We quiz the Pi supremo on the new Zero and what’s coming next.
Linux Format: Hi Eben, thanks for taking the time to speak to LXF. So the Raspberry Pi Zero W has just been released, but why do we need another Raspberry Pi?
Eben Upton: We saw that a lot of people were plugging WiFi and Bluetooth dongles into their original Pi Zero. When we first released the Pi Zero in 2015 we didn’t have any of our own wireless products in the market as we were still shipping Raspberry Pi 2 and working on the yet to be released Raspberry Pi 3. The lessons that we learnt by creating the wireless package for the Raspberry Pi 3 were rolled up and added to the new Pi Zero W. This was for two reasons, firstly and obviously you don’t need to plug in a WiFi dongle anymore, and secondly by introducing Bluetooth people can connect Bluetooth keyboards and mice to their Zero without the need to use a USB hub. So now we move closer to the Zero W becoming a more complete desktop computer.
LXF: Comparisons have already been made between the original Pi Zero and the CHIP computer from Next Thing Co, a $9 computer that has a similar specification to the Zero but comes with Wifi and Bluetooth as standard. What is the Zero W better at?
EU: The Raspberry Pi has much better multimedia playback, able to drive 1080p video via HDMI natively through a mini HDMI port, whereas the CHIP requires an HDMI breakout board which also obscures the GPIO pins. CHIP is a competitive product and we like the form factor. Of course there are different “horses for courses” and for some projects CHIP may be better, but we think that the Pi Zero W is the best all round board.
We (Raspberry Pi) like that there are other boards. Before we started doing Raspberry Pi the only single board computers were priced at around $125 – $150. But since the Raspberry Pi came out we have seen the price drop significantly and we are proud that we have driven that down to a point where there is a choice of boards in the $10 range.
LXF: When you were first investigating the possibility of the Pi Zero W, did you have any other considerations for upgrades or features?
EU: I think for the Pi Zero W we have done what we can, we don’t have an alternative faster processor available to us. Obviously we have the chips that are in the Raspberry Pi 2 and 3 (BCM2836 and BCM2837 respectively) but neither of these chips fit the Raspberry Pi Zero W form factor. When we first released the Pi Zero we managed to squeeze 1GHz from the BCM2835, which was an upgrade from the original Raspberry Pi hardware.
LXF: This is now the third model of Pi Zero, the original model having been released in November 2015, then the camera interface update in early 2016. Are there any plans to phase out these older models?
EU: The original version, with no camera attachment, does not really exist any more, we didn’t build too many of those and it is considered an ‘interim’ Raspberry Pi Zero. The ‘real’ Raspberry Pi Zero is the version that comes with the camera interface. This is the version that will stay in production alongside the new Pi Zero W. The Raspberry Pi Zeroes are in a robust place, they are still rationed to one per person but they are available for purchase. It wouldn’t feel right to release a new Raspberry Pi Zero W without having the original in a good stock position. It will be interesting to see how many people will still choose the $5 version over the Pi Zero W, as for the extra $5 you get a lot more features.
LXF: Will the current rationing of the Pi Zero models be lifted any time soon?
EU: Not in the first instance. We have an ambition, now that things are looking a little steady, to try to do it, but the priority right now is to make sure that they are in stock. We always have trouble whenever we release a new product, people like them and they buy them until we are out of stock. So our priorities are to make sure that they are in stock, and in stock at more places. So you are going to see the Pi Zero W in more outlets across Germany, France, Netherlands, Japan and a channel into the United States. The effort is going into
broadening the availability of the Pi Zero range, but we will look into increasing the number of units that can be purchased, possibly removing the cap altogether.
LXF: Will there be more UK stockists such as Premier Farnell or RS Components?
EU: We’re not expecting them in the first instance. It’s something we look at from time to time. It’s not quite the right business for them as we have not yet reached the point where it makes good commercial sense for them to get involved. But we shall keep reviewing it and see where we go from there.
LXF: So the retail price of the Pi Zero W is around $10? That is quite a competitive price.
EU: Yeah the price is around £9.60 including VAT. If I had heard when I was a kid that I could get a machine like this under £10 I would’ve called you a liar. When I was a kid I had an Amiga 600 with 1MB of RAM and a 7MHz CPU and that cost a couple of hundred pounds. Now I can get a 1GHz computer with half a gig of RAM for less than £10! The Raspberry Pi has a lot of heritage, similar to the Amiga... for me it’s the modern Amiga as the Raspberry Pi, like the Amiga, has custom hardware in the BCM283X series of chips, the custom 3D accelerators etc. Only 2-3% of the BCM283X chip is for the ARM processor, the rest is made of various accelerators (2D, 3D, etc).
LXF: One thing that has gained much interest in recent years is the Internet of Things, and here we have a cheap platform ready for IoT use. Was IoT a consideration when you started to design the Pi Zero W?
EU: Yeah absolutely. I think it is going to be a great platform at least for prototyping. It’s a great chipset that is optimised for IoT. The BCM4343A is a great wireless chipset and we are looking forward to seeing all the cool stuff that can be created with it. We already see people doing cool stuff with the original Pi Zero and a wireless dongle, so it will be great to see what they can do with a platform that incorporates it as standard.
LXF: With the inclusion of WiFi and Bluetooth, will the new Pi Zero W consume more power?
EU: There is a little increase in power consumption, about a could of hundred milliwatts. But it is still in that kind of ball park where you will struggle to find a power supply that can’t drive the Pi Zero W. Around 500 – 600 mA power supplies will be good for the Pi Zero W. The inclusion of wireless on the Pi Zero W does not impact the power requirements, as opposed to the Raspberry Pi 3 which requires quite a beefy power supply.
LXF: One of the ‘underloved’ models of Pi is the Model A. Are we due to see any improvements to this model?
EU: The A+ is great, and one of the great things is that it is always available and does not have a cap on it. To understand where the A+ fits in you need to understand the markets for Raspberry Pi. You have the familiar education and hobbyist markets and the industrial markets. Now generally when you and I talk about Raspberry Pi we generally refer to the first two markets. But the industrial market is also massive for Raspberry Pi and in that market the A+ is an enormously successful product. Chiefly because industrial customers can buy in large numbers from places such as RS Components and Premier Farnell. Occasionally we will hear that the A+ has gone out of stock and people become worried that it is the end of the board, but it’s because the customers are buying 10,000
– 20,000 unit orders. Industrial customers typically develop their applications and products using a Raspberry Pi 3 and then find a way to squeeze their product onto the A+.
LXF: Will we see any of the Pi 3 features making their way down to A series? Perhaps a 3A? EU: I guess the missing product is the 2A/3A line of boards. We haven’t got a concrete plan, and a 3A is comparatively easy to do, but compliance (for wireless radios) is quite expensive as we are required to seek compliance in every country where we sell. And who would it appeal to? We think the hobbyist market would be interested in much the same way they are attracted to the Zero range. The inclusion of WiFi and Bluetooth would stretch the use of the single USB port. In my mind I see the 3A being an industrial product, but usually I call this wrong, I have a terrible record in terms of guessing who is going to buy a particular product. I guess that the 3A might be interesting to the hobbyists, but right now every single BCM2837 is being used to produce the Raspberry Pi 3, as demand is off the charts for that product.
“I have a terrible record in terms of guessing who is going to buy a particular product.”