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Raspberry Pi Zero W, hands-on: A very welcome new member of the family

After waiting much too long, I finally got my hands on the newest member of the Raspberry Pi family. Was it worth the wait?

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The Raspberry Pi Zero: original (left), v1.2 (centre), and W (right).

Image: J.A. Watson

The Raspberry Pi Zero W was announced on February 28th. I started trying to get one as soon as I saw the announcement. I finally succeeded on May 3rd.

Those two months of delay and frustration say a lot about the overwhelming demand for the Raspberry Pi in general, and the Pi Zero models in particular, so I will start with a brief description of that before getting into the main hands-on portion of this post.

When the original Raspberry Pi Zero was announced, I was fortunate enough to get one here in Switzerland from the Pi-Shop.ch very quickly. When the updated Zero v1.3 was announced it took a bit longer for me to get one from the Pi-Shop -- maybe a week or so, if I remember correctly. When the Zero W was announced I expected to have to wait about that long again. But when I checked the Pi-Shop web page, I was surprised to find that it wasn't even listed. I asked them about it, and they said it would probably be a week or two before they could get some.

I noticed in the Pi Blog announcement that they listed the "official distributors" where the Zero W should be available -- and the Pi-Shop.ch was not listed. In fact it only listed one distributor in Germany (pi3g) as also covering Switzerland and Austria. Hmm.

I prefer to stay loyal to companies who have treated me well, but if the Pi-Shop wasn't going to be able to get a Zero W for a while I figured I would check out pi3g. Sure enough, they had the Zero W available for delivery to Switzerland! Great! Unfortunately, when I tried to order one, it came up with shipping/delivery charges of €20! I'm certainly not going to pay twice the price of the Pi Zero for delivery, so I abandoned that order. The Pi Shop said that they hoped to have them within 10 days or so.

A month later the Pi-Shop still didn't have any, so I checked pi3g again. This time the delivery charges were a bit more reasonable, but when I went to checkout, they would only accept payment via PayPal or bank transfer. I'm not going to join PayPal, and the charges for an international bank transfer once again are far too high for a €10 purchase, so I was stuck waiting again.

Finally on the 3rd of May I got the email saying the Zero W was available from the Pi-Shop. On the same day there was a new post in the Pi Blog about the number of Pi Zero W units shipped so far (250,000) and the addition of thirteen new Pi Zero distributors, one of which was the Pi-Shop.ch. Hooray!

The Pi-Shop now offers the Zero W "board only" at a very reasonable price of CHF 10.80. They also offer a couple of different "bundles" with commonly needed bits and pieces included.

Delivery charges are still high relative to the cost of the product, but that's down to the Swiss Post, and anyway it's less than pi3g wanted. I ordered a Zero W, the new case, and a microSD NOOBS card. Yeah, I know, that last item is silly because it is so easy to download and install the latest Raspbian or NOOBS releae, but I wanted to see what it might be like for someone without prior knowledge or experience with the Raspberry Pi.

Let's get hands-on

OK, enough for the commercial frustrations of getting a Pi Zero W, let's move on to the hands-on fun! First, at the top of the page and below you can see photos of the front and back of the three Raspberry Pi Zero models. The Pi Zero W is on the left, the v1.3 is in the middle, and the original is on the right..

The difference between the original and v1.3 was easy to see because the camera connector was added to one end of the board. The difference in the Zero W is more subtle. You can see pretty easily that a couple of new components have been added in the same area where the camera connector is located. But in fact if you look a bit closer you can see that there are quite a few more changes to the layout.

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Raspberry Pi Zero: W (left), v1.3 (centre), and original (right).

Image: J.A. Watson

It's interesting to note that unlike the Raspberry Pi 3, they didn't have to resort to adding components to the "back" of the board. Note the version numbers etched on the board.

The "original" is identified as "Raspberry Pi Zero v1.2" (was the v1.1 board ever actually available?), the camera-upgraded version is "Raspberry Pi Zero v1.3", and the new model is "Raspberry Pi Zero W v1.1".

I haven't actually had time to try this out yet, but it appears that unlike the v1.2/v1.3 change, the copper connection pads on the new board have not been moved relative to the v1.3 board, so things like the Zero4U USB hub which connect to those pads via pogo-pins should still work.

