Innovation

Raspberry Pi Zero W: The smart person's guide

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about the $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W, the latest tiny computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Since the original $35 Raspberry Pi computer launched in 2012, it has spawned a whole family of low-cost computers.

The latest offering is the Raspberry Pi Zero W, a tiny $10 board that adds Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to the cheapest member of the Pi family, the Raspberry Pi Zero.

You'll find everything you need to know about the Pi Zero W in this "living" article, which will be updated over time.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What's the Raspberry Pi Zero W? One of the smallest and cheapest machines available, costing roughly the same as a KFC Bargain Bucket, and packing 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
  • Why does the Raspberry Pi Zero W matter? Because of its potential to power anything from a DIY robot to a media center, thanks to an array of software, strong community support and internet connectivity out of the box.
  • Who does the Raspberry Pi Zero W affect? Anyone interested in tinkering with computer software and hardware and who wants a super-low cost piece of kit that is relatively easy to get started with.
  • Who are Raspberry Pi Zero W's competitors? The $9 CHIP computer and the the tiny $5 Onion Omega 2, although neither are shipping at this moment in time.
  • When is Raspberry Pi Zero W happening? The board is available as of the 28th February 2017.
  • How to get a Raspberry Pi Zero W: The Raspberry Pi Zero W will be available from The Pi Hut, Pimoroni, and ModMyPi in the UK, and Adafruit, Micro Center, and CanaKit in the US.
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The underside of the Raspberry Pi Zero W.

Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

What's the Raspberry Pi Zero W?

This single board computer is one of the smallest and cheapest machines available, costing roughly the same as a KFC Bargain Bucket.

While the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is already highly affordable, selling for about $35, the Pi Zero W cuts that price by two thirds. Not much bigger than a stick of gum, the Zero W is the Pi 3's less powerful but more affordable little brother.

The Zero is a versatile, if modestly-specced, board, able to be used as a media center, retro-games console, as the brain of robots and drones, and, at a push, as a general-purpose desktop computer.

This latest version of the Zero makes the board far more useful out of the box, with the addition of built-in internet connectivity, courtesy of support for 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

This upgrade bumps up the price, while the original Zero is available for £4, the wireless variant sells for £9.60 ($10 + tax). However, the original Pi Zero will remain on sale for the same price. The numbers also don't tell the whole story, as the Pi Zero W is slightly cheaper than buying the original Zero and the accessories needed to add Wi-Fi support.

SEE: Raspberry Pi Zero W photos: A closer look at the $10 computer

Why does the Raspberry Pi Zero W matter?

Because of its potential.

Despite its relatively limited specs, hardware hackers found many users for the original Zero, including robots, a laptop, a lightsaber, and even a pseudo-Polaroid camera. As mentioned, everyday uses include a desktop PC, using the official Raspbian OS, which is packed full of free software for learning about computers and programming.

Those uses are expected to multiply, thanks to the new board's built-in connection to the internet.

This native Wi-Fi support makes it far easier to remotely connect to Zero's command line from another computer on the local network, and hooking up a keyboard and mouse is much simpler with the addition of Bluetooth, no longer requiring a USB-To-Go cable and USB hub.

"Having both 802.11n and Bluetooth lets us get more mileage out of the single USB port on the device, so we're a more credible general-purpose computer without requiring an external hub," Raspberry Pi co-creator Eben Upton told TechRepublic.

"You could imagine people sticking a Zero W behind their TV and interacting with it purely via Bluetooth peripherals."

While it was always possible to add a Wi-Fi dongle on to the original Zero, doing so made the Zero far less compact.

The base specs of the Zero W are identical to those of the non-wireless Zero, with the same single-core, ARM-based processor as the first-gen Raspberry Pi Model B released back in 2012, but with the processor clock speed bumped up to 1GHz. The system memory remains the same as the first-gen Model B, with 512MB of DDR2 SDRAM.

In tests, the Zero will run as a desktop PC slightly better than the first-generation Raspberry Pi boards, being faster at both negotiating the Raspbian OS desktop and when booting up. However, performance is still significantly below that of the most recently released Raspberry Pi board, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, whose newer chipset delivers performance from 2.5x better performance than the original single-core Raspberry Pi in real-world applications, rising to 20x when handling NEON-enabled video codecs.

Anyone using the Zero as a desktop computer will likely find navigating the Raspbian OS very slow compared to a modern laptop, however, understandable given the gulf in price.

As you would expect for a board costing little more than pocket change, the Zero is a fairly bare bones package. The base board only has one Micro USB port for connecting USB devices via an USB OTG adapter. It's also missing the composite video / stereo audio connection and DSI Display connector found on the other Pi boards.

