Raspberry Pi Zero review: Huge possibilities and a tiny price

Price when reviewed

When the Raspberry Pi Model B launched back in 2012, it was a gamechangers. Demand was off the charts, while developers of single-board computers that had previously felt comfortable asking triple figures for their wares found themselves having to compete with a board costing far less.

The surprise launch of the Raspberry Pi Zero in November replicated the excitement surrounding the original, with one major difference: while the original cost around £30, the new Pi Zero is a ridiculous £4 –  a price that saw the device become the first computer in history to be cover mounted on a magazine. 

Naturally, however, corners have been cut to reach such a price. Is the Pi Zero truly a herald for the next generation of ultra-affordable, ubiquitous computing or, as its critics would have it, simply a promotional stunt?

Raspberry Pi Zero review: Specifications

Without knowing anything else about the Pi Zero, it’s easy to become disillusioned by a glance at the specifications. Compared with the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, it’s definitely a backwards step. The new Broadcom BCM2836 quad-core processor with its modern ARMv7 instruction set has been replaced by the long-outdated BCM2835 ARMv6 single-core chip of its predecessors, albeit now running at a stock speed of 1GHz, a 300MHz boost over the original’s 700MHz.

The Pi Zero wasn’t built as a rival to the Raspberry Pi 2, though. It’s designed to offer an alternative to the Raspberry Pi Model A+. Here it compares more favourably, thanks to the processor speed tweak and a doubling of the RAM to 512MB – the same as the larger Model B+ – while the lack of network and single USB port are equal.

Areas have still been sliced to reach that £4 price point, even compared with the Model A+. The camera (CSI) and display (DSI) interface ports have gone, as has the analogue audio output. Composite video support is still there, but you’ll need to solder on a header yourself if you want to use it.

Raspberry Pi Zero Review: Layout

The specifications tell one story, but the layout of the board itself tells another. The Raspberry Pi Zero is a major feat of engineering, packing most of the same features of the Model A+ into a footprint barely half the size and a fraction of the weight.

For those looking to use the Pi Zero in a hardware project, these are positives, as is a lower power draw thanks to fewer components. For those new to the Pi ecosystem, the decision to leave the usual 40-pin general purpose input/output (GPIO) header unpopulated will be an annoyance, although it is one readily solved with a soldering iron and a steady hand. More accomplished users, however, may see the ability to connect only the pins they require as an advantage.

The size of the Pi Zero is undeniably eye-catching, but it does come at a cost. Rather than the full-size HDMI port of the rest of the Raspberry Pi family, the Pi Zero has the less common mini variant. Likewise, the USB port of the Model A+ is lost in favour of a micro-USB OTG (on-the-go) port, requiring an adapter to use any full-size USB device.

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