RPi4: Now Overclocked, Net-Booted, And Power-Sipping

It has now been a few months since the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4, and it would only be fair to describe the launch as “rocky”. While significantly faster than the Pi 3 on paper, its propensity for overheating would end up throttling down the CPU clock even with the plethora of aftermarket heatsinks and fans. The¬†Raspberry Pi folks have been working on solutions to these teething troubles, and they have now released a bunch of updates in the form of a new bootloader, that lets the Pi 4 live up to its promise. (UPDATE: Here’s the download page and release notes)

The real meat of the update comes in an implementation of a low power mode for the USB hub. It turns out that the main source of heat on the SoC wasn’t the CPU, but the USB. Fixing the USB power consumption means that you can run the processor cool at stock speeds, and it can even be overclocked now.

There is also a new tool for updating the Pi bootloader, rpi-eeprom, that allows automatic updates for Pi 4 owners. The big change is that booting the Pi 4 over the network or an attached USB device is now a possibility, which is a must if you’re installing the Pi permanently. There are some fixes that caused problems with certain HATs, in which the Pi 4’s 3.3 V line was cycled during a reboot.

With a device as complex as a Raspberry Pi it comes as no surprise that it might ship with a few teething troubles. We’ve already covered some surrounding the USB-C power, for example. And the overheating. Where the Pi people consistently deliver though is in terms of support, both official and from the community, and we’re very pleased to see them come through in this case too.

Is 4 GB The Limit For The Raspberry Pi 4?

So you’ve rushed off to your favourite dealer in Raspberry Pi goodies and secured your shiny new Raspberry Pi 4. Maybe you’re anxiously waiting for the postie, or perhaps if you’re lucky enough to live near Cambridge you simply strolled into the Pi shop and bought one over the counter. You’ve got the best of the lot, the 4 GB model, and there’s nothing like the feeling of having the newest toy before everyone else does.

A scan of the Pi 4 user guide, with a tantalising 8GB at the bottom.
A scan of the Pi 4 user guide, with a tantalising 8GB at the bottom.

You open the box, pull out the Pi, and get busy. The instruction leaflet flutters to the floor, ignored and forgotten. If you’re our tipster [Eric van Zandvoort] though, you read it, notice something unexpected, and send a scan to your friends at Hackaday. Because there at the top, in the regulatory compliance information that nobody reads, is the following text:

Product name: Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 1 GB, 2 GB, 4 GB + 8 GB variants.

It’s not the lack of an Oxford comma that caught his eye, but the tantalising mention of an 8 GB Raspberry Pi 4. Could we one day see an extra model in the range with twice the memory? It would be nice to think so.

There are a couple of inevitable reactions when a new product comes out. First, everyone who has just bought the previous one will be upset, and second there will always be a group of people who say “Ah, don’t buy this one, wait for the super-duper upgrade model!” We’d like to suggest to anyone tempted into the latter group that this news should be no reason not to buy a Raspberry Pi 4 at the moment, because the prospect of an 8 GB variant should come as a shock to nobody.

It makes absolute sense that the Pi people will have equipped their SoC with as much address space as they can get into it, and equally as much sense that they will have fitted the final products with whatever memory chips keep it within their target price point. If you cast your mind back you’ll know that this isn’t the first time this has happened, early boards were shipped with 256 MB of RAM but later upgraded to 512 MB as the economics made it possible. Those with extreme knowledge of Pi trivia will also know that the original Model A was announced with 128 MB and released with 256 MB for the same reason.

There’s another question, would 8 GB make that much difference? The answer depends upon what you are doing with your Pi 4, but it’s worth remembering that this is no high-end workstation but a single-board computer with a stripped-down Linux distro for experimenters. You may be disappointed if you are pushing the limits of computational endeavour, but the majority of users will not be taxing Raspbian on the 4 GB model even if they install Chromium and open up all their favourite bloated social media sites. Perhaps we’ve become conditioned by the excessive demands of Windows on an x86 platform and forgotten just how powerful our computers really are. After all, as the apocryphal Bill Gates quote has it, “640k should be enough for anyone“, right?

We can look forward to an 8 GB Pi 4 then at some point in the future. We’d put our money on next year, since 2020 is a leap year and 2020-02-29 will be the Pi’s 2nd 8th birthday, it wouldn’t stretch the imagination to speculate around that date. But don’t bet on it, save your money for buying a 4 GB Pi 4 right now.