Not that many years ago, buying a new PC meant spending hundreds of dollars just for an entry level machine. Fortunately these days the barrier to entry has been greatly reduced.
Thanks to innovations in lower end computing options, one can get a brand new computer for the price of a steak dinner. The most commonly known of these lower-end computing options is known as the Raspberry Pi.
In this article I’ll look at whether the Raspberry Pi is capable of becoming a proper replacement for a desktop PC.
Need vs want
It’s been my experience that a lot of people buy more computer than they actually need. These days the average person uses their browser almost exclusively. There are exceptions to this, such as picture management or music management, however generally the browser is the primary focus.
The truth of the matter is these needs can be addressed with a low cost computer like a Raspberry Pi. That being said, I believe most people could find all the desktop PC they need with a Raspberry Pi. The best results are going to be had by making sure you’re running the right operating system on your Raspberry Pi. From my experience, this means using a Linux distribution designed to provide the best performance possible.
I looked into a variety of Linux distros that are capable of being run on the Pi. I looked into distributions ranging from a Fedora spin to simply running Arch. I settled on running Raspbian simply because it relies on good old Debian. And historically, Debian wins the day with its stability and ease of use.
Using Raspbian on a Pi allows its end user to do almost anything that a larger, more expensive PC can do. Exceptions ranging from video games to other GPU intensive tasks do exist. Despite those limitations the Pi is a fantastic computer for browsing the web, editing documents, even watching YouTube videos using HTML5 video playback. This is the sort of PC most people needed.
Baring the need for something portable, the Pi running Raspbian is a good option for most people. The key here is to understand which applications will run well and which won’t run effectively.
It might surprise most people to discover you can indeed run a full office suite like LibreOffice on the Raspberry Pi. For most common tasks, you’ll find the hardware is able to support your documents just fine. Content heavy spreadsheets could be a little sluggish, however most of the time you won’t experience a problem.
The biggest consideration you’ll have is where you’ll save your documents. Because the Pi is designed differently than a traditional computer, you may find yourself saving to an external drive. But that will depend on how you’ve setup your installation.
Like a traditional PC, the Pi will allow you to use a USB keyboard and mouse. This means any concerns over how input will be handled should be put to rest. While the USB ports are limited, a powered USB hub is cheap enough to purchase. I recommend this as it ensures you’ll have ample ports for other devices.
Even though the Pi doesn’t offer much in the way of powerful hardware, it’s surprisingly flexible in handling a single instance of the Firefox web browser. Content rich websites still load and run just fine, even though you’re not going to have everything running at breaking speeds. Perhaps most surprising is that you can watch YouTube videos from a Raspberry Pi. I’m happy to report that HTML5 video is quite watchable from the Pi.
Things can be a bit hit and miss in terms of browser extensions. Most extensions will run just fine, yet there may be some extensions that slow the browser down to the point of becoming unusable.
Once again, the Raspberry Pi impresses with its handling of video playback. Even high resolution video playback is possible thanks to the performance of the new Raspberry Pi hardware release.
And the added bonus of VLC is that you know it will play any video file you throw at it. Yes, hardware acceleration is possible with the Raspberry Pi. It should be noted, however, that using VLC to convert video isn’t going to run very smoothly. It’s simply not going to be able to run as well as it would on a regular PC for this type of situation. Still, general video playback is good if you remember to enable hardware acceleration.
With all that the Raspberry Pi can do for you in place of a regular computer, the Pi is not without its shortcomings. Some tasks are too intense for even the newest Pi models. Two of the worst are gaming and video editing.
While it’s possible to watch YouTube videos of others playing games with a Pi, the microcomputer lacks the hardware ability to play computer games from sources like Steam. And the same applies with video editing. Even if you’re able to successfully load a time line for editing, the limited processing power isn’t going to make rendering a very pleasant experience.
Another area that I wouldn’t consider well supported is multitasking. Besides the obvious limitation of being bound to a single PC monitor, you’re not going to have much luck running multiple applications at once. It may be possible, but it won’t be very pleasant.
The Raspberry Pi for daily use
For most common tasks, the Pi is perfectly capable of handling common computing needs. I’d even go so far as to suggest that minor photo editing and managing is doable with this reasonably priced machine.
So long as you’re willing to provide your own monitor, keyboard and mouse, running a Raspberry Pi is a pretty decent user experience. I found the biggest setback to more people using the Pi is knowing how to get started with it. Clearly, obtaining installation media that is ready to go will be the best way forward for the casual user. For folks such as myself, I enjoyed an opportunity to see which distros run with this amazing device. For my money, Raspbian was the clear winner.
Can I recommend this in place of a stand alone PC? Yes, with the following disclaimer: If you’re a heavy computer enthusiast, this won’t be enough computer for you. For everyone else simply looking for a browser in a box, it’s an economical alternative to spending $400 on a new computer.