Raspberry Pi 3 review: Still the ultimate hobbyist computer?

Raspberry Pi 3 review
Our Rating
Price when reviewed
30
inc VAT

The latest version of the budget maker board builds on the success of its predecessors

Pros
Drains less power than the Pi 2
Wide choice of operating systems
Cons
Wi-Fi isn’t very quick

Update: The Raspberry Pi 3 is an excellent hobbyist’s mini PC, but since this review was first written a new, faster, better-equipped version has emerged.

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+  has faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi where the original Pi 3 Model B has 802.11n. It has faster wired networking, with 300Mbits/sec Ethernet. And the processor is a tad nippier as well.

The practical differences aren’t huge, though, so if you can find the Model B at a discount the Model B is still worth picking up. If not, it makes more sense to opt for a Model B+ instead.

Our original Raspberry Pi 3 review continues below:

Raspberry Pi 3 review: In full

It may have sold more than eight million of its Pi mini-computers, but the Raspberry Pi Foundation wasn’t resting on its laurels when it came up with its latest flagship model. The Pi 3 (or, to use its full name, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B) can claim an impressive list of features of features and upgrades from the Pi 2, including a speed boost (the Foundation claims a 50% increase) as well as built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability. The inclusion of Wi-Fi is particularly handy, as it means you’ll no longer need to take up one of your precious USB ports with a Wi-Fi adapter.

There have also been some changes to the physical layout of the Pi 3’s motherboard, although it remains physically the same size as the Pi 2. The power and activity lights have migrated from the top left to the bottom left of the board, which may be a problem depending on your case’s design. The RUN (reset) header is now on the other side of the GPIO pins.

One change we approve of is that the microSD card slot has switched from a spring-loaded model to a simpler friction slot. This is one less thing to go wrong: we’ve had a spring-loaded slot break on a Pi 2 and had to hold the microSD card in with electrical tape.

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The more straightforward friction slot means that the tape stays in the drawer. Otherwise, it’s business as usual, with four USB ports and Ethernet on the rear, plus HDMI and a 3.5mm audio and composite video port. The all-important 40 general-purpose input/output pins are present for hobbyist use, as are the interfaces for the optional camera and LCD display modules.

Image of Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Quad Core CPU 1.2 GHz 1 GB RAM Motherboard

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Quad Core CPU 1.2 GHz 1 GB RAM Motherboard

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The easiest way to install an operating system on the Raspberry Pi is to download the NOOBS installer from raspberrypi.org and copy it to a microSD card, which should be 8GB minimum, and ideally rated at Class 10, the fastest you can get. When you boot up the Pi, you’ll get a choice of operating systems to install, from the easy-to-use Linux distro Raspbian to the OpenELEC media centre to the twilight zone of RISC OS. While Raspbian will be the default OS of choice for many, having the option of so many operating systems through NOOBS is brilliant.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Wi-Fi

In the office, we initially had some trouble with the Raspberry Pi 3’s Wi-Fi; it was fussy about connecting to a number of routers, and when it finally managed to connect, we only achieved a throughput of around 1Mbit/sec. However, we had no such trouble testing with identical networking equipment at home.

We, therefore, suspect that the office environment was just too noisy for the Pi 3 to cope, owing to the dozens of routers and Wi-Fi-enabled computers in the vicinity. When testing the Pi 3’s Wi-Fi throughput at home, we were pleasantly surprised by its range, especially considering the Pi 3 has such a tiny Wi-Fi antenna. At 10m distance from the router and through a couple of walls, the Pi 3 managed to transfer data at 12Mbits/sec, compared to 26Mbits/sec for an 802.11n laptop. Transfer rates weren’t much quicker when we were right next to the router, however; here we saw a maximum of 19Mbits/sec, compared to over 80Mbits/sec from our laptop.

This means the Pi 3’s Wi-Fi isn’t quick enough to max out the average fibre broadband connection, but it’s certainly fine for web browsing, downloading software packages and audio and video streaming.

Raspberry Pi 3 review: Performance

The Pi 2 was equipped with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 chip, but on the Pi 3 it’s a faster Cortex-A53. This makes no difference to boot times, which is around 35 seconds for both systems but LibreOffice ran perceptibly smoother, especially when manipulating vector images in Draw and zooming in and out. YouTube videos were still jerky, but we managed to play 1080p video smoothly using the command-line OMXPlayer.

It’s also a lot faster than the (even smaller) Raspberry Pi Zero W. Running the Sysbench test to verify prime numbers up to 10,000, the Pi 3 completed the task in 182.49 seconds, while the Pi Zero W took 530.27 seconds. As the Pi 3 has a quad-core CPU, it can also improve its completion time to 45.86 seconds by running four threads.

Raspberry Pi 3 review

The video core has had a bump from 250MHz to 400MHz, so we thought we’d get Quake 3 running on the Pi 3 using Raspbian’s guide. Using the game’s built-in benchmark, saw 64.3fps on the Pi 3 at 1,024 x 768 resolution. This is the same frame rate as the Raspberry Pi 2, so the 50MHz increase in the graphics clock speed doesn’t seem to make a difference in this title.

The Pi 3’s processor throttled back to 600MHz when the system was at idle, while according to the CPU clock speed command we ran, the Pi 2’s processor always ran at 900MHz. This made a considerable 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. This is a 22% power saving at idle, which is not to be sniffed at. Despite the lower power drain, the Pi 3 was also able to power up and access a 3TB external laptop hard disk, something the Pi 2 couldn’t manage.

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