What is the Raspberry Pi 3? Everything you need to know about the tiny, low-cost computer

An introduction to the Raspberry Pi 3 computer, from how to set it up, to what you can do with it.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Video: New laptop lets you easily view and upgrade Raspberry Pi

What is the Raspberry Pi 3?

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is the latest version of the $35 Raspberry Pi computer. The Pi isn't like your typical machine, in its cheapest form it doesn't have a case, and is simply a credit-card sized electronic board -- of the type you might find inside a PC or laptop but much smaller.

See also: Raspberry Pi: The smart person's guide

What is the Raspberry Pi 3 capable of?

A surprising amount. As you can see below you can use the Pi 3 as a budget desktop, media center, retro games console, or router for starters. However that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of projects out there, where people have used the Pi to build tablets, laptops, phones, robots, smart mirrors, to take pictures on the edge of space, to run experiments on the International Space Station -- and that's without mentioning the wackier creations -- self-driving goldfish anyone?


The Raspberry Pi 3.

Image: Sony UK TEC

How do I get started with the Raspberry Pi 3?

One thing to bear in mind is that the Pi by itself is just a bare board. You'll also need a power supply, a monitor or TV, leads to connect to the monitor--typically HDMI, and a mouse and keyboard.

Once you've plugged in all the cables, the easiest way for new users to get up and running on the Pi is to download the NOOBS (New Out-Of-Box Software) installer. Once the download is complete, follow the instructions here and here and it will walk you through how to install an OS on the Pi. The installer makes it simple to set up various operating systems, although a good choice for first time users is the official OS Raspbian--although other operating systems are listed below.

The look and feel of Raspbian should be familiar to any desktop computer user. The OS, which is constantly being improved, recently had a graphical overhaul, and includes an optimized web browser, an office suite, programming tools, educational games, and other software.

How is the Raspberry Pi 3 different from its predecessors?

The quad-core Raspberry Pi 3 is both faster and more capable than its predecessor, the Raspberry Pi 2. For those interested in benchmarks, the Pi 3's CPU--the board's main processor--has roughly 50-60 percent better performance in 32-bit mode than that of the Pi 2, and is 10x faster than the original single-core Raspberry Pi (based on a multi-threaded CPU benchmark in SysBench). Compared to the original Pi, real-world applications will see a performance increase of between 2.5x--for single-threaded applications--and more than 20x--when video playback is accelerated by the chip's NEON engine.

Unlike its predecessor, the new board is capable of playing 1080p MP4 video at 60 frames per second (with a bitrate of about 5400Kbps), boosting the Pi's media center credentials. That's not to say, however, that all video will playback this smoothly, with performance dependent on the source video, the player used and bitrate.

The Pi 3 also supports wireless internet out of the box, with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The latest board can also boot directly from a USB-attached hard drive or pen drive, as well as supporting booting from a network-attached file system, using PXE, which is useful for remotely updating a Pi and for sharing an operating system image between multiple machines.

Can I use the Raspberry Pi 3 as a desktop PC?

The Pi can be run as a budget desktop, providing you have the patience. However, don't expect the Pi 3 to match a typical PC, it will lag loading heavier websites and, when browsing these demanding sites, having more than a handful of tabs open at once runs the risk of overloading the Pi's memory--causing a lengthy freeze.

Can I work on a Raspberry Pi 3?

You can but you'll likely find it wearing, due to everything from loading web pages to alt-tabbing between applications taking slightly longer than you're used to. Also, while I was able to run every application I needed, I mainly rely on web apps, and those who use more specialized local applications could find they're not supported on the Pi's predominantly Linux-based OSes.

However, the Pi works well as a thin-client, as I found when I tested its capabilities when running as a thin client for Windows 10, with performance being almost indistinguishable from running a modern Windows 10 PC, save for the very slow transfer of data to USB sticks.

Can I browse the web using the Raspberry Pi 3?

Yes, the latest version of the Raspberry Pi's official OS has the Chromium browser, the open-source browser that Chrome is based on. It's performance is reasonable, as long as you don't open too many script-laden websites, and there are extensions that allow for smooth playback of video on YouTube and other sites.

Can I use the Raspberry Pi 3 as a media center?

Yes, there are various options if you want to use the Pi 3 as a media center but the most popular choices are the Kodi-based OSes OSMC or LibreElec.

The Pi 3 has the added advantage of a slightly faster graphics processor, which the Raspberry Pi Foundation has said is able to play local H.264-encoded video recorded at 1920x1080 resolution and 60 frames per second. Another advantage is built-in support for Wi-Fi makes it easier to stream content to the Pi, while native Bluetooth simplifies the hooking up peripherals.

