Using a Raspberry Pi as your main desktop computer

I have been using a Raspberry Pi as my main computer since they released the 3 B version (about 4 years?), and it occured to me that most people buy laptops for 1000 USD (instead of go stones!), so I thought I would share this life hack with you.

Because people like to blitz-read, I will just make some bullet lists with facts and snarky opinions:

Pros:

  • It is fairly cheap. A Raspberry Pi 4 with 8 GB RAM, which is the fastest variant, is about 100 USD.
  • You run Linux or *BSD on it.
  • It is expendable. When it breaks, you buy a new chip and plug it in.
  • You can plug in a powered USB hub into it, and plug external harddrives into it, because you probably don’t want your gigabytes of data on the SD card. (I have been doing this for years, yes there is some latency because it’s USB, but the bottleneck is usually not your USB transfer speed.)
  • Pretty much anything with USB works, but some things will draw too much power, requiring a powered USB hub.
  • You can even install things like the PostgreSQL server on it and use the SD card as your RDBMS storage. (There is, of course, no reason why this wouldn’t work, but I am still a little surprised that it works so well.)
  • Try the FLIRC case, which is a huge heatsink connected to the CPU for passive cooling (it even cools the RPI 4 at constant maximum load).
  • It is much easier to set up than you think. In most cases you just write an aarch64 image to an SD card, insert it and power it on.
  • My first Raspberry isn’t even broken yet, despite being used daily for many years. I thought it would break fast so I got 2 identical chips, but I haven’t had to replace it yet and the spare chip is just gathering dust.

Cons:

  • It is actually a lie that you only need the chip. You also need a screen (HDMI or micro-HDMI; you can use a converter if you have a VGA screen), a keyboard, a mouse, speakers, a microphone, and a case. The screen is the most expensive component.
  • But I like that you plug everything into it, so when something breaks, you throw it away and plug in something else. It is not like a laptop which is hopeless to fix.
  • It will not run extremely heavy programs. I think you can forget about it if you need to run 10 Java backends, CAD or an Android emulator. Your relatively modern laptop will be significantly faster.
  • But you can run most things. In my opinion most people will be happy as long as they have a web browser. You can certainly get into Facebook or whatever anti-social media you are into.
  • Some operating systems do not fully support the Pi, such as OpenBSD. If I remember correctly, OpenBSD supports the Beaglebone, but I never bothered with it because of the UFS/ext4 mismatch.
  • I am not sure that all hardware will actually work, but my hardware happens to work.
  • When I say “easy”, I might be lying a little bit, because I have been programming in a dozen different languages since childhood. Still, I think you can do it if you can use a search engine and follow instructions.
  • If you want full disk encryption on your SD card, then it’s not easy anymore. Even I think it’s a pain in the ass to set up.
  • When I say “relatively fast”, I might also be lying, because it’s not slow when I only run a terminal in the TWM window manager and a web browser.

It doesn’t have to be a RPI. It can also be an Arduino, Beaglebone or one the things made by Pine64 (the guys who make the open source PinePhone). You can probably find some faster board, too.

So there’s your next computer. Give Bill Gates the finger and try it out. :hatching_chick:

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I agree! I don’t have one anymore but have had previously. I currently have no need for one as my work and university provide me with laptops to do work for them and I have a phone and a tablet for personal use. I gave my Raspberry to my brother-in-law as he’s into that sort of thing. I also had a Beagle Bone Black that I used as a web / VPN server but that burnt itself out after about 4-5 years of continuous usage! I had minimal prior experience setting up computers or using Linux but I picked it up very easily, mainly by intuition rather than guides. So I agree that it’s very easy to set up.

A couple of extra points to add to the list:

  • There is a version of Raspberry Pi with a super low price point. I think it is the Raspberry Pi Zero and it was originally retailing at only £5. They even gave some away free on magazine covers! Lower spec obviously but that is cheap!

  • If you are concerned about privacy, security, software freedom, etc. note that the Raspberry Pi uses free and open source software for its operating system but uses proprietary software for its bootloader, whereas the Beagle Bone Black uses free and open source software for both. Other than that, there’s no practical difference as far as I can tell. The Beagle Bone Black I got was about £60.

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+1 for being an open source taliban. This is a much more important issue than people realize, and my next SoC may not be a Raspberry Pi for this reason.

If it is closed source, then you have NO CONTROL, and there is NO WAY to know what the program is doing. It is all but impossible to understand what a compiled binary does (it is optimized machine code), but it is very easy to understand it if you have the human-readable source code and can compile it yourself. Look into what happened to Lavabit (an obscure webmail provider): the US government forced them to provide a backdoor and gave them a gag order. So any closed source products coming from the USA (Microsoft, Apple, Google et c) can not be trusted unless they are completely open. Any sufficiently popular product can be presumed to have government backdoors. It is really nasty to want to keep tabs on ordinary citizens in this 1984-esque way.

I forgot to mention:

  • There is a Raspberry Pi 400 which is a SoC inside a keyboard, which you plug in to a screen. It is very clever, it uses a huge heatsink inside the keyboard for passive cooling.
  • The PinePhone can apparently be used as a computer with the “convergence kit”. The PC and the phone are merging. Mainframe → PC → phone.
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