There have been a several interesting new hardware announcements from the Raspberry Pi Foundation this year. Sometimes I wonder how they do it all - with so much involvement in education, development of new hardware and software, and the many Pi user groups and events. It really is quite impressive.
On the hardware front this year they have released:
April: Compute Module, the operational guts of a Raspberry Pi repackaged onto an SODIMM board
July: Model B+, a physically improved and enhanced version of the Raspberry Pi Type B
November: Model A+, a smaller, lower-power, lower-price version of the Raspberry Pi Type A
For this post I am looking at the Model B+ board, which is an all-around improved design over the original Model B. The B+ retains basic compatibility with the B, including the same CPU, GPU and memory, and it still runs the same software. But it has the following improvements:
Four USB ports
Micro SD slot (the A+ also has this)
40-pin GPIO (the A+ also has this)
Composite video output merged with Audio jack
Lower power consumption
Improved board design
Even more good news - the nominal price remained the same ($35), but at least in Switzerland the B+ actually costs a bit less (CHF 38.30 vs. 42.90). It's easy to see why I couldn't resist ordering one!
While the functional improvements are good, and important, it's the physical improvements that are my favorites. The memory card has been changed from a standard SD to a Micro SD, the connector from a friction-fit (push and pray) to a push-push (click-in/click-out), and the card no longer protrudes so far beyond the edge of the case.
The USB connectors have been moved back so that they are flush with the edge of the board (I never understood why they were not to begin with, it must be some sort of historical quirk). There are four mounting holes places in a nice regular square layout, whereas the original B board has only two mounting holes placed seemingly randomly. This makes it easier to design cases and other mounts, and it makes it more solid and stable when it is mounted.
Ok, on to the functional improvements, having four USB ports rather than two will in many cases eliminate the need for the PiHub USB expansion device. Obviously if four is still not enough you can still use the PiHub, but I would expect that to be rare. On mine I have a Logitech Unifying (keyboard/mouse) receiver, a wi-fi dongle, a Bluetooth dongle and a BluRay drive. Just right.
The change in composite video output might cause some inconvenience for a (very) few people. The composite video out jack has been removed, and the video signal has been merged onto the 3.5mm audio (now audio/video) output jack, in the same way it is done on iPods, smartphoes and such. So if you have been using composite (analog) video output, and you don't have a 3.5mm-to-3xRCA cable, you'll have to get one. I just looked, they are available here in Switzerland for CHF 6.- so it is not a huge expense, but having to wait a day or two for a cable could be frustrating.
The lower power consumption of the B+ board can also eliminate the need for the higher power supply that was another benefit of the PiHub. An improved power supply design also makes it more stable.
Changing to a Micro-SD card is a win in several ways. The size seems more logical with the Raspberry Pi design, the push-push (click-in/click-out) is more secure than the old friction connector, and while the card is still accessuble from outside the case, it does not protrude nearly as far beyond the edge like the old SD card did.
I ordered the B+ from the Pi-Shop in Switzerland, and I got the same efficient and courteous service that I got when I ordered the original Type B last year. In addition to the B+ board I got an 8GB Micro-SD card, but rather than the NOOBS card with software pre-installed, I got a Kingston Class 10 Multi Kit, which includes a standard SD adapter and a USB adapter. Oh, and I also got a transparent case. The total for price, including shipping, was CHF 67 (about £45 or €55).
When it arrived and I unpacked it, my first impression was that this is a noticeably better designed board than the original Model B was. The way that everything lines up properly, the general tidiness of the design, even the rounded corners on the PC board all give a good impression.
The transparent case is nice, and a lot easier to assemble (albeit less fun) than the layer-cake case that I got for my first RPi. When you put the two units in their cases, and then you turn each of them over in your hands a bit, you can really see how much better everything goes together with the new design. Getting rid of the separate video connector makes more of a difference that I thought it would, and of course having the USB plugs line up on the board edge is very nice. But the really big improvement is having the tiny Micro-SD card flush with the board edge, rather than having half of the old standard SD card sticking out of the case. Nice.
The Micro-SD card itself is a pleasure to use. I tried both adapters and they worked just fine (duh). The USB adapter even has a keychain-tail on it - not very useful if what you are going to do with the card is just use it in the RasPi, but you never now - anyway it's handy and good to know about.
Loading and starting up the Model B+ is still exactly the same sequence. If you buy a NOOBS (New Out Of Box Software) preloaded Micro-SD card, you just plug it in and you're ready to boot. Since I got an empty card, I first had to download the latest NOOBS image (1.3.10 at the moment) and then unzip it onto the Micro-SD card.
On the first boot it asks which operating systems you want to install. I chose Raspbian, Pidora and openElec. It then goes off and repartitions the SD card and installs the selected operating systems. This is one of the most time consuming parts of the whole process, it takes about 15-20 minutes to install those three.
Once the installation is done you can reboot, and then select which of the installed operating systems you actually want to boot. I chose Raspbian, of course, and then walked through the process of configuring and customizing the installation. You can choose if you want to boot to a command-line (text mode) interface, a GUI desktop (LXDE), or directly into the Scratch programming environment. No surprise here, I chose LXDE.
One more thing. The optional (extra cost) codec license keys for MPEG-2 and VC-1 formats are tied to the CPU serial number. That meant I had to order new licenses. Not a big deal, it's still dead easy to order through the Raspberry Pi Store, and the keys arrive in an email shortly after you order.
So, there you have it. A nice shiny new Raspberry Pi Model B+, up and running in less than an hour. Completely compatible with the original Model B, but significantly improved in physical design. Very nice indeed!