On paper the newly launched Raspberry Pi 3 computer roundly outperforms its predecessors.
The $35 board is powered by a smartphone processor capable of performing 10 times faster than that of the Pi 1 and around 50 percent better than that of the Pi 2.
How do these claims of performance dominance stack up? We pitted the Raspberry Pi 3 against the Raspberry Pi 2 in a variety of benchmarks and everyday tasks to see how it measured up.
Benchmarking the Pi 3
The Dhrystone benchmark measures the general performance of the CPU – focusing on how it handles calculations using integers.
The Whetstone benchmark measures another aspect of processor performance, this time how it handles floating point calculations.
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.
Sysbench is another measure of general CPU performance – here showing single-core and multi-core performance of the two boards.
To measure 3D performance we ran the first person shooter Quake III, using the standard ‘timedemo’ at 1920×1080 resolution and settings set to high geometric, maximum texture detail, 32-bit texture quality, and trilinear filtering.
The time each board took to download the 1.3GB Raspbian Jessie img file from the raspberrypi.org Downloads section. The Pi 3 appeared to take roughly the same time to download the file over wi-fi as over Ethernet. Downloads were carried out on a connection capable of up downloading files at up to 39Mbps. Also shown is how long it took to transfer the Raspbian img file from the Pi’s microSD storage to an attached 16GB USB stick. The Pi 3 also adds the ability to boot directly from USB-attached or network-attached storage, without requiring boot information on the microSD card.
Boot time appeared to be pretty much identical between the two boards – taking 19 seconds.
While compiling code into an executable program isn’t a common activity for most people, the Pi is aimed at helping people to learn about computers. Here’s how long it took to build the Quake III code from this GitHub repo.
Hardware improvements from the Pi 2 to Pi 3
The Pi 3 is based around a 64-bit processor, compared to the 32-bit CPU used in the Pi 2. The Pi 3’s processor is based on a newer architecture, the ARM Cortex A53, than that of the Pi 2’s processor, which is built around the ARM Cortex A7 core. This newer architecture is capable of carrying out more work per processor cycle. The Pi 3’s CPU is quad-core, like the Pi 2’s, but is faster – clocked at 1.2GHz, some 300 MHz higher than that of the Pi 2.
The Pi 3 uses the same VideoCore IV multimedia processor as the Pi 2 but is clocked at 400MHz, faster the 250 MHz processor in the Pi 2.
Added Wi-fi and Bluetooth support
The Pi 3 adds support for 802.11n wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.1 to the board.
Using the Pi as your home PC
As the co-creator of the board Eben Upton pointed out, the Raspberry Pi 3 is better suited to being used as a general-purpose home computer than its predecessor.
The Pi’s official Raspbian OS works with the Pi 3 and made setting up the Pi 3’s wi-fi easy. My network was found immediately and connecting required nothing more than clicking the wi-fi icon in the top right corner and entering the password. Signal strength seemed good – with the board picking up a signal everywhere in a two-storey house.
Navigating around the desktop there is very little noticeable lag. Even opening the browser, email, LibreOffice Writer, an IDE, Minecraft Pi and Mathematica together caused little noticeable slowdown and I was able to Alt-Tab immediately between running applications.
However there are obviously still limitations to what you can do with a $35 computer. The default Epiphany web browser, while perfectly comfortable and relatively swift to use, does struggle more than a typical modern laptop when displaying pages. Heavy pages with a lot of content being loaded took noticeably longer to load scripts and pages weren’t able to render rapidly enough to keep up with a fast scroll.
Video playback on YouTube at 720p is jerky on both boards – with the frame rate seemingly far enough below 30 FPS to be noticeable. However, YouTube playback is apparently smoother when using software other than Raspbian’s default Epiphany browser – so this doesn’t appear to be a hardware problem. The Raspberry Pi Foundation also says the bump to the Pi 3’s video processor enables it to handle 1080p video playback at 60 frames per second.
Of course, the point of the Pi is to encourage people to learn about how computer hardware and software works, and here the default Raspbian OS is well equipped – including IDEs for the Python and Java programming languages, as well as for simply piecing together Internet of Things appliances using Node.js. For beginners there is the drag and drop coding tool Scratch, which provides a simple introduction to programming concepts, such as assigning values to variables and control flow.
As someone who remembers a time when you needed a PC costing hundreds of dollars to even run Quake 3, it’s amazing how much computer $35 gets you in 2016.