Raspberry Pi 4 Model B Desktop Kit Test: Homebrew Hacking
"The Raspberry Pi 4 is the most powerful Pi ever made, and a fantastic, affordable PC."
Stronger than any Pi before
Standalone Pi PCB is very affordable
The desktop kit has everything you need
Becomes hot under load
High definition video can be choppy
The first computer I ever saw, touched, and probably tasted given my age, was the BBC Micro. By today's standards, it was a huge computer system, but still a transformative device. His focus on homebrew hacking inspired the original Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and these roots can be felt in the latest Pi that just comes out of the oven: the Rapsberry Pi 4 Model B.
This small machine is faster, more powerful and offers a wider range of functions and countless optional extras. That includes up to 4 GB of RAM – four times more than any Pi before. You can now buy one all by yourself since the original Pi was sold, or as part of the desktop kit that contains everything you need to build a pint-sized desktop computer. It even comes with a mouse, keyboard, and instructions for beginners.
Getting started couldn't be easier
One of the main reasons why people loveis how affordable and customizable it is. If you have a project in mind and are already familiar with the Linux terminal, you are well suited for the independent Pi 4.
The desktop kit was developed for a different target group. It was developed for lay people like me who only dealt with Linux and are afraid of the idea of procuring a USB-C cable without a brand. The kit contains everything you need. This includes a beginner's guide that is very well illustrated. It even shows you how to connect the HDMI cables.
The Pi 4 only takes a few minutes to get started. Thanks to the included keyboard and mouse, you don't have to search for accessories to control it. You just plug everything in as instructed, plug it into a display, and before you know it, take a look at an inviting-looking desktop with icons familiar to any experienced Windows or MacOS user. The network options include ready-to-use WiFi – no dongle required – or you can use the Gigabit Ethernet connection.
The software setup takes a little longer, but the on-screen wizard guides you through everything you need to know or convey before you get straight into the desktop environment and have the opportunity to do whatever you want.
Find out what you want to do
This is the moment in the sandbox role-playing game when you want to find out why you are playing the game at all. If you want a desktop replacement, this may be the end of your adventure with the Pi 4 as it works very well in every way.
You can watch YouTube with just a small chop at 1080p (or beyond, thanks to the new 4K support, although this doesn't work smoothly at all), write or edit text and other documents with the LibreOffice already installed, or browse social media and other countries other websites that use the Chromium browser.
Editing the pictures of this review on the Pi 4 was not as fast as on my desktop, but it was quite possible.
It's not a super-fast experience if you're used to a regular desktop or midrange laptop, but it's far from slow and there are a variety of recommended programs that you can easily install by going through the Raspbian menu when You need to expand your software options. The beginner's guide also offers you numerous documentation that you can use with one of these integrated tools. The broader Pi community has a variety of resources for anything that isn't covered.
Thanks to the integrated graphics chip in the Pi 4, this system is more powerful than ever (detailed benchmarks of the author of the beginner's guide here) and more than able to play classic games. You need to go through a few steps and learn how to compile, but Doom ran within an hour after playing around with online steps and tutorials.
However, if you are interested in learning and creating your own scripts and software with the Pi4, this is where your adventure really takes place. The standard installation of Raspbian Linux comes with the Scratch 2 editor, so you can dive straight into a visual programming language to learn the basics of coding in an easy to understand way. The Beginner's Guide also contains pages by page with tutorials and tips to guide you through creating your own scripts, from the first time "Hello World" to creating basic games.
If you've gone beyond scratch or just want to get familiar with text-based coding, the Thonny Python IDE is already installed and ready to deal with them. As you might expect at this point, the Beginner's Guide has everything you need to guide you through the process.
The Pi 4 really shines here because it not only offers you an incredibly affordable entry into this type of educational environment, but also opens up whole worlds of possibilities. Once you've learned the ropes, you can choose a project and dive as deep as you want.
My special project during my time with the Pi 4 was trying to tackle one of the most well-known problems: it is getting hot. A disadvantage of the additional performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 compared to its predecessors and to a lesser extent compared to the previous Pis is that it makes the system much hotter.
