What’s the Raspberry Pi Zero?

At a cost of just $5, it’s one of the cheapest computers available for tinkerers to hack themselves together a gadget or a simple PC.

Surely it can’t do much at that price?

Actually it’s a little bit more capable than the original Raspberry Pi Model B that launched back in 2012 for $35.

Although it’s got the same single-core, ARM-based processor as the first gen Model B, it’s slightly faster, with the clock speed bumped up to 1GHz. The system memory remains the same, with 512MB of DDR2 SDRAM.

What does that mean in practice?

It means the Zero will run a desktop PC OS slightly better than the first generation Raspberry Pi boards.

That bump to the processor speed seems to make a difference, with the new board reportedly nippier than the first generation Pi boards both on the Raspbian OS desktop and when booting up.

However performance is obviously below that of the more expensive Pi 2 Model B, the recently released board which has double the memory and a newer quad-core processor.

Unsurprisingly benchmarks of the Zero have found it to be several times slower than the Pi 2 Model B.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that navigating the Raspbian OS on the Zero will likely feel slow to anyone used to the speed of a modern laptop – understandable given the gulf in price.

There’ve got to be some drawbacks

As you would expect for a board that costs less than a burger and fries, the board is not as fully featured as its more expensive brothers and sisters.

The Zero is just a board with no case and because it’s a fairly bare bones package, you’ll probably need to shell out for a few extra bits to get up and running.

The base board only has one Micro USB port for connecting USB devices like mouse and keyboard via an adapter. It’s also missing Ethernet and Wi-Fi support for internet connectivity and the composite video / stereo audio connection, CSI Camera connector and DSI Display connector found on other Pi boards are gone.

My colleague J A Watson at ZDNet estimates 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), a micro-USB adapter and USB hub for connecting a keyboard, mouse and Wi-Fi adapter, and a 5v micro-USB power supply.

Of course, there’s a chance you may have some of this kit to spare but if you don’t these extras will likely cost more than the board.

What can I run on it?

The Pi will run a plethora of operating systems. In the three years since the launch of the Raspberry Pi a wealth of software has been made available and there is 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, the media centers openElec and OSMC, and Risc OS.

The default choice for most who want to run the Pi as a computer is Raspbian, the official operating system of the Pi. Raspbian is a custom-version of Debian that has been optimized to run on the Pi’s hardware and includes an office suite, programming tools, educational offerings 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”.

Is it just a cut-price desktop?

No, not at all, the better choice if you want to run a Pi as a desktop computer, and don’t mind the small additional expense, is probably the more powerful Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The Pi Zero is probably better suited to being packed into a standalone automated appliance, such as a weather station, where space is at a premium or low power consumption is needed.

The Zero drains little energy, with an average consumption of just 2.7W compared to 3.5W for the Pi 2 according to one benchmark. It’s 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 a range of hardware, however it requires a bit more effort to get started. While the Zero doesn’t include the 40 general-purpose input output (GPIO) pins of the other Pi models, they can be added to board.

The latest release of the Raspbian OS includes support for IBM’s NodeRED, which allows users to build Internet of Things software using a drag and drop GUI. As mentioned however, the base board has no network connectivity.

Why make the Raspberry Pi cheaper?

“Of all the things we do at Raspberry Pi, driving down the cost of computer hardware remains one of the most important”, said Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton, on the release of the Pi Zero.

The Foundation’s mission is to encourage children to learn about coding and 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 seven million of the boards selling since the launch in 2012.

Where can I get a Pi Zero?

That’s a good question. Unfortunately the board is currently sold out at all online stockists. Although 2,000 Zeros a day are being made at present they seem to be selling out as soon as stores are restocked.

However it’s worth checking The Pi Hut and Pimoroni if you’re in the UK, and Adafruit or in Micro Center stores in the US, to see if you can nab one when they go back on sale.