We spent a week working on the Raspberry Pi 3, to see how the $35 machine matched up to laptops costing more than 10 times its price.
The Raspberry Pi 3 is a $35 computer that is on the cusp of challenging the modern PC.
The bump to the processing power of the latest machine has, according to its co-creator, elevated its performance to a point where it can comfortably be used as a desktop computer.
To determine whether the latest Pi really can go toe-to-toe with a current laptop, I spent a week using the Pi 3 as my main work machine.
The test is inherently unfair, my regular laptop - a Toshiba Portege Z30 - costs roughly 40 times the price of the Pi 3, and Pi co-creator Eben Upton was comparing the board with an 'entry-level PC' from more than six years ago.
But despite the odds being stacked against the Pi, the credit card-sized computer held its own in many respects and demonstrated just how much power it squeezes out of its budget hardware.
Getting the most from the Pi required a good deal of adjustment. The first change I had to make was to ditch most of the Google Apps I use each day.
I was running the Pi 3 with the latest version of the official Raspbian OS, and things started well. The full version of Gmail opened in the Epiphany browser and, once loaded, functioned as expected. Mail trickled in as usual, messages were relatively quick to open and Google Chat worked almost as well as it did in Chrome, with only a slight delay.
Things started to bog down when I opened Google Docs. The browser protested with a message telling me that, 'This version of Safari is no longer supported'. Docs worked and after a fashion I was able to create and edit documents. But it soon became clear it had issues.
What got to me were the pauses - individually they lasted no more than a few seconds but it was the frequency of these interruptions that started to grate. Pauses when switching to Gmail to reply to a message, pauses when switching between tabs to start typing again, pauses when scrolling a document.
Even when Google Docs was at its best, there was a very, very slight - but still noticeable - delay between hitting a key and the character appearing on screen. Everything generally worked but over time I found that these incessant tiny delays started to wear me down, enough to make me decide to stop using Docs after a series of crashes.
In an attempt to lighten the load, I tried to load Gmail using Raspbian's Claws Mail client, but was thwarted by Google, which classed Claws as an 'app that doesn't meet modern security standards'.
In some respects I'd made a rod for my own back by using Google Docs. If all you want is a good word processor, then there's no reason to use Google Docs on the Pi.
The Pi comes with the open-source LibreOffice suite - which includes a word processor, spreadsheet editor, presentation package and more. These run well on the Pi 3. After switching to LibreOffice I found the word processor, Writer, worked as smoothly as on my usual work PC - with only a slightly longer start-up time.
With Google Docs shut down, Gmail also became more responsive, to the point where I was once again quite comfortable using it.
That's not to say it worked perfectly. For example, I couldn't get the Google apps panel to appear, so instead had to right-click to open the link in a new tab. But these were minor gripes that I could live with.
More frustrating was my initial experience of browsing the web - a key task for any home or work PC.
Raspbian, the Pi's official OS, comes with the Epiphany web browser, which works well to a degree but has definite issues.
So I switched to Iceweasel, a rebranded version of Firefox that is available to download for Raspbian.
The downside is that some sites won't load with a script-blocker like NoScript, although once you've been using it for a while you learn which domains to unblock to see the content. That process will obviously be a bit too much trouble for some people but I don't mind as I've been using NoScript for a while. As time went on, I discovered a third option for better browsing, but more on that later.
At this point I was using the Pi for work reasonably happily, I could write stories, receive email and check websites - using LibreOffice, Epiphany and Iceweasel. The Pi switched between these with ease, instantly alt-tabbing from program to program.
But there were some understandable limitations compared with my normal working setup. Even after adjusting how I worked, sites were still slightly slower to load than normal. I was loath to have more than five tabs open for fear of bogging the computer down and Gmail was slightly more sluggish to use.
Also, I became mindful of not doing too much at once, learning to rein in my habit of shutting and opening multiple programs at the same time after maxing out the Pi's 1GB memory and locking up the machine.
Our in-house CMS also crashed several times when using Epiphany. That said, I felt these limitations were understandable. You shouldn't expect to be able to use a $35 computer in an identical fashion to a PC costing many times that price.
Another factor I became conscious of is wear and tear. The Pi 3 ships as a bare board but if you're using it for an extended period I feel a case is a must. I felt much happier, plugging and unplugging cables when I wasn't trying to avoid putting too much pressure on exposed components or crushing soldered contacts against the desk. The official case fits the Pi 3 snugly and feels sturdy enough to cart around in your bag.
A cloudy Pi
I pretty much rely on Google Drive and Docs to access files and documents from almost any device.
So after struggling to get Docs to work comfortably or Drive to work at all, I was ready to bemoan the loss of these services on the Pi. Luckily, there was a workaround. Chromium - the open-source browser that Chrome is based on - is reasonably straightforward to download and install using the Pi's command-line terminal.
Gmail, Docs and Drive all work pretty well in Chromium, to the extent that I switched back from to Docs from LibreOffice. LibreOffice is still more responsive than Docs, even on Chromium, but I just wanted the convenience of documents being available between devices.
And it's not like the Pi doesn't have other cloud services it can access. Even if I hadn't got Google Drive working, there are other cloud storage options - for instance, writing a simple script to sync the Pi with Dropbox.
Chromium is probably still very slightly slower than using Iceweasel with a script blocker but has the advantage of not breaking sites.
When it comes to Chromium and Iceweasel, I'd use one browser or the other. When I tried to use both side by side - with about five tabs open between them and Google Docs and Gmail running - the computer froze for a good 10 to 20 seconds as it maxed out the Pi's 1GB of memory. However, running Iceweasel and Epiphany together seemed fine.
Can you use the Pi as a work PC?
My heart says it's quite fitting that the Pi makes you put some effort into getting it to work well as a home and work PC. After all, the Pi was designed to encourage people to lift the hood on the computers they use each day and to teach them what's possible when you understand how to tweak the underlying software and hardware.
It seems right that you'll need to do some minor tinkering, especially when it only involves learning a few terminal commands, and the Pi's online forums are full of tips. Why should you expect a platform focused on fostering creativity to deliver an identical experience to more locked-down, consumer-focused devices?
However, my head says there'll be people trying to use the Pi as a PC who'll run into these issues and just think, "It's broken" or "It sucks", and not use it again.
But perhaps that's OK. That mindset is already well served by the plethora of cheap, easy-to-use phones and tablets on the market. Perhaps those people were never the Pi's intended audience.
The point is that, provided you're willing to make minor adjustments to how you work and trivial tweaks to the official Raspbian OS, then, yes, you can work from a $35 computer.
It might not be as comfortable to use as a $1,000 laptop but it's the most PC-like Pi yet, whichever way you slice it.
Check out our tips on getting the most out of using the Pi as a work machine. For more details on the Pi 3's specs check out this walkthrough and for more on the Pi 3's wi-fi and overall performance, read this article.