Hardware

A bigger and better Raspberry Pi: Five things to try out with the new model B+

Here are five tasks that just got easier to achieve with a Raspberry Pi following the release of an upgraded version of the $35 Linux board.

It's been two years since the Raspberry Pi computer launched and during that time the $35 Linux board has received only minor tweaks.

Now the Pi is getting a more serious upgrade, designed to add the features most-commonly requested by the machine's base of more than two million users.

These improvements have been incorporated onto a new board, the Raspberry Pi Model B+, which has gone on sale for $35, the same price as the Model B.

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The new board
 Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Eben Upton, co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and CEO of the Raspberry Pi engineering team, described the model B+ as the final evolution of the Raspberry Pi board launched in 2012.

"This is the best we can do. We know that there's nothing more we could have done with this generation of silicon," he told TechRepublic.

Here are five tasks that will let you explore the new capabilities of the model B+.

1. Control a 3D printer

The Pi has always been able to command and communicate with anything from robotic book readers to portable braille pads.

However, in the past it's often been necessary to wire the Pi to intermediate boards capable of talking to the piece of hardware you wanted to control.

To work with these boards and hardware the Pi swaps data via its general purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, with information encoded as high or low voltage electrical signals.

The B+ upgrades the main interface the Pi uses to talk to other hardware, by increasing the number of pins on the board from 26 to 40, and in doing so expands the range of hardware that can directly connect to the Pi.

On the Raspberry Pi blog there is talk of using the new B+ Pi to control a 3D printer directly, thanks to the B+ having sufficient GPIO pins to run the stepper motors that position the print head. However connecting a 3D printer is just one possible mod that just got simpler.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation's Upton said the upgrades in the B+ makes it easier to attach many more pieces of hardware directly to the board.

"From the extra GPIO, you can control that many more things from the device without having to use a port expander. It broadens out the range of things you can drive directly," said Upton.

In particular the additional pins will allow users to exploit interfaces with the Pi's Broadcom 2835 system on a chip, which should also be a boon to organisations wiring together custom appliances using the Pi.

"The Broadcom chip we're using has a couple of interfaces called DPI, an LCD panel interface, and SMI, secondary memory interface, which is a very powerful, generic way of talking to peripherals.

"With this new 40-pin connector you'll be able to get all of the pins on there that you need to do DPI or SMI interfaces

"There are a lot of things that you can plug into the SMI. Basically, it's a generic parallel bus," he said, giving the example of an additional USB or Ethernet controller or a top board with a field programmable gate array.

2. Take pictures at the edge of space

There are already teams of modders that have floated Pi-powered camera rigs to Earth's upper atmosphere, but not without modding the boards.

The B+ makes the Pi better suited for being wired into battery-powered gear, such as high altitude camera rigs, thanks to swapping out its onboard power regulators for a more efficient alternative.

The upgrade replaces linear regulators with switching ones, which reduces power consumption by between 0.5W and 1W.

"The high altitude ballooning guys are really going to benefit from this. They already disembowel their Pis before they go up and replace the power supply with something quite similar to what we've done with this version," said Upton.

"That's driving the power consumption down so it lasts longer on the little batteries you can afford to put under a weather balloon. Those people are really going to benefit because it's going to work for them out of the box."

He added that those firms building products that use an embedded Pi would also benefit from the new regulators due to the reduced consumption and waste heat.

3. Run as a computer out of the box

The Pi's was created as a low-cost computer for kids to learn about coding, so simplicity is a must.

The B+ board makes it easier to just plug peripherals into the Pi and start using them, thanks to upgrades to the USB ports.

The number of ports has been increased from two to four and the ports are now able to provide power to a wider range of peripherals, such as small external hard disk drives and WiFi dongles.

"A lot of the educational users who are just using it as a computer are going to benefit both from the extra USB ports and from the power improvements," said Upton.

"People are going to be able to use it without the powered [USB] hub for a much broader range of applications."

The Raspberry Pi Foundation's director of hardware engineering James Adams explained the capabilities of the new ports in more detail.

"The USB powerchain has a proper limiting switch and will not brown out the board if USB devices are plugged in when powered (or even if they try to take too much current or there is a fault like a power short). Default allowed USB current across 4 ports is 600mA, but can be increased to 1.2A via a config.txt parameter if a good quality 2A PSU (power supply unit) is used," he wrote.

4. Make beautiful music

The desire to get high fidelity sound out of the Pi has led to the creation of dedicated add-on boards, such as the HiFiBerry.

The B+ aims to improve the quality of the Pi's audio by incorporating a dedicated "low-noise" power supply.

As a Raspberry Pi engineer explains on the forums: "PWM is still used to generate the audio output - but now there is a dedicated supply rail for audio (which means it's completely clear of digital cruft) and dedicated output driver.

"The output impedance is a lot less than the [model] B, and the output DC blocking caps are now 47uF which makes 32-ohm headphones useable in terms of bass response and volume."

5. Create a better looking Pi

Looks aren't everything, but the tidier board design and reorganisation of the ports so cables only come out of two sides of the board should allow for more attractive cases.

The design of the B+ aligns the USB connectors with the board edge, moves composite video onto the 3.5mm jack, and adds four squarely-placed mounting holes.

Upton said "there are going to be some pretty attractive cases for this", and new cases are already available, such as this Rainbow-coloured offering and this case that sits the Pi on a "hot-chilli" red base.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

4 comments
Anonymouzee
Anonymouzee

And CPU+Memory upgrades... by now a faster and with nore cores CPU and at least 1Gb or 2Gb ram would be the minimum racional update...

michael_lussier
michael_lussier

Nice new features , but when are they going to give it a better faster processor and more memory ?!?!?!

MuppetGrinder
MuppetGrinder

@michael_lussier   I would say "Upping the grunt" should be really low on their to-do list. The Pie was never meant to be a knockout on the speed front.

It's all about the versatility.  

Increasing processor speeds and memory capacity just sucks up more power and adds more cost and weight to the unit.  That takes it out of the frame as being suitable for many of the applications that it is used in.  It's not a replacement to a desktop, it's a totally different product.  

The Pie is the poster-boy of extreme utilitarian computing.  It's opening up avenues where traditional concepts have been generally unable to go for years, and it's doing it with style in the mainstream market place.

JoeDas
JoeDas

@MuppetGrinder @michael_lussier if the programming is done to pot the board to sleep, hopeflly some power could be saved that way even if the processor specs are bumped.

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