Raspberry Pi 3 review: A faster processor plus Bluetooth and built in Wi-Fi take the Pi to the next level

£32
Price when reviewed

Update, 10/5/2016: I’ve added a section to the end of this review covering the excellent WD Labs PiDrive – an internal 314GB hard disk designed specifically for the low power demands of the Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to read the review, use the drop-down menu immediately above to jump straight there, otherwise read on for my full Raspberry Pi 3 review.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: A faster processor plus Bluetooth and built in Wi-Fi take the Pi to the next level

The original Raspberry Pi was a work of wonder: a tiny board capable of running a full desktop operating system for around £30 – it was no wonder people were desperate to get their hands on one. Now, though, the Raspberry Pi 3 is on its third version, and it’s faster, more flexible and set to be more popular than ever.

The big news for the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is that there’s now built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 alongside the existing wired 10/100 Ethernet connection, which is a bonus on a number of different levels. Hobbyists and project builders will no longer need to budget for a cumbersome USB dongle or factor in extra space in their project cases, and for those using the Pi as a low-cost desktop computer, it frees up a precious USB socket.

That alone will be reason enough for most Pi enthusiasts to rush out and buy one, but there’s more. Along with the wireless improvements, the processor has been given a boost, with the Raspberry Pi 3 now featuring a 64-bit, 1.2GHz quad-core Broadcom BCM2837 SoC based on ARM’s Cortex-A53 CPU architecture. The Raspberry Pi 2’s processor was a 900MHz chip, so on paper, it’s a pretty hefty performance boost.

The Pi 3 hasn’t changed its graphics capabilities. These are still managed by the board’s VideoCore IV component, but it does run at an improved clock speed of 400MHz, where last year’s Raspberry Pi 2 ran at 250MHz.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Key specifications

  • Broadcom BCM2837RIFBG SoC: 64-bit, 1.2GHz, quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU

  • 400MHz VideoCore IV multimedia

  • 1GB LPDDR2-900 SDRAM

  • Single-band 802.11n Wi-Fi

  • Bluetooth 4

  • Price: £32 inc VAT

Other than that, it’s business as usual. The price of the Raspberry Pi 3 remains the same as the Pi 2 – £32 inc VAT – and the board itself retains the same size and roughly the same layout, so it should still fit most existing third-party cases.

Close inspection reveals a couple of minor changes, though. The indicator LEDs have moved to the other side of the display ribbon connector, so you may have to get the Dremel out if you want to be able to see what your Pi is doing, and the Run header has also shifted location. However, all the other major connectors and headers stay in the same place.

The Pi still has four USB 2 sockets and one Ethernet socket on one end, a full-sized HDMI, micro-USB and 3.5mm audio jack on one long edge, plus a microSD slot for loading the operating system on it on the other end. Interestingly, the microSD slot is not now a mechanical push-to-eject type of slot, but a plain push-in, pull-out type.

Along the other long edge is the Pi’s GPIO header. The display ribbon connector sits at the same end as the microSD slot, and the camera input remains between the HDMI output and 3.5mm audio/RCA video output jack.

The one big disappointment is that, as with the Raspberry Pi 2, Ethernet speeds are still limited to 100Mbits/sec, but this is due to the limitations of the USB 2 bus, which the Ethernet port is connected to.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Software and Wi-Fi

The easiest way to get up and running with the Raspberry Pi has always been to download the Noobs installer from the Raspberry Pi website and transfer the files  to a microSD card.

That doesn’t change with the Raspberry Pi 3. Noobs is dead easy to download and run,  gives you a number of different options when you install, from the basic Raspbian install, through to Ubuntu, the OpenELEC Kodi-based media centre, Windows 10 IoT Core and RISC OS.

I installed the latest version of Raspbian this way and had no problem connecting using the Pi 3’s new Wi-Fi connectivity to hook up to both the office network and networks at home. Click the network icon in the top-right corner of the screen, select your network, enter your password and you’re good to go. It’s as simple as that.

As for performance, that’s surprisingly good, considering how small the wireless antenna is – a teeny tiny oblong situated where the status LEDs used to be on the Raspberry Pi 2. At a distance of 10m from the router and through a couple of walls, I managed to transfer data at a rate of 12Mbits/sec, compared with 26Mbits/sec from an 802.11n laptop. Transfer rates weren’t much quicker when we were right next to the router, however; here I saw a maximum of 19Mbits/sec, compared with more than 80Mbits/sec from the laptop.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Performance and power consumption

As for performance, that’s a mixed bag. Pure CPU performance is impressive. Booting into Raspbian takes around the same as on the Pi 2 at around 31 seconds, and application launch times aren’t all that different either, with LibreOffice Writer and Calc launching in around 5-6 seconds on both devices.

Loading the Alphr home page in Raspbian’s Epiphany browser showed a significant advantage for the Pi 3, though, rendering the page in 21 seconds compared with 27 seconds on the Pi 2, although scrolling through data-heavy websites can still be pretty jerky.

It’s the same picture in the benchmarks. Running the Whetstone Pi A7 benchmarking application returned a score of 711 for the Raspberry Pi 3 to the Pi 2’s 432 – around 65% quicker.

There’s another advantage to the new processor aside from raw performance, though, and that’s power efficiency. Where the Pi 2’s processor always ran at a steady 900MHz, the Pi 3’s drops from 1.2GHz back down to 600MHz at idle, which makes a difference to power consumption.

The Pi 2 drew 3.2W at idle and 3.8W under load while the Pi 3 drew 2.5W and 3.8W, which is a significant improvement, and especially useful if you’re planning to run your Pi 3 on battery power.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Verdict

The improvements aren’t dramatic for the Pi 3, and there’s a lot more competition now than there used to be, but there’s enough here to maintain the credit-card sized computer’s reputation as the hobbyists development board of choice.

The built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, reduced power consumption and increased performance all add up, and the fact that it’s still £32 serves to seal the deal. If you liked the Raspberry Pi 2 you’ll love the Raspberry Pi 3. Go out and buy one.

Further reading: Raspberry Pi Zero review – huge possibilities and a tiny price

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