The Raspberry Pi 400 reinvents the microcomputer for 2020

With a keyboard integrated into its chassis, the new Raspberry Pi 400 looks almost like an 80s micro. This really is a micro computer, a fully functional desktop PC small enough to put in your bag or tuck neatly into a desk drawer when you’re not working. And it costs less than £70 for the base system or around £95 for a kit that includes everything but a monitor.

We were impressed by last year’s Raspberry Pi 4, which is still available. The company has recently consolidated the success of the most powerful Pi to date with its Compute Module 4 for server clusters and embedded systems, and now it’s bringing out this dedicated desktop PC, powered by a variant of the Pi 4.

What’s in the box?

Two Pi 400 bundles launch on November 2. For $100 – the estimated UK price is currently around £95 – you’ll get a kit including the Raspberry Pi 400, a mouse, USB-C power supply, a microSD card with Raspberry Pi OS, a micro-HDMI to HDMI cable and a copy of The Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide.

If you’ve already got all the peripherals, then you can pay $70 for the base unit alone. Initially, UK and US English versions will ship, with a French AZERTY keyboard version to follow shortly, and other languages in the first quarter of 2021.

Features

Inside the Pi 400, there’s a variant of the Raspberry Pi 4 single board computer, with the same quad-core ARM v8 Cortex-A72 processor and 4GB DDR4 RAM. The new chassis design includes an internal heat spreader, and this extra cooling efficiency allows the processor to be run at a higher default voltage and frequency, upgrading the 1.5GHz speed of the standalone Pi 4 to 1.8GHz in the Pi 400.

The Pi 400’s chassis integrates what’s effectively the same chiclet keyboard that has been shipped in Raspberry Pi desktop kits since 2019. While it’s not quite as stylish as Apple’s take on the design, it’s comfortable to use over extended periods and well spaced for touch-typing.

At the back, you’ll find a pair of USB 3 ports, a single USB 2 port, two micro-HDMI ports to connect anything up to a pair of 4K displays, a Gigabit Ethernet port, a microSD card slot to house your hard disk, and the Raspberry Pi’s usual GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) port.

This 40-pin connector can be used to connect peripherals ranging from sound cards to robotics projects, but the integrated form factor isn’t as convenient if you want to use ‘hats’ – expansion cards designed to connect to the GPIO and sit tidily on top of a standard Raspberry Pi. Similarly, the internal MIPI camera and display ports aren’t accessible. If you’re making embedded systems and projects, a standard Pi 4 is probably still your best bet, but for a desktop PC, the convenience and extra protection provided by this form factor are very worthwhile.

The biggest loss for day-to-day desktop use is the 3.5mm headphone port which, in the standard Pi 4, can output stereo sound or composite video. Default sound output is via HDMI, using your TV or monitor’s speakers. If you want to connect headphones to the Pi 400, you’ll have to use a USB or Bluetooth connection. It supports Bluetooth 5.0 BLE, as well as 2.5GHz and 5GHz 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) wireless networking.

Performance

The Raspberry Pi 400 is entirely up to serving as a desktop PC. It’s no match for a mid-range gaming rig, but it compares well against low-power laptops with processors such as the entry level Intel Celerons found in affordable Chromebooks.

How the Raspberry Pi 400’s benchmarks stack up to Intel Celeron and AMD Ryzen machines

We used the HardInfo benchmark suite to compare the Pi 400’s CPU performance with that of our reference ultra-low-power Intel Bay Trail Celeron N2806 based laptop, which it beat in all categories (see table, above). While Intel’s current ultra-low-power Whiskey Lake Celerons, such as the N4205U, pack a bit more of a punch, with around three times the performance of our N2806, we’re still looking at comparable performance to the Pi 400.

You can switch video drivers to get the most out of the VideoCore VI GPU. Enabling the GL (Fake KMS) desktop driver using the raspi-config tool in Raspberry Pi OS improved performance in the HardInfo GPU Drawing benchmark improved from 1523 to 1602.

Raspberry Pi OS

Raspberry Pi OS, the default operating system, is a 32-bit Debian-based Linux distribution. Its software repository includes everything from office, graphics, and photo processing suites (Open Office, GIMP, and RawTherapee, respectively) to games and emulators, and they’re easy to install at the command line or through a graphical interface.

If you’re comfortable with Linux and want to add external package repositories or build applications from source, note that software designed to compile on x86 CPUs won’t build under ARM, but an increasing number of developers support both.

If you’re used to using Windows, Linux or macOS on x86 platforms, you will hit a few limitations. The most notable of these is that there’s no out-of-the-box support for the Widevine streaming media DRM standard used by Netflix, Spotify, Disney+ and others.

Fortunately, this can be fixed by installing a tweaked Chromium browser. This will require occasional manual updates as content protection standards and browsers evolve.

Many other operating systems are available for Raspberry Pi systems. However, although we were able to install a 64-bit version of Ubuntu on the Pi 400, for performance reasons we recommend waiting a while until OS developers have caught up with the new hardware spec.

Popular alternative operating systems for Pis include Ubuntu and Ubuntu Mate Linux, OpenSUSE, and Gentoo, which provide various 32-bit, 64-bit, desktop and server versions for the platform. If you’re after front ends for emulation or entertainment systems RetroPie, Lakka and RecalBox all fit the bill, and OSMC and LibreELEC are designed to serve as Kodi media centres.

Those are all Linux-based, but RISC OS, a descendant of the original operating system designed for ARM, is also desktop-ready. The long-lived FreeBSD operating system runs on Pi with some wireless networking limitations, as does LineageOS – a fully open fork of Android, and Windows 10 IoT Core officially supports the platform for use in embedded devices.

There isn’t currently a fully compatible desktop version of Microsoft Windows for Raspberry Pi.

Verdict

There are a couple of things we’d like to see in future iterations of the Pi 400. A built-in headphone port would be a plus and we’d also like to be able to more easily get inside the chassis. A more obvious power switch would be good, but pressing Fn + F10 will both shut down and boot up the computer. A couple of these tweaks would make it better suited for the more mainstream intended audience.

But however you cut it, the Raspberry Pi 400 is great value at £95 for a fully functional desktop PC that out-performs entry-level x86-based systems and just needs a monitor or TV to be ready for browsing, work and media streaming.

It’s also a very good choice if you have to set up a second home office or sort out a dedicated homework/online learning computer for the kids, both rather common needs in recent months. Catering to this need is one of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s stated goals for this system, and it meets it admirably.

Updated 2 November 2020, 08:53 GMT, to include boot/shutdown shortcut.

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