explore network attached storage options, which would allow users to make storage space available on their home network to be mounted in a network-connected Raspberry Pi.
Traditionally, the Raspberry Pi has been split into two models: Model A and Model B, with Model A being the low-cost version. The Raspberry Pi 2 is currently available only as a Model B, which costs $35 and includes four USB ports and an Ethernet jack.
A new Raspberry Pi 3, which also costs $35, has a more powerful 1.2GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.1.
Although it's a little harder to find, the original Raspberry Pi is still officially available in both $20 Model A+ and $35 Model B+ versions. These versions have the same CPU and RAM as the original Raspberry Pi but have been optimized for lower power consumption. The Pi 1 Model B+ also has four USB ports, 40 GPIO pins and a microSD reader, just like the Pi 2.
There's also the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, the ultra-low-cost model. It's half the size of the Pi 1 Model A+, has a 1-GHz single-core CPU, 512MB of RAM, mini HDMI and USB, HAT-compatible 40-pin header, and composite video and reset headers. It's better served as the brain for a robotics project than as a stand-alone computer like the other Pis.
The Raspberry Pi 2 feels officially grown up. While it might not be ready to stand in as a user's main desktop computer, it has easily achieved its goal to be a viable educational tool and tinkerer's machine. The Pi 2 seems perfectly suited for computer labs at school, offering teachers the tools needed to guide a classroom of students through various levels of computer programming. It's also an affordable option for hobbyists hoping to set up a basic home file server or build their own media center. Its open hardware design creates a low barrier to entry for anyone interested in robotics or other hardware development. Considering it has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as a more powerful processor, the $35 Raspberry Pi 3 is a better deal. But, you won’t go wrong with the Pi 2.