Is the Raspberry Pi a Rip-Off?

Let me start by saying that I like the Raspberry Pi, I own four of them. I’m also a big fan of the Foundation’s aims. The title of this piece is pure click-bait.

That said, I happened to be perusing the second-hand listings for computers on eBay recently, in response to a forum post, and was amazed at how much you can get for not a lot of money. The prices were so reasonable they got me thinking.

It must be something about January, as I have written before about the price of second-hand PCs, back in 2013. I’ve also asked where the cheap computers were, because prices seem to stay pretty static for new computers, with very little change in real-world performance.

That means you can pick up a lot of machine for little money. How little? Well cheaper than a Raspberry Pi.

The Cost of Pi

The Raspberry Pi was designed to offer an affordable computer to encourage tinkering and learning, and it does. The Pi Zero retails for around £4 ($5), if you can get hold of one. They go up to about £30 for the most powerful model (the Pi 3 Model B at the time of writing).

That is just for the board though. To actually use it you also need:

  • Case
  • Power supply
  • Storage (SD card)
  • Monitor
  • Keyboard and mouse

For the purposes of this exercise I assumed we were using an existing monitor or TV (as the Pi was designed to). I also decided to ignore the keyboard and mouse as the cost cancels out regardless of which option you choose.

I opted for the Pi 3 for the price comparison because it’s the first of the machines to offer a pretty usable desktop experience (by all accounts). The Zero is obviously much cheaper, but to make it usable you need to buy a bunch of cables (mini-HDMI to HDMI, USB and hub), which drives the price up. Plus the weaker performance would impact use as a ‘daily driver.’

With that in mind, I put together a list of prices (correct at the time of writing) from the Foundation’s distributor (element14). I excluded any postage fees, but included VAT.

Pi £33.98
Case £6.60
Power supply £7.80
Storage £10.74
Total £59.12

The Power of PC

I started off looking at new PCs to see how they compared. I didn’t do a lot of digging, I just used eBuyer for prices.

They had an Acer with a 1.6Ghz Pentium chip, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive for £203.99. That didn’t include Windows, but I excluded the cost of an OS as you could easily install Linux on it for free, much like the Pi.

I could have dropped the price well below £200 if I had opted for one of the more unusual processors. Even so, you’re talking a ‘proper’ PC costing nearly three times as much.

Stick It to the Pi

While on eBuyer I also stumbled across a new class of computer: the stick. This takes the shape of something not much bigger than a USB drive, with an HDMI connector on one end, usually sporting an Atom-class processor.

Most were around the £150 mark, but the Hanspree PC on a Stick was on offer. The 1.83Ghz processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB SSD and copy of Windows 8.1 meant it packed quite a punch, destroying the Pi in a terms of raw power.

All that came for the princely sum of £56.99. So not only more powerful, not only with a copy of Windows, but cheaper than a Pi to boot.

It obviously has some drawbacks. For starters there’s no option to upgrade it, and there’s little in the way of connections. But it’d do a perfectly good job as a desktop PC for most normal users.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Next stop was eBay. As I said, this is what started me thinking. I set myself a limit of £60, essentially matching the cost of the Pi (except I included delivery).

It didn’t take long to find a Lenovo equipped with an early generation i3 processor, 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive. The example was a little worn, but was surrounded by plenty of Core 2 Duo machines, many having 4GB of RAM and 500GB hard drives.

In terms of performance any of them would easily beat the Pi. That said, they probably wouldn’t come with Bluetooth or wireless. These could be added for a few pounds if needed, and you could reduce the price spent on the machine to compensate.

To be fair, I could have gone a lot lower. Even at £25 (delivered) there were dual-core processors attached to 2GB of RAM and 300GB hard drives. Any of those would be more than sufficient for general use.

Incidentally, the prices for laptops aren’t far behind, and they come with keyboard, mouse, screen and wireless.

Set the Table

Here’s how they line up:

Pi New PC PC Stick 2nd Hand PC
Computer £33.98 £203.99 £56.99 £59.99
Case £6.60
Power supply £7.80
Storage £10.74
Total £59.12 £203.99 £56.99 £59.99

It’s a Platform, Dummy

Obviously this all depends what you want your machine for. While the computers I’ve described above are way more powerful and would offer a more rounded experience for someone using a desktop, plus options to add features and upgrade components, the Pi is much smaller, silent, very energy efficient and comes with ports to allow connection and expansion in a way that isn’t easy with a regular PC.

It would be very difficult to build a robot using a regular size PC, for example, or a weather station to live outdoors, in fact using one as the brains for any project would be a challenge.

That’s before you get to the community, documentation, projects and add-ons built for the Pi, many of which rely on the standardisation of the hardware.

If all you want is a PC to check your email, surf the web and do basic office tasks, which is 90% of people, there are likely other, better, options though. And you can not only save money, but get a more usable machine into the bargain.

Is the Pi a rip-off? No. It’s designed around a specific purpose. It soaks up a lot of attention though and a lot of people may find cheaper options to serve their needs elsewhere (and help reduce electronic waste too).

A Final Thought

The Raspberry Pi was created to fill a gap, to provide an affordable platform in order to encourage more people into Computer Science. It has undoubtedly done that, but should the foundation embrace the wider PC community and provide resources to help people make use of older, more powerful hardware, which would also encourage recycling? Not for me to say, but their support could have a big impact.

To be fair, they have already taken a step in that direction, with the recent release of the PIXEL desktop environment. Separating their goal from the hardware takes the whole enterprise to a new level and opens the possibilities to a much wider audience.