Exploring the new Raspberry Pi Zero

What I Really Think

For desktop home hackers, the cost savings of a Pi Zero is a bit of an illusion, because the cost of replacing the missing components brings the price very close to the RPi2 price. For specific uses that don't require networking or more than one free USB port, the Pi Zero is a welcome addition to the conversation.

Trying the Pi Zero was interesting, but you know what else would have been interesting? Trying the more powerful $50 model that Upton was going to build before Schmidt talked him out of it. The gradual progression of the ultra-low-priced Raspberry Pi toward the power and performance of a standard desktop computer seems incredibly interesting – and perhaps more revolutionary than the auxiliary effort to put out a scaled-down system that cuts costs by cutting back on the number of ports.

I can see why Schmidt thinks it is a good idea to get the system down to the lowest possible price, because his company makes money by giving services away and then extracting value by exploiting user relationships. The Google business model, however, is not suited for the Raspberry Pi environment, and I'm pretty sure the Raspberry Pi Foundation has no interest in going that direction.

To illustrate the problem of a cost barrier that the Pi Zero is intended to address, Upton kicks off the Pi Zero launch video by pointing to an ancient BBC Microcomputer he bought in 1989, which, he says, required him to "drain all the money" he had, including his piggy bank and savings. However, the £220 he paid in 1989 would be worth something like $600-$800 today, which is truly different from the "barrier" presented by a $35 Raspberry Pi that would create the need for a $5 Raspberry Pi alternative.

Given the scope of the full Raspberry Pi infrastructure – the price of the surrounding devices and the time and effort invested in maintaining a system – the cost difference between a $35 Raspberry Pi and a $5 Raspberry Pi really is negligible.

Of course, the Pi developers have every right to experiment and innovate. If the goal is to establish this $5 price point and then slowly add features back in so the Pi Zero eventually approximates the performance of an RPi2, that would indeed be interesting – but it hasn't happened yet.

An RPi2B is better equipped and more convenient for everyday uses than a Pi Zero. To be sure, buyers have the right to buy something just because they want to, even if it isn't better than something they have already bought – especially if it only costs five bucks. Upton says the Pi Zero "costs the same as a latte," and it is worth remembering that lots of people buy a latte just because they want a latte; they don't have to prove that they need latte or that this latte is up to the standard set by a different latte.

If you're not an embedded programmer and are a basic maker/hacker type, I don't see a big reason for using a Pi Zero if you already have an RPi2 unless the smaller form factor is useful for your design. Intuitively, it seems like the subset of users who have the wherewithal and resources to support a Raspberry Pi home environment but are stymied by the high cost of a $35 computer is relatively small; however, some Pi users in third-world economies or brainiac pre-teens funding their Pi experiments on a fixed allowance will welcome the new $5 model.

Although you don't hear about it much at Raspberry Pi community websites, the Raspberry Pi product line also serves a segment the embedded development industry, providing single-board systems as a tool for prototyping, or even as mass-produced embedded boards that require a full-OS level of processing power. For this embedded market, the Pi Zero is a valuable addition.


My profoundest hope for the new year is that the Pi Foundation keeps its longstanding commitment to delivering an incredibly rich hacker experience and doesn't get distracted with chasing products that are designed to maximize the social media appeal. The progression from the RPi1A and B to the RPiB+ to the RPi2 was all about adding power and capability while holding a constant price. The Pi Zero hits significantly under that price, but it also stops the march toward more powerful and versatile systems.

The Raspberry Pi developers should be commended for shrinking the Pi to such a tiny size and shrinking the price to as little as $5. Is the Pi Zero a real contender for maker board marketshare? I honestly wouldn't bet on it. For most users, the hours of hacking pleasure working on a faster machine with more features and fewer cabling issues easily justifies the $30 additional cost.

The Pi Zero will probably find a niche with embedded developers who want to fit Pi-level processing power into a tiny space or manufacturers who want to shave off unit cost for a larger device with a Pi inside. As for me? I'm going to plug my RPi2 back in and keep using it until I need a Raspberry Pi that fits inside a baby shoe or a matchbox car, at which point, I'll definitely rely on the Raspberry Pi Zero.

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