The Raspberry Pi 4 does not have its own cooling system and can be roasted in the compact areas of its small housing. The Raspberry Pi Foundation did what many modern designers do and implemented thermal throttling so the SoC never gets too hot. However, if you exceed 80 degrees, you may notice a sharp drop in performance. I've seen a drop from the 1.5 GHz standard boost clock to less than 1 GHz in some cases.
The Pi has some commands that allow you to view the temperature and clock rate of the system at any time. However, this is not good for monitoring. So I wrote a little script to spit out these readings once per second. There are many surveillance scripts, but I've decided to write my own.
I ran the Sysbench benchmark to run the SoC hard with all four threads, and after a couple of runs, the clock speed certainly dropped by almost 50 percent. That simply does not work. To fix this, I added a replacement heatsink to the Pi SoC (and later memory module) that I had from a previous project. My reward was more thermal headroom. Hours of doom sessions didn't push it to the limit.
An advantage is that the Pi 4 can take active cooling if you want to use it in high-performance mode for a long time. Usually, such a problem seems unacceptable. The excuse for the Pi 4 is its low price and wide range of customization options.
I found something I wanted to work on with this little project, learned to write a little code, and conjured up a Hodgepodge solution for what I had lying around at home. The Pi 4 would not stop working without this help, but it would be a little less useful for what I wanted to do. The same applies to many other uses. You can use the Pi 4 as a media server, as a hub for home security or as the brain of a self-made robot. The Pi 4 is not perfect for such jobs. But that's the point.
The best Pi so far
The Raspberry Pi 4 is different for everyone. For some, it's a low-cost desktop replacement that you can take anywhere. For others, the Raspberry Pi is a craft toy. It is a teaching tool. A homebrew hacker's hobby horse. It's an on-board entertainment system, an electric skateboard, or a great retro console. The Raspberry Pi 4 is everything you make of it.
You don't need the Pi 4 to do this, but it is certainly the most powerful of those offered by the Pi Foundation. It supports two 4K monitors, has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, a Gigabit Ethernet network, and two USB 3.0 ports for faster and more comprehensive connectivity than ever before.
It gets hot and there is some software that is not yet configured for the Pi 4, but that is not something that cannot be resolved over time and a few heat sinks. The real strength of the Pi 4 is not what it can do right away, but what you can make of it.
The Raspberry Pi 4 is a fantastic little system that opens up a world of possibilities to those who use it. The Desktop Kit is a fantastic starting point for anyone who wants to deal with programming. From there, the sky is really the limit as the hardware doesn't hold you back much.
The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B is the most powerful and versatile of all previous Pi, and the desktop kit makes the entire setup as easy as possible. You have to pay a lot more for the entire kit than for the standalone Pi. However, if you are thinking about where to start with such a miniature computer, this is a good place to start.
Are there alternatives?
There are many. The Pi 4 Model B is the most powerful model, but there are countless other options. If you don't need all that energy, you can always buy first, second, or third generation raspberry pis. Or there is the Pi Zero, which is awesome barebones, but only $ 5. Outside of the Pi Foundation there is also the BBC micro: bit, a single board system made by the company behind the original BBC Micro, or the Onion Omega2Plus, which is smaller than anything else out there.
How long it will take?
Years if you treat it properly. The Pi 4 will no doubt be replaced by a more powerful version in the coming years. However, if you don't exceed the limits of a Mini PC's capabilities, you won't need much more. The Pi 4 Model B is already a powerful desktop replacement and can handle any project you throw at it. However, improving the cooling extends the life of the components.
Should you buy it
If you are looking for a homebrew computer project, this Raspberry Pi 4 is a good buy. It's also a decent desktop replacement that resembles the Mac Mini, just a lot smaller and a lot cheaper. It takes some effort to get things going the way you want, but that's half the fun.
If you already know what you're doing, just buy a standalone Pi. However, if you want to hold a little hand while getting your new mini PC under control, the desktop kit is a good place to start.