There is a new board in town, the Raspberry Pi 4.
It is a quad core A72 based board. Keep in mind that the A72 is a much faster core, but does not have the heat reduction design of the A73. When in doubt, the A73 will always be a better choice; but so far it is only in higher end SBCs. (Single Board Computers). For the A72, heat management will matter.
It also comes in your choice of 1 GB, 2 GB, or 4 GB of memory. My experience on the Pi M3 has shown it is workable with just 1 GB, but once you run a browser and start opening tabs, you will roll memory to swap space pretty quick and find yourself using at least 1.5 GB of total space. I’d set my lower bound for the Pi M4 at 2 GB and would really really prefer the 4 GB board. Over time, operating systems just get fatter and browsers get fatter at an even greater rate. Even if you are happy with 2 GB today, in a year or two it will start to be “small”. Yes, this isn’t Pi M4 specific, just general observation, but it does hold.
The addition of USB 3.0 ports is very welcome, but more welcome is the upgrade to the internal data paths to allow full speed on the USB ports (and, one presumes, on the Gigabit Ethernet too… but testing both at full load at the same time would be enlightening on just how much they improved things.)
Also in the “mixed bag” department is the move from micro-USB for power to USB-C for power. It is a larger connector so (at last…) you can push enough power through it to run some added USB devices. No longer will I need to buy a $25 USB powered hub just to plug a USB hard disk into my $35 Raspberry Pi… HOWEVER, this also means that if, like me, you have a half dozen “Raspberry Pi Power Supplies”, they are all useless for this board. You get to buy “yet another incompatible power supply”… Ya-I-PSU…
Similarly, your HDMI cable is wasted. You need to go get a Micro-HDMI cable (or an adapter). But, you do get dual monitor support.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation folks continue to produce Raspbian as 32 bit mode only, so IF you run the most supported and likely to work for everything software, you are also throwing away 1/2 your word size, math precision, use of GPU for math in sysbench benchmarks, and more. IF you are into HPC (High Performance Computing) on your SBC you will want to run one of the other OS (Operating System) versions like Armbian ( I tend to run Armbian with a Devuan “uplift” until a direct Devuan is available for various SBCs). Folks not bothered by SystemD and wanting near 100% binary compatibility with the rest of their Raspberry Pi collection all the way back to the Pi M2 and zero will enjoy Raspbian. (Me, not so much…) How soon will the non-Raspbian OSs be available for the Pi M4? One hopes not too long… You might even be able to run some of the Pi M3 versions. Maybe.
Overall the form factor is very much like the Pi M3 (modulo the changes of the connectors…) so while it will look almost the same, you will need a new, different, case with the “right cutouts for the new connectors”.
So, for someone just buying their first SBC, it isn’t a problem to get the right PSU and the right HDMI cables and the right case and… For folks with 3 or 4 Pi M3s thinking of just doing a board swap in one of their cases, um, no, you can’t do that…
Will I buy one? Certainly. Only question is when, really. It ought to be about 3 x the speed of the Pi M3 (per a video below) and that makes it a very acceptable desktop. I’d expect the experience to be very similar to my other A72 and A73 based boards. (While they are hex core, typical experience is dominated by use of one or 2 of the faster cores at any one time). That’s a big win for not much money, and without the software being as much an issue as it is on, for example, the RockPro64.
But I’m not going to buy one really soon. It usually takes a few months for the first batch shipped to find “quirks” and then either a hardware rev, or firmware upgrade, or software patch to be done to work past those. Then it also usually takes a few months after the first ship for the “other” OS makers to get a port done. It is just a whole lot more “comfortable” to buy one about 4 to 6 months after first shipment. Call it “this Christmas” (hint hint ;-)
Were I the sort to be using Raspbian, I’d say more like one month. Just enough time for the Early Adopters to get their orders filled, the worst bugs found and stamped out, and any horrible issues found and fixed (though I don’t expect any horribles – the Pi Foundation is pretty good in that regard).
