The Raspberry Pi is the little computer that could.
Selling for just $35, the UK-made machine has become something of a phenomenon, selling close to 18 million boards since the first Pi was released in 2012.
SEE: The best alternatives to the Raspberry Pi (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Today sees the release of the most capable Pi yet, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. The B+ takes the 2016 Pi 3 Model B and ups the processing power and Wi-Fi speeds, alongside some other minor tweaks — all of which are outlined in detail below.
First impressions of the B+ are great. On launch, using a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ with the official Raspbian OS offers a noticeably better experience than using a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B was on day one, partly as a result of the B+'s extra power, but also because of improvements to the Raspbian OS in the intervening years.
In testing — listed at the bottom of the review — the boost to processing power was evident across the board — from better performance in benchmarks to the faster data transfer when copying from USB. Another bonus is the board's co-creator Eben Upton says that the processor should be less likely to throttle its performance under heavy load — due to a heatspreader on top of the CPU. For me, the only tests that failed to show off the board's capabilities were those measuring wired and wireless connectivity — with the B+ not really distinguishing itself from the base Raspberry Pi 3 despite its superior specs.
The Pi's official Raspbian OS is snappy and simple to use — booting to a windowed desktop with a corner menu that should look familiar to anyone who's used a PC in the past 20 years. Wi-Fi and wired internet connected without issue and software is bundled for everyday uses — from the Chromium web browser to the LibreOffice suite.
While there was a slight delay when loading heavier web pages that use a lot of scripts or video, I found delays to be minor and nothing that really interfered with my ability to browse those sites. The only anomaly I noticed was that some autoplaying videos didn't seem to load, although this may be a plus in many people's eyes.
SEE: Hardware spotlight: The Raspberry Pi (Tech Pro Research)
When it came to work, Gmail and Google Docs loaded in the Chromium browser without issue, with only a very slight delay in opening messages compared to a modern PC.
For streaming video, after updating the OS I found YouTube playback of video at 1080 resolution and below to be smooth. The Pi seemed to struggle with the higher bitrate required for 720 and 1080 streams at 60 frames per second. However, the video wasn't jerky, instead playing smoothly in chunks of a few seconds before buffering to load in the next section, so uninterrupted smooth playback might be possible with a few tweaks. Similarly 3D gaming performance is solid in older titles like Quake III, although pretty much the same as offered by the vanilla Pi 3.
The OS itself is very responsive, rapidly opening menus and software and moving and resizing windows without any noticeable lag.
The impression is of a computer that comes admirably close to offering a comparable experience to using a modern PC at a fraction of the price. Of course, opening a stack of browser tabs and alt-tabbing between multiple applications risks overloading the Pi's 1GB of memory, and this isn't a machine for heavy photo or video editing, but if you're sensible about how you use the Pi it's not going to get in your way.
That said, each person's tolerance differs, and many of us have been somewhat spoiled by the responsiveness of modern PCs, so it could be that over time even the trivial delays you will experience when browsing the web using the Pi 3 B+ would start to wear your patience down. For the short time I was using the Pi however, I found it to be relatively painless, and certainly better than earlier releases of the board.
Where Raspbian sets itself apart from competing OSes is in its bundled educational tools. The point of the Pi is to encourage people to learn about how hardware and software works, and it doesn't disappoint. The OS is stocked with software for learning and practicing programming — including IDEs for the Python and Java programming languages, and for piecing together Internet of Things appliances using Node.js. For those who want to tinker with making their own gadgets the Pi 3 B+, like its predecessors, offers a 40-pin header, including 26 general-purpose input output (GPIO) pins, which provide a way for the Pi to be hooked to and interact with other electronics like sensors, lights, motors and other boards. 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, and Minecraft Pi Edition, which allows user-written scripts to be used to manipulate the game.
As a package, the Pi 3 B+ is pretty remarkable. Yes, it may not be vastly different to the Pi 3 on paper but the combined effect of the tweaks to the hardware and improvements to the official Raspbian OS over the years is delivering a computer that feels like it could cost several times the price tag. That's without mentioning the Pi's ace in the hole: the plethora of operating systems, software, tutorials, projects, and hardware add-ons that are available for the family of boards.
It all adds up to a remarkably versatile computer that also serves as a decent PC, all for less than the cost of a tank of gas. The amount of bang you get for your buck in 2018 is pretty amazing, and what's even more impressive is that it's only going to get better.
Hardware improvements from the Pi 3 to Pi 3 B+
The Pi 3 Model B+ is based on the same quad-core, 64-bit processor, as the Pi 3 Model B. Like the Model B, the B+'s is based on a Arm Cortex A53 architecture.
However, the B+ ups the speed of the CPU to 1.4GHz from 1.2GHz in the original Model B, an increase of 16.7%.
While the original Model B only supported 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, the Model B+ has a dual-band wireless antenna, supporting 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi.
The 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi has been found to be capable of about 100 Mb/s throughput in testing, more than double that of the 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi found on the Pi 3 Model B. That said I was unable to achieve a significant improvement in throughput in my tests below.
The B+ also offers support for Bluetooth 4.2, an improvement over the 4.1 support found in the Pi 3 Model B.
Faster wired Ethernet
On top of the Wi-Fi upgrade, the wired internet also has a speed bump, courtesy of the board's new Gigabit Ethernet over USB 2.0 bridge, which ups the maximum throughput to about 300Mbps.
Another plus for those using the Pi with a wired Ethernet connection is the inclusion of support for a Power Over Ethernet [POE] Hardware Attached on Top [HAT] board, which will add the ability for the Ethernet cable to power the board.
How does the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ compare to earlier Pi boards?
Sysbench is another measure of general CPU performance — here showing single-core and multi-core performance of various generations of Pi boards.
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.
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.
This iPerf benchmark measures the speed of data transfer between two computers, in this case between an Ethernet-wired Ubuntu laptop and a Pi 3 Model B+, a Wi-Fi connected Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and Pi Zero W, as well as an Ethernet-linked Pi 1. 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.
In these tests I was unable to achieve the sorts of data throughput the B+ should achieve on paper and if I'm able to resolve these issues I'll update the review.
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.
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.
Raspberry Pi 3 B+ specs
Read more about the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
- Raspberry Pi 3 B+: Co-creator Eben Upton reveals all about the new board
- Everything you need to know about the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+: A guide to the fastest Pi yet
- Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+: See all the new features on the board
- Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+: A guided tour of the new board
- How to set up your Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
- Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+: An insider's guide (free PDF)
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.