I also got one of the new "official" Raspberry Pi Foundation Pi Zero cases -- and it is a beauty. It is made in the same style and colors as the official full-sized Pi case.

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The Raspberry Pi Foundation Pi Zero Case.

Image: J.A. Watson

This is not just a "Pi Zero W Case", it fits all three models of the Pi Zero. The bottom of the case has posts which fit the four mounting holes in the Pi Zero boards, and a tab on side which snaps over the board when it is pressed down into place, so it is held solidly in place.

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Raspberry Pi Zero Case with Camera

Image: J.A. Watson

There are three covers included with each case: one solid, one with a hole for the Pi Camera lens and a mounting adapter for the Pi Camera board, and one with a slot for the GPIO header.

Also included with the case is a short camera adapter flex cable, something I have been wishing for since the original camera was announced, and I would almost say desperate for since the Pi Zero v1.3 came out. Fumbling with that long camera cable inside of small cases was no fun.

For those who might want to use the Pi Zero with a camera module but not have it mounted in the cover there is also a slot in the bottom of the case where the longer camera module cable can come out. That's a nice touch.

When the case is assembled with a camera module installed, it comes out looking like this:

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The Raspberry Pi Zero Case with camera installed

Image: J.A. Watson

That's just amazingly compact, and in my opinion it looks absolutely wonderful.

The real fun starts, of course, when you power it up. As I said, I ordered a pre-loaded NOOBS microSD card with this one, because I wanted to see what it would be like for a real noob to try to get started with a Raspberry Pi.

The first stumble came when I was assembling everything. Like most other Pi Zero cases, the official case does not have external access to the microSD card, so you have to remember to insert the SD card before you put the board in the case. I didn't. Rats.

The second (much bigger) stumble came when I powered it up. The big improvement in the Zero W is the addition of built-in wireless networking -- but the version of Raspbian that was on the NOOBS card was so old that it didn't even have the drivers for the WiFi adapter! In fact, it also didn't have the PIXEL desktop. So it booted up to an ugly desktop, with no way to make a network connection. Ugh.

That's really not good -- and considering what is required to add either wired or wireless networking to a Pi Zero, I would say that for a lot of inexperienced users the story could end at this point. The $10 would be written off, the Zero W card would land in a drawer somewhere and never see the light of day again.

There are several solutions to this problem, none of which are terribly difficult as long as you know what to do:

  • Update Raspbian. This is obvious - but it requires an Internet connection. The built-in WiFi doesn't work yet, and the Pi Zero doesn't have a wired network connection, so you would need to have a USB WiFi adapter. Maybe not quite so easy after all
  • Re-write the microSD card with the latest version of NOOBS or Raspbian from the Raspberry Pi Downloads web page. This is not very difficult, but it takes a bit of time. Here's a small tip - for the Pi Zero go for the Raspbian distribution rather than the NOOBS distribution, unless you are specifically planning to use it as Media Center, or you want to try out one of the alternative operating systems included in NOOBS.
  • If you have any other Raspberry Pi boards already in use, you can pinch a microSD card from one of them to use in the Zero W, and then put the NOOBS card into a Pi 1/2/3 with a wired network connection so it can be updated a lot more easily.

I took the third option, and used a microSD card from another Pi Zero. When I booted with that card installed, it came up to the lovely PIXEL desktop and both WiFi and Bluetooth networking were up and working perfectly. Much better.

I started out with my usual Logitech keyboard and mouse, using a Unifying dongle on the USB OTG adapter cable. But with Bluetooth working now, I was able to connect the Logitech K380 keyboard and M535 mouse, and then I could remove the USB cable entirely. That left me with a very nice and very compact setup, and no USB cable hanging from the Zero W. Good stuff!

So that's pretty much it, the Pi Zero W is up and running, just like any other member of the Raspberry Pi family. It is certainly a very welcome member of the family, because having the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity is much nicer than having to use a USB dongle (or two!).

In American baseball slang, I would say that because of the distribution/delivery problems and delay, the Pi Foundation didn't hit a home run this time, but it is at least a ground-rule double.

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