Innovation

Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ review: A $25 computer with a lot of promise

Get the lowdown on how well the latest Raspberry Pi board performs with benchmarks and the full specs.

Next time you've got $25 to spare, you could treat your family to a Big Mac meal, put some gas in your car, or buy the new Raspberry Pi 3 A+ computer.

The fact it's no longer surprising that a computer can cost so little is testament to the Raspberry Pi's profound impact on tech pricing since the first board launched in 2012.

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ is the latest board in the multi-million selling Pi family, and brings most of the features of the $35 Raspberry Pi 3 B+ to a cheaper and smaller board.

Of course, there have been sacrifices to drive down the price — the memory has been halved, there's no Gigabit Ethernet, and only a single USB 2.0 port.

But the Pi 3 A+ is still a massive leap forward from the previous $20 Raspberry Pi A+, which was launched back in 2014 and was based on the same single-core processor used in the very first Pi.

SEE: Hardware spotlight: The Raspberry Pi (Tech Pro Research)

The Pi 3 A+'s processor has benchmarked ten times faster than one used in the original A+. Yet the biggest advantage of the A+ over its predecessor is connectivity. While the original A+ had no wired or wireless connectivity, the Pi 3 A+ offers the same fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 found in the B+, making it far simpler to get data on and off the board.

What does this mean in practice? It means you get a smaller, more power efficient, and only slightly less capable version of Pi B+ at a lower price. However, the compromises made to drive down the cost also mean the A+ isn't quite as good as an everyday computer as the B+.

Everyday use

The good news is that A+ is still useful for a bit of light web browsing and the official Raspbian operating system is still snappy and responsive.

Wi-Fi speeds were faster than on the 3 B+ and websites like TechRepublic and The Guardian loaded surprisingly quickly when only a couple of sites were open in the default Chromium browser. If you're conservative about how many tabs you run, then browsing the web is comparable to the B+, and not significantly worse than on a modern PC.

However, things started to go wrong as soon as I started to test some heavier tasks in the browser. Gmail worked, remaining useable despite frequent pauses when loading emails. But other web apps were particularly troublesome. Google Docs and Drive wouldn't run, with Drive hanging after a long loading time and Docs not even loading before it froze the browser.

If you're looking to use the A+ as a media player its performance is mixed. Video playback from the web was worse than most people will be used to. The 720p trailer of The Hobbit on YouTube started playing but was constantly stuttering and getting stuck, to the extent it couldn't really be described as watchable. Lowering the resolution to 480p smoothed out the playback, however, so if you're happy with standard definition video this may be acceptable. This contrasts with the B+, which handled playback of 1080p YouTube video without issue on release.

SEE: More Raspberry Pi coverage (TechRepublic Flipboard magazine)

Happily, the A+ plays local video without complaint, playing a 1920 x 1080 resolution .mov video captured on an iPhone 5S at a smooth frame rate. Make sure to use Raspbian's default OMXPlayer for video, however, as VLC seemed very jerky by comparison.

Overall, the Pi 3 A+ isn't as comfortable to use as an everyday computer as the B+, as the more modest hardware undercuts its abilities as a general-purpose work or leisure machine.

Using the Pi 3 A+ also requires more of an adjustment for your average PC user than the B+. A case in point is data transfer. Without a Bluetooth keyboard and with only a single USB port I was initially a bit stumped at how to copy a file from a USB stick, given I needed to use the A+'s single USB port for my keyboard.

The answer, of course, was to remotely access the Pi. This is hardly difficult, and there is a wealth of information out there about how to use Windows clients such as PuTTY and Filezilla to access the Pi from a Windows machine. But it's worth mentioning there is a slight learning curve compared to the B+, where you can simply plug in a USB stick and transfer files using the Raspbian desktop.

Building hardware

All that being said, the A+ was never really designed to be used as an everyday computer, with its smaller size and lower power consumption making it more of a board for building homemade, possibly battery-powered, electronic hardware.

Like the B+ and most of the Pi family, the A+ comes with a 40-pin GPIO header, which can be used to connect the Pi to sensors, motors, and other boards that expand its capabilities. Thanks to Pi 3 A+ being the same size as the Pi 1 A+, HAT expansion boards for the first-generation A+ will also fit the new board, and it should be possible to swap out the old A+ for the new board in most existing hardware projects. And having fast wireless connectivity built into the Pi 3 A+ makes it an even more attractive for creating DIY gadgets. One slight disadvantage if you're thinking of building a battery-powered appliance using the Pi 3 A+ is its higher power consumption. Testing of the A+ by Gareth Halfacree for the official Raspberry Pi publication, The MagPi Magazine, found the Pi 3A+ consumed 1.13W idle and 4.1W under load, which is significantly less than the Pi 3 B+ but noticeably more than Pi 1 A+.

