Raspberry Pi 4 unveiled; interview with founder Eben Upton
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Raspberry Pi has launched its fourth-generation device which features Ram and processor improvements as well as the ability to output to two screens simultaneously and play 4K video.
Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi founder and co-creator of the miniature Linux-based device, said the new computer is the first Raspberry Pi to deliver on the kind of desktop experience that consumers expect without any of the performance-related “compromises” experienced with the earlier generations.
For the first time, the machine will be available with up to 4GB of Ram and a range of pricier bundle packages will also include a mouse, keyboard, SD card, power supply, cables and case.
New features also include gigabit ethernet, a step up from the 100mbit ports of previous generations that proved to be a sore point for enthusiasts, and USB 3.0 ports, rather than 2.0.
Originally launched in 2012, the Pi is a single-board computer running off an Arm chip that is designed to be low-cost, user customisable and was created with education and developing countries in mind.
With its enhanced specs allowing for greater media capabilities, the Raspberry Pi 4 is also being aimed at more traditional consumer markets as a cheap media centre or Linux desktop environment.
E&T spoke to Upton (pictured) to discuss all things Pi and why he is more excited about the Raspberry Pi 4 than previous generations.
On the Raspberry Pi 4
“I can’t decide if this is the most exciting thing we’ve done since Raspberry Pi 2 or the most exciting thing we’ve done ever. It is the realisation of the dream; it’s a PC and this is the first time that there really are no compromises.
“If you think about who’s buying Raspberry Pis, you’ve got people buying it for industrial use, you’ve got hobbyists and makers and then you have a pool of people who are buying it as a genuine consumer-end product.
“We’ve sold about 26 or 27 million lifetime so far, six million last year. Probably half of those went to industry. It’s now an ultra-HD (4K) platform, whereas previous generations were restricted to 1080P video playback.
“We’ve put quite a lot of effort this time into the UX, into polishing everything a little bit and making the user interface look modern and flat.
“We’ve moved down a process node [on the Arm processor] so we were on 40nm and we’re now on 28nm. The energy savings that you get from that then pay for the extra performance that you get out of it.
“It is now USB-C for power, not because we want to have more power on the board, but because we want to have more power left over to pass down to outbound USB [like keyboards and mice]. There isn’t really the ability to consume more thermally, it’s hard to consume more on the board.
On manufacturing and how automation makes Wales cheaper than China
“We’ve seen manufacturing costs decrease. If you think about what goes into a Raspberry Pi, you have components, you have manufacturing costs and taking those components and making a working product. And then you have margin.
“What’s happened is that margins have stayed largely the same and we’ve squeezed manufacturing costs through automation and expanded the fraction of the end price devoted to components. Particularly putting Wi-FiI on was a significant extra slug of cash per unit [Wi-Fi was first added in 2016 with the Raspberry Pi 3].
“You’ve got three things that are driving an increase in performance: you’ve got Moore’s law; you’ve got the general cheapening of electronics; you have automation, which reduces the manufacturing cost element, and then you have economies of scale, effectively purchasing power.
“It was a very different world when we were building 10,000 versus now when we build six million units a year. We tend to pass those through to consumers: when we get cost savings in any of those areas, we tend to put more value into the product, rather than making a bigger profit. It’s one of the things that’s meant that we’ve stayed competitive over time.
“It’s a lower cost to make [Raspberry Pi’s] in the UK than in China. We did it in 2012, we built it in China. I think at low volume it is cheaper because you use more people and people are cheaper in China.
“As you get to more scaling, particularly with a fairly low-touch product like this, where you can put a lot of automation into the manufacturing, you’ll find that the excellence in automation design that we have in this country burns through any labour advantage over China.
“Even in 2012, we were at landed cost parity. We started building in the UK within six months of launch. At that point, the factory gate cost was a little higher in the UK, but once you’ve landed, China and the UK were the same.
“With increasing automation we’ve opened a massive gap between what this cost to make in China and what this cost to make in Wales. We’re not moving stuff to the UK because we’re nice guys; we build in the UK because we’re cheap. That's a core part of the value and the way we can deliver the product at price.
“We used to have manual inspection and tests for the first generation. This doesn't exist any more. Right now, somebody takes the PI, breaks it out of a panel, puts it in a little carrier, it gets whisked off into completely automated machinery.
“About one in a thousand gets scrapped. That's still a lot of units if you're making six million; you end up with a couple of pallets a year of scrap.
On developing countries and why it’s so hard to sell computers in Brazil
“We’ve spent quite a long time trying to get Raspberry Pis into the Brazil market and that’s because it’s so tax heavy. It's very difficult: Brazil really wants you to manufacture your products in Brazil.
“We tried manufacturing products in Brazil and couldn’t figure out how to sell them, so we just exported them to the US. We built around 1,000 in Brazil and they just sat there in the factory while we tried to figure out what the tax situation for them was. Even though we built them in Brazil, it was almost impossible to figure out.
“Then you have places like sub-Saharan Africa. One thing about this product is that it has analogue television output, so you can run this desktop on a composite telly from 1960. The thing is, Africa itself is rammed full of old televisions.
“The interesting thing about TVs in the developing world is that people buy them before they buy refrigerators. Televisions are useful if you have intermittent electricity, you can use it sometimes. If you have seriously intermittent electricity, refrigeration is of no use.
“I've been roundly mocked for keeping composite in the feature set, but it's specifically for this Africa problem.
“You've also got two HDMI connectors and you've got four USB ports, so you can plug two monitors, two mice, two keyboards in and you have a multi-user session. That obviously halves your hardware cost.”
On getting Windows to run on a Raspberry Pi
“So, there are two Windows Arm versions. There’s this thing called Windows 10 IOT which does run on Raspberry Pis but it’s not the familiar desktop environment. It’s great, but we don’t describe that as ‘We run Windows’ because we’re just setting people up for disappointment.
“There is then the Windows Arm version that runs on always-on ultrabook PCs. Some people have managed to get some versions of that running on earlier versions of Raspberry Pis.
“We would love to work with Microsoft to have Windows on Raspberry Pi, there is a value proposition for it which is primarily around Office, but we're not there yet.
“The Raspberry Pi 4 has enough performance to run Windows extremely well. There would be some substantial pieces of software engineering to make it work, but there are no conceptual barriers. It has enough performance. I mean, it’s more powerful than any Windows PC from a decade ago.”
On the Raspberry Pi 5 and hopes for the future
“What’s interesting is that with Raspberry Pi 3 we had some of everything, so we had wired networking, wireless networking, USB, processing, graphics and general purpose interfacing.
“It takes about three years [to develop each generation of the Pi]. The quickest we’ve ever done was about 18 months, on the Pi 3. The longest we've ever done was these 3 years for the Pi 4.
“[The Raspberry Pi 4] is just the same, but more. Where we had USB 2.0, we now have USB 3.0. Where we had 100 megabit ethernet, we have gigabit ethernet. Where we had a gigabyte of Ram, we now have up to four. Where we had an A53 processor we now have an A72.
“But there’s nothing on there which is qualitatively different; it’s all just quantitative. That’s probably not an unreasonable description of where we might find ourselves.
“There’s 16nm and 7nm as the obvious next stopping points [for future processors]. We don’t have any plans at the moment, but there are places left to go. This platform should be good for another few years.
“28 is a great process, the nice thing about arriving so late is that it’s a very stable process. We might stay on it for five to seven years while we wait for 16 to get a bit cheaper or for 7 to stop being so unstable.”
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