Can You Replace Your Desktop PC With a Raspberry Pi 4?

Here’s why I won’t be tossing out my desktop PC anytime soon

Raspberry Pi 4 Model B. Image: Raspberry Pi
Image courtesy of the author

Why the Raspberry Pi?

Of course, motivations for using the Raspberry Pi can vary. You may need an inexpensive Linux desktop for learning. You may not have the money for a full-fledged PC. I have long wanted a 100% silent and low-power computer to use as a media center and “typewriter.” Using the power-consuming 500W Core I7 desktop PC just to type this text seems a bit redundant for me, at least in terms of reducing the energy footprint. (I don’t care about the electricity bill; I care about the environment.) I tried using Samsung DeX as a desktop, and the experience was generally very positive — for typing and watching videos on the big screen, my Samsung Galaxy S10 is powerful enough. But the Android software that can work in desktop mode is limited, and not every website displays correctly using Android in desktop mode with a mouse. And DeX is still Android, with many limitations of the smartphone-based operating system. Linux is another matter — complete freedom in terms of SSH access, installing any libraries, components, a fully functional terminal, USB, GPIO, and hardware support. Sounds promising. Let’s see how it works.

Source: Kiwi Electronics
Image courtesy of the author

Part I: Raspbian

Before we start, let me remind you of the Raspberry Pi 4 specs. The Raspberry Pi 400 has similar capabilities, so almost everything described below is also true for it.

  • 2, 4, or 8GB LPDDR4–3200 SDRAM memory
  • Wi-Fi 2.4/5.0 GHz, Bluetooth 5.0, BLE
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports; 2 USB 2.0 ports
  • Support for two monitors, micro-HDMI connectors (up to 4kp60 resolution)
  • Support of H.265 (4kp60 decode), H264 (1080p60 decode, 1080p30 encode)
over_voltage=2
arm_freq=1750
Photo courtesy of the author

Web browser

Things turned out to be not so simple with the web browser. First, the Chromium browser comes preinstalled with Raspbian, and Chromium is not the same as Chrome. I don’t know if they really have the same core, but some news sites wouldn’t play the video, and Amazon Prime refused to work at all, giving a message about an incompatible browser. The main page opens normally.

Wi-Fi speed

Programming

With programming, everything is quite good. Of course, the Raspberry Pi can’t replace most professional desktops, but in general, it can run almost all programming languages and frameworks, from Python to Fortran.

Image courtesy of the author

Part 2: Ubuntu 20.04.1

Ubuntu 20.10 Groovy Gorilla has official support for the Raspberry Pi 4, and as announced, the Raspberry Pi is now a “first-class citizen” for this version. Let’s try to figure out what came of this and how “first class” corresponds to reality.

Ubuntu 20.04.1 LTS install

The installation process is not much different from the standard Raspbian installation. We need to download the system image, write it to a micro SD card, and start the device. The images themselves can be downloaded from ubuntu.com/download/raspberry-pi:

network:
ethernets:
eth0:
dhcp4: true
optional: true
version: 2
wifis:
wlan0:
optional: true
access-points:
"MYWIFIPOINT":
password: "12345678"
dhcp4: true
Image courtesy of the author

First impressions

The very first impression is that the system is really buggy. For version 20.04.1, you can simply open window by window and record bugs:

Image courtesy of the author
  • Audio: By default, for an unknown reason, the headphone output is always active — there is no sound on the display speakers. I can switch the sound to HDMI in the settings, but it all reverts back after a reboot.
  • Application manager: The built-in application manager looks quite nice:

Web browser

Let’s return to the browser. The main hopes were on it because built-in Chromium is limited in DRM functionality. Indeed, Google makes it possible to download Chrome for Ubuntu:

Part 3: The latest Ubuntu 20.10

This version, at the time of writing this article, had the status “latest development release with nine months of support, until July 2021.” That means this is not the final release. But in comparison with what it was, it will definitely not be worse.

Conclusion

To be honest, for me, the final conclusion on Raspbian vs. Ubuntu has not yet emerged. Raspbian is more stable, but the latest version of Ubuntu looks much more attractive in terms of design, and the speed and smoothness of the interface in the latest version has significantly increased. For now, I switched back to Raspbian — Ubuntu bugs are a bit annoying, and Raspbian is faster.

  • Be aware that when you buy the Raspberry Pi 4, you get only the board. By default, you get no case, no cooling, no power button, no power supply, no SD card or slot for SSD. The final price will be definitely bigger.
  • The big disadvantage is the lack of official DRM support in the web browser. You can use third-party tools, but in the default configuration, you won’t be able to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime. As I understand, it’s a legal issue, not a technical one, and I hope the Raspberry Pi team can finally solve it.
  • The latest Ubuntu Desktop 20.10 was still in the beta stage at the time of writing this article (November 2020). Its design looks nice, but the benchmark results in Ubuntu are still lower than on Raspbian.

Python and IoT Developer, science and ham radio enthusiast

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