Realize this is also conditioned on the fact that I already have 3 very fast SBCs. I mostly use the Odroid XU4 as it just works. 8 fast cores, but 32 bit. The 32 bit means fewer software issues, but also not as fast on math intensive things. I also have an Odroid N2 that’s the fastest, but it is having HDMI issues. (First it looks like it blew out the HDMI to DVI adapter or the DVI connection on my monitor so I’m down to using it on a PC with serial connector; then yesterday it showed the boot process, but will not drive the TV HDMI for a desktop so some debugging needed). At present I’m less than thrilled with the Odroid N2… Finally, the RockPro64 is nice and fast. Just don’t expect the software to be very “robust”… OK for general things, but “has issues” when you head off the mainline use cases. Still, that’s more than enough “fast SBCs” to keep my desktop need for speed fed.
For anyone with only Raspberry Pi M3 speed on their desktop and having occasional “gritted teeth go make coffee” moments as it takes a long time getting something done: buying a Pi M4 now is likely a very good idea. It will run a lot faster and is unlikely to have many significant bugs / issues; and those will be fixed very fast given the size of the community. Do pop for some extra memory, though. AND make sure you buy a BIG heat sink. Not the dinky 2 cm x 2 cm size, but something more like an inch on a side and extending beyond the edges of the chip.
OK, here’s some video reviews. First off, “Gary Explains”. He spends the first 5 minutes giving an intro to what an SBC is and who Pi are, so you can skip that if you are bored easily. At about 14 minutes he covers the OS being 32 bit; then at 15 minutes mentions the heating issues. It is refreshing to see someone actually paying attention to heat management. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t point out to just add a big heat sink… nor does he run a CPU clock monitor and show the speed loss when it gets hot…) Note that when he talks about 4K video “not working” that is most likely a result of the Raspbian 32 bit OS rather than the hardware. 17 minutes:
Here’s a 9 minute video on the RockPro64 also from Gary Explains. He finds the same software limitations issue I found. Gives you an idea of how it is likely to compare to the Pi M4 experience.
Here’s “Explaining Computers” on the Raspberry Pi Model 4. It is interesting as he reviews the “Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit”. It includes a Raspberry Pi Foundation mouse, keyboard, case, PSU, and 2 HDMI cables.
It looks like a very nice and affordable (about $100) entry level desktop for anyone looking for a “everything included” kit. My only complaint is the lack of any heat sink, and that the case does not allow ventilation. This kit WILL heat limit more or less every time to you do much CPU work. Think videos or computer models or compiling programs. Or graphics image editing. Or… Personally, I’d not buy it just because I could not live with that much RED on my desktop… but it’s a nice idea. (IF they had one with heat sink, ventilated case, and in something from the blue, gray, purple family of colors, or even white; I’d likely have ordered one already ;-)
So it looks to me like with the Raspberry Pi Model 4, it has reach the level of performance where it is a reasonable desktop for daily use, and without too many caveats about limits. The extensive user community and support means a lot less grumbling and fussing compared to the competitor offerings and a much more mature Operating System.
The only real downsides are the perpetual lack of any care for heat management, and the usual “cheaping it a bit” you get from the Pi folks. Yes, they fixed some of their prior “cheap decisions” (like the internal limit on bus speeds making USB / Ethernet slower than spec and the too small power connector) but still, it’s an A72, not the better A73, and at a slightly lower clock speed than others offer. I suspect this is due to them getting a steep discount on CPUs that Broadcom finds a bit too slow (failed fast spec test but otherwise fine) for their commercial products. (That is a common thing in the semiconductor business. You build a chip and in testing sort them into speed groups based on how fast the individual chip can run.)
So those complaints are pretty minor, really. Far far less of an issue than the software issues I’ve had on other fancy fast boards, or the video issues I’m still fussing with on the Odroid N2. Compared to the $60 to $90 price points on the alternative fast boards, the Pi is a heck of a bargain and with much better software available. So yeah, I’m buying at least one, and likely more of them over time. I’m just going to wait for the dust to settle before I buy one as I’m already very well supplied with SBCs.
Of course, if anyone wants me to do some in depth testing and benchmarking, just drop some moolah in the paypal account and include a note about the Pi M4 and I’ll buy one and give it a good grilling ;-)