The folks at Raspberry Pi are riding on a bit of a wave at the moment, with the launch of the Pi 5 with its PCIe and RP1 peripheral chip, the huge success of the RP2040 microcontroller, and the supply chain issues that dogged the Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 during and after the pandemic finally working themselves out. But as always there are plenty of would-be competitors snapping at their heels, so [Jeff Geerling] has posed the question of what it takes to make a Raspberry Pi killer. He’s in a good position to do this, as he’s amassed an impressive collection of every competing Compute Module board.
It’s a well-observed analysis of the world of small Linux SBCs, on hardware, software, community, and price, and we find ourselves pretty much in agreement with it. The Pi hardware has quirks and is rarely the best on paper when compared to the competition, but they win hands-down on distribution support and community. In a sense what you really buy when you get a PI is this, because Raspberry Pi OS will run on it for the reasonable future. Rival makers would do well to read his piece, because we sense that if one of them tried to give the Pi a run for its money away from the hardware it would make for a much better SBC ecosystem. Take a look at his Compute Module comparison below the break.
If we wanted to point to an epoch-making moment for our community, we’d take you back to February 29th, 2012. It was that day on which a small outfit in Cambridge put on the market the first batch of their new product. That outfit was what would become the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and the product was a run of 10,000 Chinese made versions of their very first single board computer, the Raspberry Pi Model B. With its BCM2835 SoC and 512 megabytes of memory it might not have been the first board that could run a Linux distribution from an SD card, but it was certainly the first that did so for pocket money prices. On that morning back in 2012 the unforseen demand for the new board brought down the websites of both the electronics distributors putting it on sale, and a now-legendary product was born. We’re now on version 4 of the Model B with specs upgraded in almost every sense, and something closer to the original can still be bought in the form of its svelte stablemate, the Pi Zero.
How Do You Evolve Without Casualties?
The problem with having spawned such a successful product line is this: with so many competitors and copies snapping at your heels, how do you improve upon it? It’s fair to say that sometimes its competitors have produced more capable hardware than the Pi of the moment, but they do so without the board from Cambridge’s ace in the hole: its uniquely well-supported Linux distribution, Raspberry Pi OS. It’s that combination of a powerful board and an operating system with the minimum of shocks and surprises that still makes the Pi the one to go for after all these years.
Those of us who have followed the Raspberry Pi over the years will be familiar with the various revisions of the little board, with their consequent new processors. What may be less obvious is that within the lifetime of any chip there will often be minor version changes, usually to fix bugs or to fine-tune production processes. They’re the same chip, but sometimes with a few extra capabilities. [Jeff Geerling] didn’t miss this when the Raspberry Pi 400 had a BCM2711 with a newer version number than that on the Pi 4, and now he’s notices the same chip on Pi 4 boards.
Why might they run two different revisions of the chip in parallel? It seems that the update changes the amount of memory addressable by the eMMC and the PCIe bus, the former could only see the first 1GB and the latter the first 3Gb. For the lower-spec Pi 4 boards this doesn’t present a problem, but for those with 8 gigabytes of memory it could clearly be an issue. Thus the Pi 400 and the top spec Pi 4 now have a newer BCM2711 version. This will almost certainly pass unnoticed for the average Raspberry Pi OS user, but the extra memory addressing space should be of interest for hardware experimenters wishing to expose that PCIe bus and talk to peripherals such as a GPU. That said, though he suggests the Compute Module 4 has the newer revision, his own experiments were unsuccessful.
[Editor’s Note: our own overclocking experiments show the C-version SOCs to run cooler/faster than their B counterparts, so it’s nice to have the better chips in the “normal” Pi form factor and not just the Pi 400 and compute modules.]
If you’ve ever pushed the needle a bit on your Raspberry Pi, there’s a good chance you’ve been visited by the dreaded lightning bolt icon. When it pops up on the corner of the screen, it’s a warning that the input voltage is dipping into the danger zone. If you see this symbol often, the usual recommendation is to get a higher capacity power supply. But experienced Pi wranglers will know that the board can still be skittish.
Sick of seeing this icon during his MAME sessions, [Majenko] decided to attack the problem directly by taking a close look at the power supply circuitry of the Pi 4. While the official schematics for everyone’s favorite single-board computer are unfortunately incomplete, he was still able to identify a few components that struck him as a bit odd. While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend you rush out and make these same modifications to your own board, the early results are certainly promising.
The first potential culprit [Majenko] found was a 10 ohm resistor on the 5 V line. He figured this part alone would have a greater impact on the system voltage than a dodgy USB cable would. The components aren’t labeled on the Pi’s PCB, but with a little poking of the multimeter he was able to track down the 0402 component and replace it with a tiny piece of wire. He powered up the Pi and ran a few games to test the fix, and while he definitely got fewer low-voltage warnings, there was still the occasional brownout.
Going back to the schematic, he noticed there was a 10 uF capacitor on the same line as the resistor. What if he bumped that up a bit? The USB specifications say that’s the maximum capacitive load for a downstream device, but he reasoned that’s really only a problem for people trying to power the Pi from their computer’s USB port.
Tacking a 470 uF electrolytic capacitor to the existing SMD part might look a little funny, but after the installation, [Majenko] reports there hasn’t been a single low-voltage warning. He wonders if the addition of the larger capacitor might make removing the resistor unnecessary, but since he doesn’t want to mess with a good thing, that determination will be left as an exercise for the reader.
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.
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.
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.