Can the Raspberry Pi 3 run PS1, N64, SNES, NES and other classic console games?

Yes, a wide range of vintage games will run on the Pi with the help of emulators like RetroPie, including some games from all of the systems listed above, although the more recent the system, the more likely it is that more demanding titles will struggle.

Which operating systems can I run on the Pi?

The Pi can run the official Raspbian OS, Ubuntu Mate, Snappy Ubuntu Core, the Kodi-based media centers OSMC and LibreElec, the non-Linux based Risc OS (one for fans of 1990s Acorn computers). It can also run Windows 10 IoT Core, which is very different to the desktop version of Windows, as mentioned below.

However, these are just the officially recommended operating systems, and a large array of other weird and wonderful OSes also work on the Pi.

Can the Raspberry Pi 3 run Windows 10?

Yes, but it's nothing like the full desktop version of Windows 10 that most people are familiar with. Instead the Pi 3 runs Windows 10 IoT Core, a cutdown version of Windows 10 that doesn't boot into the graphical desktop and is designed to controlled via a command line interface on a remote computer. It can only run a single fullscreen Universal Windows Platform app at a time, for example a kiosk app for a retail store, although other software can run in the background.

However, the Pi can act as a Windows 10 thin client, where Windows 10 is run on a server and streamed to the Pi and, with a powerful enough server, the experience can be virtually identical to running a Windows 10 machine.

Can the Raspberry Pi 3 run Windows 10 desktop apps?

The Pi 3 can run Windows desktop apps, although it requires you to buy the ExaGear Desktop software and spend some time setting it up.

Performance is also poor, with the tools needed to run Windows apps on the Pi sucking up so much processing power that you're basically restricted to running 20-year-old Windows apps and games, and simple modern text editors.

Basically, while it's technically possible, it's not something you'll probably want to do.

Can the Raspberry Pi 3 run Ubuntu?

It can run Ubuntu with various desktops, with the Raspberry Pi Foundation highlighting Ubuntu Mate and Ubuntu Snappy Core as standouts.

What are the Raspberry Pi 3's specs?

  • Chipset: Broadcom BCM2837
  • CPU: 1.2GHz quad-core 64-bit ARM cortex A53
  • Ethernet : 10/100 (Max throughput 100Mbps)
  • USB: Four USB 2.0 with 480Mbps data transfer
  • Storage: MicroSD card or via USB-attached storage
  • Wireless: 802.11n Wireless LAN (Peak transmit/receive throughput of 150Mbps), Bluetooth 4.1
  • Graphics: 400MHz VideoCore IV multimedia
  • Memory: 1GB LPDDR2-900 SDRAM
  • Expandability: 40 general purpose input-output pins
  • Video: Full HDMI port
  • Audio: Combined 3.5mm audio out jack and composite video
  • Camera interface (CSI)
  • Display interface (DSI)

How can I get the most from my Raspberry Pi 3?

It's good advice to get a case to protect the Pi from damage, especially if you're going to be carrying the Pi around with you.

If performance is important to you, you can also invest in a high-speed micro SD card, as outlined below.

While the Pi can run a lot of different operating systems, if you're after stability and performance then the official Raspbian operating system is a good choice, having been tuned to get the most from the Pi, and bundling a fast web browser and a decent selection of office and programming software.

If you didn't install the Raspbian OS using the Noobs installer, and you're running out of space, you can also go into the terminal and type 'sudo raspi-config' and then select the option to 'Expand root partition to fill SD card', which will ensure you're using all available space on the card.

How can I get help with the Raspberry Pi 3?

With more than 15 million boards sold since the first Pi launched in 2012, the board now boasts a strong community, which helps other users via the official Raspberry Pi site and forums.

How do I keep the Raspberry Pi 3 up to date?

If you're running the Pi's official Raspbian operating system then keeping the Pi up to date is relatively straightforward. Just open the terminal and type sudo apt-get update. Once the update is complete, then type sudo apt-get dist-upgrade.

What is the power consumption of the Raspberry Pi 3?

According to tests, the peak power consumption of the Pi 3 when under heavy load is about twice that of the Pi 2 (750mA vs 360mA), though for less-demanding workloads it should be broadly similar to earlier boards.

What Raspberry Pi 3 kits are available?

There's no shortage of Raspberry Pi kits available, that add everything from speech recognition, to robotic arms to build-it yourself laptops for kids to virtual assistants to the $35 board.

Due to the success of the Pi, if you've got an idea for a project, there's probably a kit out there to suit your needs.

What power supply do I need for the Raspberry Pi 3?

The best choice is the official Raspberry Pi Foundation power supply, which is rated at 2.5A5.1V. This is in contrast to the 2A5V-rated supply used by earlier boards.

