Today, dear worst-reader, it is time to take another look at worst-writer’s experience with a/the wonder of the tech world. I’m worst-writing, of course, about nothing other than my favourite computing platform the Raspberry Pi. Specifically. I’m reviewing today my trusty Raspberry Pi 4 after having fiddled with it for the past two years as a desktop alternative, among other uses. For those not in the know and at the risk of being a bit redundant, Raspberry Pi is, IMHO, the mostest tech hardware innovation since the #interwebnet itself. But don’t worry. I know. Some worst-readers think that the personal computer (Mac or PC) or the smart-phone or tablets or gaming or cloud computing, etc., should be included in any claim of great tech innovations. But I’ll leave that worst-argument for a different worst-post.
As far as my experience with single board computing (SBC) goes, I’ve currently got four Raspberry Pi’s in full-time use as media and/or audio players in my little townhouse. In other words, I’ve replaced ALL old-school tv receivers, radio, stereo, video, etc., with SBCs. Other than Raspberry Pi, I’m also using a RockPro64 SBC running Jellyfin media server. This device is also my home data server using Samba that includes 6TB of data storage. Along side that I have a Rock64 (the little brother of the RockPro64) running an ad-block server. Both these devices are from Pine64.org which is also a great SBC maker. Unfortunately, and once again, IMHO, Pine64 takes a backseat to Raspberry Pi when it comes ease of use, setup and software. But that’s neither here or there. These are all great devices. That worst-said. All my SBCs, except the RPi4 being worst-reviewed today, are running linux and I manage them headless via SSH. But let me not get too far off subject.
The device I’m pseudo-reviewing today is a Raspberry Pi 4b with 4gb of RAM. It is one of the first iterations of this board, which also means that there is a new iteration that can do a bit more $hits & giggles. There’s also a Raspberry Pi keyboard-computer that came out two years ago which has the same specs as mine, but don’t worry, I won’t be getting into product iteration details here. Or will I? #Nomatter. Let’s move on.
I’ve been testing my RPi4 as a desktop PC ersatz for a while now. In other words. Although my daily computing driver is a 2017 12″ Macbook with i5 CPU and accelerated 500gb HDD–which cost around sixteen hundred Euros new–I’ve often wondered, since the day I started fiddling with Raspberry Pi’s, if I could actually quit Apple (and thereby quit standard, old-school PCs) and use an SBC instead. I mean. Heck. Come on. Even with all the covid BS and subsequent economic downturn and supply chain issues, inflation, greed-galore, etc., SBCs cost a fraction of a traditional PC. As I worst-write this post and, although they are pretty much out of stock in Germany, a Raspberry Pi is still worth its weight in gold compared to my MacBook. Indeed. As far as old school desktop PC work goes, I think I’m finally coming around to accepting what may ultimately be my future in computing. In fact. I’ve fiddled enough with Raspberry Pi to learn, in a pinch, I could even make the likes of an RPi3b a total and functional desktop device. Worst or best case scenario considered, one just has to curb some enthusiasm–as the saying goes–and these things work like a charm even if they are a bit slow. The only serious issue one has to consider when making this leap is the tech learning curve compared to old-school computing, which boils down to convenience. More on that in a sec.
I’ve tested three operating systems for regular use while considering the RPi4 as a desktop device. The first is Raspberry Pi OS, formerly known as Raspbian (if I’ve got the vernacular correct). The second OS is Manjaro. And the third OS I’ve tried is DietPi. Long story short, you can forget DietPi as a desktop alternative. It’s just too cumbersome. As a headless device, though, it’s all I use. That said, as of the 64bit version of Raspberry Pi OS, it is the clear winner. The only reason that Manjaro loses out in this race boils down to my choice of keyboard and Bluetooth. I’m using an old Bluetooth Apple keyboard. I’ve NEVER been able to get this keyboard to work consistently with Manjaro or DietPi. And let me tell you, I’ve since learned a thing or three about configuring via bluetoothctl. That is, if/when I have to restart the OS–which is often–I have to go through the whole reconnect thingy with the keyboard. With the recent 64bit upgrade to Raspberry Pi OS, though, it seems to connect directly, #nomatter how many times I restart. That means I don’t have to worry about replacing my trusty old Mac keyboard that I’ve been using for the better part of ten years.
As far as software, looks & feel, Manjaro is the clear winner. It’s impressive what the Manjaro team has done. It doesn’t win based on the amount of software available, though, or its ease of use. The interface of Manjaro–especially the Gnome and KDE versions–are simply brilliant. In fact, Manjaro is so good it made me give up on Ubuntu, hence the reason it’s not in the running for my favourite Raspberry Pi OS. For whatever reason, Ubuntu has always been the most bloated and slowest OS I’ve tried.
As far as interface and design goes Raspberry Pi OS is totally functional. It’s not as pretty as Manjaro but it certainly gets the job done. Although its software repository is borderline obnoxious to use and it reminds me of everything I hate about computing, once you get used to it, it works. But. Then again. Beggars (or hunters for free software) can’t be choosy, eh. The simple fact is, for worst-writer, after two years of fiddling, the recent Raspberry Pi OS 64bit on the RPi4 is killer good. It works like any OS for real world computing and that’s pretty impressive stuff.
Is this thing a viable PC ersatz?
The learning curve
As indicated, the only thing that should hold anyone back from using a Pi as a desktop PC is getting it to work consistently, which in and of itself might be the only reason to not use it. Considering how much it costs, though, should also make this decision a no brainer. Even though flashing a micro SD card is fairly straight forward, maintaining the card w/ backups and data recovery is cumbersome. For what ever reason and error on my part, I’m sure, I’ve lost two SD cards to data corruption. I attribute that to the constant requirement to do hard restarts every now and then. The Debian based Linux kernel works like a charm but it still has ALL the quirks and challenges of Linux. For example. Accessing the software repository leads to the majority of crashes and restarts I’ve experienced. I have no idea why but I’m sure it all has to do with my lack of linux abilities. Configuring and personalising the interface is also a challenge and I pretty much refrain from fiddling with it anymore. Until the recent 64Bit update, though, maintaining OS updates was also a challenge. Now it works like a charm. But that’s probably all higher tech stuff that normal users shouldn’t be bothered with. Word processing, note taking, file management, connecting to my network, surfing the #interwebnets works flawlessly, albeit sometimes a bit slow.
Considering the one-way greed street that is the tech industry–where nothing seems to change in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned–it’s a wonder to me that the Raspberry Pi isn’t more wide spread as a desktop alternative. Perhaps its keyboard design will change that. Even at its current inflated price, though, it’s certainly worth consideration. Hopefully when this stupid economic and covid crisis is over the Raspberry Pi foundation can get back on the development good-ship and up the ante with upgrading its specs. Not sure how that can be done, though, with its 5v power consumption and credit card size. It is entertaining to watch videos of guys out there adding water cooling to coincide with over-clocking. Which begs the question: am I ready to replace my Mac for this thing? Maybe not right now because I can afford a new Mac. But what is clear, as far as tech in my house goes, there’s nothing that can beat these little things.