The minimum needed to get a Raspberry Pi Zero up and running as a computer is probably a microSD card for storage, a mini-HDMI adapter (for connecting it to a TV), and a 5v micro-USB power supply.

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

Who does the Raspberry Pi Zero W affect?

Anyone interested in tinkering with computers. Despite the low-price, the Pi Zero can do a lot, thanks in part to the massive success of the Pi fuelling the release of a plethora of operating systems and software. That popularity also sustains an active online community willing to help fellow users.

The easiest option for new users is downloading the NOOBS (New Out-Of-Box Software) installer, and using that to get an OS up and running on the Pi Zero. The installer makes it simple to set up various operating systems, including Raspbian and Risc OS, as well as the media center software openElec and OSMC.

The go-to choice for those running the Zero W as a computer is Raspbian, the Pi's official operating system. Raspbian is a custom-version of Debian that has been optimized to run on the Pi's hardware, has recently had a graphical overhaul, and includes an office suite, programming tools, educational games, and other software.

The look and feel of Raspbian will be familiar to any desktop computer user, and work is continuing to improve the OS in order to make the Pi "a great computer in its own right".

That said, if you want to run a Pi as a desktop computer, and don't mind the small additional expense, the best choice is the more powerful Raspberry Pi 3 Model B.

The Pi Zero is better suited to being used as a media center or packed into an automated appliance or DIY IoT device, such as a weather station, where space is at a premium or low power consumption is needed.

The Zero W drains little energy, with an average consumption of 0.1A when idle and around 0.18A under load and when downloading a file, similar to the original Pi Zero.

The Pi Zero W is also tiny—half the size of the Raspberry Pi Model A+—measuring just 65mm x 30mm x 5mm and weighing just 9g.

Like other Pi boards, the Zero can control and communicate with a range of hardware via its electronic pins, however it requires a bit more effort to get started. The Zero doesn't include the 40 pins of the other Pi models, but connectors have been left on the board, so a pin header can soldered on.

The Raspbian OS also includes support for IBM's Node-RED, which allows users to build Internet of Things software using a drag and drop GUI.

The primary market for the boards are children, with the Raspberry Pi Foundation being a charity committed to furthering computer science education. This ethos drives the Foundation to continue to release better computers for a lower price. By Upton's reckoning every dollar they can cut off the price of a Raspberry Pi adds to the likelihood of another person getting involved with computing.

The $20 - $35 asking price for the original Raspberry Pi boards didn't exactly put people off however, with more than 13 million of the boards selling since the launch in 2012.

SEE: Video: How to set up your Raspberry Pi Zero W

Who are Raspberry Pi Zero W's competitors?

The Pi Zero isn't the only small computer available for a rock-bottom price, but few of its peers can match its pedigree.

Alternatives include the $9 CHIP computer, which includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support and has similar specs to the Pi Zero, as well as 4GB of built-in storage not found in the Pi. However, it, lacks some of the Zero's audio-visual specs, the extensive catalogue of good-quality software, and the community support available with the Pi Zero. In synthetic tests the CHIP beat the Zero in a number of benchmarks. However, the CHIP was also unavailable at the time this article was published.

There is also the tiny $5 Onion Omega 2, but this has lower specs than the Raspberry Pi Zero and isn't available yet.

When is Raspberry Pi Zero W happening?

The board is available today, launched on the 28th February 2017 to coincide with the 5th anniversary of the original Raspberry Pi board being launched.

The original Zeros sold out quite regularly, but Upton says that 80,000 Raspberry Pi Zero W boards will be available on day one, followed by 25,000 each week. Sales will initially be restricted to one per customer.

How do I get a Raspberry Pi Zero W?

The Raspberry Pi Zero W will be available from The Pi Hut, Pimoroni, and ModMyPi in the UK, and Adafruit, Micro Center, and CanaKit in the US.

Specs for the Raspberry Pi Zero W

  • CPU: A Broadcom BCM2835 application, with a 1GHz ARM11 core
  • Memory: 512MB of LPDDR2 SDRAM
  • Storage: 1 x micro-SD card slot
  • Video out: 1 x mini-HDMI socket for 1080p60 video output (needs mini-HDMI-HDMI adapter)
  • Ports: 1 x USB On The Go port (needs USB OTG to USB adapter), micro USB port for power.
  • Expansion: An unpopulated 40-pin GPIO header with identical pinout to Model A+/B+. An unpopulated composite video header, CSI camera connector
  • Size: 65mm x 30mm x 5mm
  • Weight: 9g

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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