Hardware

Raspberry Pi Zero W: Hands-on with the $10 board

How does the network and overall performance of the latest Raspberry Pi computer measure up? We put the latest Raspberry Pi board through its paces.

The Raspberry Pi Zero W isn't so much a new Pi, as an update to the $5 Pi Zero, but as refreshes go, it's rather transformative.

By adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to the Pi Zero, a fun and incredibly cheap board has become far more useful out of the box, albeit at a slightly higher price of £9.60 ($10 plus tax).

You can read our guide to everything you need to know about the Pi Zero W.

We set out to measure how the board performs, starting with the new features like network performance and how Wi-Fi support affects power consumption.

SEE: Raspberry Pi in 2017: New boards, new OSes and more

First, let's take a look at how the built-in Wi-Fi performs compared to the Pi 3 and the Ethernet performance of a Pi 1. On paper, you might expect little difference between the Pi 3 and the Pi Zero W, as they both support 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 and use the same Broadcom wireless chip, however that wasn't the case in practice.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

This iPerf benchmark measures the speed of data transfer between two computers, in this case between an Ethernet-wired Ubuntu laptop and a Wi-Fi-connected Pi 3, Pi Zero W and Ethernet-linked Pi 1. That said these figures are not meant to be absolute measures, since network speed can be affected by so many local factors, but an indication of relative performance.

Another key metric for those building a battery-powered device around the Pi is power consumption. Here you can see the draw for the Pi computers when idle and when downloading a file with around 100% CPU load.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

My measurements put the energy consumption lower than that of the original Pi Zero, but that could just be down to the use of different equipment to measure the power draw.

The overall performance of the board should be pretty much unchanged from the original Pi Zero, as the Pi Zero W has identical specs to the earlier board.

That being said we ran some performance benchmarks to see how the Pi Zero W measures up against both its more expensive bigger brother, the Pi 3 Model B, and a competitor, the $9 Chip computer. The Chip benchmark results were taken from this bit-tech review.

The Dhrystone benchmark measures the general performance of the CPU - focusing on how it handles calculations using integers.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

The Whetstone benchmark measures another aspect of processor performance, this time how it handles floating point calculations.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

The Linpack test also measures how rapidly a machine can handle floating point calculations. The latest version of the benchmark is used to compile the list of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Sysbench is another measure of general CPU performance - here showing single-core and, where relevant, multi-core performance.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Even though the Zero W has identical specs to the Pi Zero, my benchmark results were noticeably worse than benchmarks for the original Zero, although it's not clear why.

Despite the Chip's overall better performance than the Zero in these tests, the Chip was not shipping at the time this article was published. It also lacks the extensive catalogue of good quality software and the community support available with the Pi Zero.

When it comes to general performance, while it is fine within the command line, using the Pi Zero for web browsing will likely be a frustrating experience for many, with long pauses while data loads in and graphics render in the Epiphany browser and lags when resizing the browser window. Perhaps performance is better in the Chromium browser, which is available with newer versions of Raspbian.

If you want to use a Pi as an everyday desktop computer, however, then the Pi 3 is a much better bet (but even then will probably feel slightly sluggish relative to a modern computer).

The Pi Zero is more of a board for hardware and software hackers, not a desktop PC replacement. One caveat for those wanting to build hardware, however, is the need to solder a pin header onto the Pi Zero before you get started.

Despite the price bump, the Pi Zero W remains one of the cheapest computers you can buy, and by adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, the Pi Zero is now easier to use than ever. Providing you're realistic in your expectations of what a $10 computer can do, it's unlikely you'll be disappointed.

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The underside of the Raspberry Pi Zero W.

Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Read more about the Raspberry Pi

About Nick Heath

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

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