Outside of any shortcomings as a desktop PC, benchmarks showed the A+'s fundamental specs to be robust, with the CPU matching the B+'s performance in many tests and the GPU proving adept at handling 3D graphics, delivering a comparable framerate to the B+ in the Quake 3 benchmark.

As is the case on the B+, the A+'s default Raspbian OS distinguishes itself from other OSes through its bundled educational tools. The Pi was conceived as a way of encouraging children to learn how hardware and software works, and the OS is loaded with software for learning and practicing programming — including IDEs for the Java and Python programming languages, and for controlling Internet of Things appliances using Node.js JavaScript. For beginners, the drag-and-drop coding tool Scratch introduces simple programming concepts, and Minecraft Pi Edition allows players to manipulate the game by writing scripts.

It's true the Pi is not the only game in town and there are single-board computers on the horizon that promise faster, more modern specs for just under $40 or some of the same specs for just $15. But these are just aspirations at present. The Pi 3 A+ is here today, and comes from an organization with a stellar track record for delivering computers with a wide range of stable operating systems and software, more than can be said for the vast majority of rival Pi boards.

While the Pi 3 A+ isn't designed to be a desktop PC replacement, it's a welcome addition to the family of low-cost boards, offering many of the advantages of the Pi 3 B+ at a lower price and a more powerful A+ for those who want a smaller, less power-hungry Pi without sacrificing the specs.

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ is available now for $25 from usual online retailers, including RS Components, CPC, RS, Pi Hut, ModMyPi, Pi Supply and Pimoroni in the UK; and Micro Center, element14, Allied, Adafruit, Canakit, PiShop.us and Chicago Electronic Distributors in the US.

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The Raspberry Pi 3 A is smaller and cheaper than the Pi 3 B .

Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

How the Pi 3 A+ compares to the Pi 3 B+

Same processor clocked at the same speed

The Pi 3 A+ has the same 1.4GHz quad-core, Arm Cortex A53-based processor.

Same wireless connectivity

The A+ offers the same 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2.

Half the memory

The A+ only has 512MB of DDR2 memory, compared to 1GB of DDR2 memory in the Pi 3 B+.

No Ethernet

The A+ is missing the B+'s gigabit Ethernet port.

Fewer USB ports

The A+ only has a single USB 2.0 port, compared to the four on the Pi 3 B+.

Smaller size

The A+ is 65mm × 56.5mm — the same size as the first-generation Raspberry Pi A+ — while the B+ is 85.6mm × 56.5mm.

How does the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ perform relative to other Pi boards?

General performance

The Dhrystone benchmark measures the general CPU performance, focusing on calculations using integers.

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

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Used in supercomputer testing, the Linpack benchmark also measures how rapidly a machine can handle floating point calculations.

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As in all of the above CPU tests, the A+ performed at a similar level to the B+.

Sysbench is another measure of general CPU performance - here showing single-core and multi-core performance of the two boards.

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One interesting deviation was the B+ seemed to offer very slightly quicker quad-core performance in Sysbench.

While compiling code into an executable program isn't a common activity for the average user, the Pi is aimed at helping people to learn about software development. Here's how long it took to build the Quake III code from this GitHub repo.

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Compile time for Quake III was noticeably slower than the Pi 3 B+, and even marginally slower than the older Raspberry Pi 3 Model B.

Connectivity

This iPerf benchmark measures the speed at which data is transferred between two computers, in this case between an Ethernet-wired PC and various models of Pi. These figures are a guide rather than absolute measures, since network speed can be affected by many factors.

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The A+ delivered similar speeds to the B+ in the 2.4GHz band but continually offered more throughput than the B+ in the 5GHz band. These variations were probably a quirk of testing and should probably be taken as an indication of comparable Wi-Fi speeds between the boards, but I was unable to get similar results from the B+ at 5GHz.

Web browsing

The Octane benchmark provides an idea of how the Chromium browser in the Pi's default Raspbian OS handles JavaScript, the default scripting language of the web. If your browser is slow at JavaScript, it's slow full-stop.

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While not as fast at the B+, the A+ still offered a perfectly respectable score, that also highlights the improvements of the Chromium browser used by the Pi 3 A+ and B+ over the Epiphany browser the Pi 3 Model B launched with.

3D graphics

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.

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Performance was good, with the lower memory only seeing the A+ drop a couple of frames compared to the B+.

Data transfer

Shown is how long it took to transfer a 1.3GB Raspbian img file from the Pi's microSD storage to an attached 16GB USB stick.

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Interestingly, the A+ seemed to transfer the file more rapidly than the B+.

Specs

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Read more about the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+

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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