The original Raspberry Pi was a work of wonder: a tiny board capable of running a full desktop operating system for around $60. No wonder people were desperate to get their hands on one. Now in its third major iteration, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is faster, more flexible and set to be more popular than ever.
First, let’s be clear about how the Pi 3 differs from the $14 Pi Zero or BBC micro:bit (see opposite). Those are microcontrollers, unable to run a “proper” OS. The Raspberry Pi 3 is a true micro-computer.
The big news for the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is that there’s now built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 alongside the existing wired 10/100 Ethernet connection, which is a bonus on a number of different levels. Hobbyists and project builders will no longer need to budget for a cumbersome USB dongle or factor in extra space in their project cases, and for those using the Pi as a low-cost desktop computer, it frees up a precious USB socket.
That alone will be reason enough for most Pi enthusiasts to rush out and buy one, but there’s more. Along with the wireless improvements, the processor has been given a boost, with the Raspberry Pi 3 now featuring a 64-bit, 1.2GHz quad-core Broadcom BCM2837 SoC based on ARM’s Cortex-A53 CPU architecture. The Raspberry Pi 2’s processor was a 900MHz chip, so on paper, it’s a hefty shot in the ARM.
Graphics capabilities are still managed by the board’s VideoCore IV component, but it does run at an improved clock speed of 400MHz, 150MHz more than the Pi 2.
Other than that, it’s business as usual. The price of the Raspberry Pi 3 remains the same as the Pi 2 and the board retains the same size and roughly the same layout, so should still fit most third-party cases.
Close inspection reveals a couple of minor changes, though. The indicator LEDs have moved to the other side of the display ribbon connector, so you may have to get the Dremel out if you want to see what your Pi is doing. The Run header has also shifted location. However, all the other major connectors and headers remain in the same place.
The Pi still has four USB 2 sockets and one Ethernet socket on one end, a full-sized HDMI, micro-USB and 3.5mm audio jack on one long edge, plus a microSD slot for loading the operating system on it on the other end. Interestingly, the microSD slot is not now a mechanical push-to-eject type of slot, but a plain push-in, pull-out type.
Along the other long edge is the Pi’s GPIO header. The display ribbon connector sits at the same end as the microSD slot, and the camera input remains between the HDMI output and 3.5mm audio/RCA video output jack.
The one big disappointment is that, as with the Raspberry Pi 2, Ethernet speeds are limited to 100Mbits/sec. We can’t blame the Raspberry Pi Foundation for this though: it’s due to the limitations of the USB 2 bus, which the Ethernet port is connected to.
The easiest way to get up and running with the Raspberry Pi has always been to download the Noobs installer from the Raspberry Pi website and transfer the files to a microSD card.
That doesn’t change with the Raspberry Pi 3. Noobs is supremely easy to download and run, and provides several different options when you install: choose from the basic Raspbian through to Ubuntu, the OpenELEC Kodi-based media centre, Windows 10 IoT Core and RISC OS.
I installed the latest version of Raspbian this way and had no problem connecting to the office wireless or my own home network. Click the network icon in the top-right corner of the screen, select your network, enter your password and you’re good to go. It’s as simple as that.
Performance is surprisingly good, considering how small the wireless antenna is – a tiny oblong situated where the status LEDs used to sit on the Raspberry Pi 2. At a distance of 10m from the router, through a couple of walls, I transferred data at a rate of 12Mbits/sec, compared with 26Mbits/sec from an 802.11n laptop. Transfer rates weren’t much quicker when placed right next to the router, however; here I saw a maximum of 19Mbits/sec, compared with more than 80Mbits/sec from the laptop.
Speed and efficiency
Performance proved something of a mixed bag. In terms of outright power, it’s very similar to the Pi 2: booting into Raspbian takes a similar time to the Pi 2 at around 31 seconds, and application launch times aren’t all that different either. For example, LibreOffice Writer and Calc launch in 5-6 seconds on both devices.
Loading the Alphr.com homepage in Raspbian’s Epiphany browser showed a significant advantage for the Pi 3, though, rendering the page in 21 seconds compared with 27 seconds on the Pi 2. Don’t expect a silky-smooth experience, though. Scrolling through data-heavy websites can still be a pretty jerky affair.
It’s the same picture in the benchmarks. Running the Whetstone Pi A7 benchmarking application returned a score of 711 for the Raspberry Pi 3 to the Pi 2’s 432 – around 65% quicker.
There’s another advantage to the new processor aside from raw performance, however, and that’s power efficiency. Where the Pi 2’s processor always ran at a steady 900MHz, the Pi 3’s drops from 1.2GHz back down to 600MHz at idle, which makes a notable difference to power consumption.
The Pi 2 drew 3.2W at idle and 3.8W under load, while the Pi 3 drew 2.5W and 3.8W. That’s a significant improvement, especially if you’re planning to run your Pi 3 on battery power.
Buy some Pi
The improvements aren’t dramatic for the Pi 3, and there’s a lot more competition now than there used to be, but there’s enough here to maintain the credit-card sized computer’s reputation as the hobbyist’s development board of choice.
The built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, reduced power consumption and increased performance all add up. If you liked the Pi 2, you’ll love the Raspberry Pi 3.