Which is the fastest micro SD card for the Raspberry Pi 3?

A particularly fast card in a recent round-up was found to be the SanDisk Extreme PLUS 64GB microSDXC. Be warned, however, that this card costs $58.95, more than the Pi 3 itself. For most users a standard class 4 micro SD card working at 4MB/s should suffice.

What size micro SD card do I need for the Raspberry Pi 3?

If you're installing the official Raspbian OS you'll need at least an 8GB micro SD card, whereas for the Raspbian Lite you'll need a minimum of 4GB.

Can I use Wi-Fi on the Raspberry Pi 3?

Yes, the board supports 802.11n Wireless LAN (peak throughput of 150Mbps) and Bluetooth 4.1.

Can I run a network of Raspberry Pi 3s?

Yes, and managing and updating the boards should be made simpler by the ability to boot from a network-attached file system using PXE, allowing admins to share operating system images between machines.

Is the Raspberry Pi 3 64-bit?

Yes, it's a 64-bit board. However, there are limited benefits to the 64-bit processor, outside of a few more operating systems possibly being able to run on the Pi, due to the Pi only supporting 1GB of memory.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has also said it wants to focus on optimizing the Pi's official Raspbian OS for 32-bit performance to benefit the millions of older, 32-bit Pi boards that have already been sold.

Who makes the Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to advancing computer science education. Since its launch the Pi has gone on to be used in many schools, and its availability has also coincided with an almost tripling in the number of people applying to study computer science at Cambridge.

The foundation's founder and board co-creator Eben Upton says he began designing the board as way to inspire children to learn about computing after being struck by how few people were applying to study computer science at Cambridge in the mid-2000s.

Is the Raspberry Pi just a motherboard?

Yes, in it's cheapest $35 incarnation, although there are a wide range of kits available that add extras like cases, leads and electronics for getting started with hardware hacking -- all for an additional cost, of course.

How do I know which version of the Raspberry Pi I have?

It's literally written on the top side of the board, for example, 'Raspberry Pi 2 Model B V1.1' on a Raspberry Pi 2, typically near upper edge of the board, just underneath the 40-pin header.

Photos of the Raspberry Pi through the ages: From the prototype to Pi 3 B+

How can I use the Raspberry Pi 3 to learn programming?

The Pi's official Raspbian OS is packed with software to help users learn how to program, including the drag-and-drop coding offered by Scratch, and various tools for writing and debugging using the Python programming language.

Can I program hardware on the Raspberry Pi?

You can, via the row of pins at the top edge of the board (of the 40, 26 are GPIO pins). By attaching hardware like LEDs, sensors and motors to these pins you are able to interact with them using the Pi. Writing simple programs will allow you to send signals via the pins to control the attached hardware--for example making an LED flash-- or to read a signal sent from the attached hardware via the pins--for example to take a measurement from a sensor.

Can the Raspberry Pi 3 do speech recognition?

Yes, the most well-known option is to use Jasper, which can even be installed on the Pi and used without an internet connection.

Most options for speech recognition rely on a cloud service, hence requiring an internet connection, such as Google Speech or Alexa Voice Service.

Can I build a cluster of Raspberry Pi 3s?

You certainly can, a common starting point is to combine eight boards together into an OctaPi cluster--whose combined power is far faster than a single board when calculating prime factors, a key task when cracking encryption.

At the extreme end of the scale is this 750 Pi cluster that is being built at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and that is due to scale up to 10,000 boards in the future.

How do I build a cluster of Raspberry Pi 3s?

There's a tutorial on how to build your own OctaPi, including a step-by-step guide to setting up the software and the hardware.

Can I train a neural network using the Raspberry Pi 3?

No, it's not powerful enough to train neural networks to do anything useful, you're better off training a network on a more powerful computer or using a graphics processing unit (GPU).

Can I run a neural network and do machine learning on the Raspberry Pi 3?

Yes you can, although you'll likely want to invest in some additional hardware to be effective. Intel recently released the $79 Movidius Neural Compute Stick, which accelerates the rate at which the Pi can carry out vision-related tasks, such as facial and object recognition, using its 12 specialized cores. It can accelerate machine-learning models built using the Caffe framework and Google's TensorFlow library.

Where can I get a Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is available now for £27-£30 via Premier Farnell and RS Components in the UK and for $35 in the US. You can also buy an official Raspberry Pi 3 starter kit which includes additional hardware and a book.

Is there a Raspberry Pi 4?

No, and there won't be for some time to come. In interviews Eben Upton has previously said not to expect a Pi 4 until 2019 at the earliest. In the meantime those who want upgrades such as more memory, faster processors, Gigabit Ethernet and support for 4K displays can check out these boards instead, though none have as strong a community as the Pi.

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