There is no doubt that the Raspberry Pi 4 is significantly more powerful than its predecessors. It is based on the faster ARM Cortex-A72 microarchitecture and features four cores set at slightly higher clock speeds. The graphics subsystem is also significantly beefed up, running at twice the maximum stock clocks as the outgoing model. Everything in it makes it a viable desktop replacement. But is it really good enough to replace your trusty old desk? I spent three weeks with the 8 GB version of the Pi 4 to answer that million dollar question.
Configuration for desktop use
To use it as a desktop, you will need external devices like monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. official desk kit that you can get, but avoid it at all costs. The hefty premium it commands doesn’t justify the non-ergonomic keyboard and drab mouse that comes with the kit. With the exception of the official 15.3 watt power supply, none of the included accessories are good.
Ditch the official case and microSD storage
The official Pi 4 case has almost zero ventilation and causes thermal acceleration of the SoC under moderate desktop use. We have a great guide showing how to modify it to avoid this, but it’s better to buy it actively cooled aluminum housing Instead. He made the most of the half-dozen different cases I tested during that time. The thermal graph below shows how much this particular case cools an overclocked 2.0GHz Pi 4 8GB, even when running at full tilt.
The Pi 4’s fast USB 3.0 interface lets you ditch the slower microSD storage for a significantly faster SSD (via a USB 3.0 box) or a USB 3.0 flash drive.
Faster storage not only improves application startup and load times, it also makes the entire desktop experience relatively faster and more responsive. The only problem is finding a UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol) compatible SSD enclosure that is compatible with the Raspberry Pi 4, as some enclosures have difficulty booting the operating system. Read our how-to guide to learn more about USAP boxes and how to boot the Pi 4 from a USB stick.
Just be sure to buy a powered USB hub if you plan to connect additional USB devices. The powered bit becomes important because the Raspberry Pi 4 specification only allows all USB ports to draw a maximum of 600mA of current.
Hardware optimized for multitasking
The two micro HDMI outputs let you run a dual display setup, which is a boon for productivity. The upgraded GPU can handle a 4K display, but I wouldn’t recommend two of them. The limited display bandwidth forces both monitors to operate at 30Hz. This can be quite confusing. I have tried two 1080p monitors as well as 1080p and 768p monitors with success at 60Hz. There was no problem. The integrated dual monitor management utility allows you to configure and configure monitors and desktop options with a high degree of granularity.
It goes without saying that you’d better go for at least a 4GB version of the Pi 4 for this exercise. The extra RAM allows you to run multiple apps and browser tabs simultaneously, which is inevitable in a typical working setup.
I had absolutely no problem playing a YouTube video while running an instance of the vitals terminal monitoring system and productivity applications such as word processor (Google Docs), spreadsheet (LibreOffice), and software d image editing (GIMP).
The latest stable version of the Raspberry Pi operating system is always 32-bit, which limits each system process to a maximum of 3 GB of RAM. In theory, a single application cannot use all of the 4GB or 8GB memory of the high-end variants, but has no practical consequences for the typical use case. Additionally, each Chromium browser tab is treated as a separate process, so the 3GB limit has no real impact on performance or access to system memory.
Don’t expect it to replace your desk
Now that we’ve figured out how best to use the Raspberry Pi 4 as a desktop computer, it’s time to take a look at how it performs in this role after being outfitted to perform at its best. It completely depends on where you come from and what you expect from that little single board computer.
If you’ve suddenly stopped using a powerful gaming PC like me, you’re going to experience the general sluggishness associated with a relatively weak mobile SoC like this. While launching apps and switching between browser pages is faster on an SSD, it can’t make up for the Pi 4’s weaker mobile processing hardware. The few seconds spent waiting between the aforementioned tasks do happen. add up quickly and are boring enough for someone coming out of a decent laptop or desktop PC.
YouTube videos, by the way, are only acceptable up to 1080p resolution. Acceptable because playing the video still significantly reduces the images and reveals occasional screen tears. The lack of proper implementation of OpenGL video hardware acceleration in the operating system is partly to blame. However, this is more of a deficiency of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s software engineering department, so things may improve in the future after the operating system matures. Don’t hold your breath.
Linux + ARM = compatibility issues
The Raspberry Pi 4 does most of the things a regular desktop computer can do. Even seemingly resource-intensive tasks like video editing can be done in a pinch with free apps like Kdenlive. Although it is relatively easy to find a Linux version of popular software, you are bound to come across something that is available on Linux but is not quite compatible with the ARM version whose operating system Raspberry Pi needs. This means you’ll have a hard time trying to install Dropbox or a Twitter client, and you’ll have to learn to make peace with browser versions.
Things, however, get worse when you start to experience hardware issues. The video stream from my old Logitech webcam worked perfectly out of the box, but Zoom absolutely couldn’t use the audio stream. I had to give up on making a Zoom video call.
While the most common hardware is compatible, there is a risk that you will hit a brick wall when something isn’t. And then you wish you had a PC or a Mac to do the job.
Temper your expectations
The Raspberry Pi 4 can do basic computing tasks with reasonable skills, but honestly you can’t expect the liveliness and speed that comes with a proper desktop or laptop. The Raspberry Pi 4 still has a ways to go until it can match these devices in terms of third-party software support. This SBC is nonetheless a viable low-cost, low-power computing alternative for those who don’t mind limiting themselves to basic web browsing and productivity tasks. This is true as long as you don’t mind making the effort to find (or even compile) ARM Linux alternatives for your favorite apps.
I won’t recommend ditching your primary desktop / laptop in favor of a Raspberry Pi 4 at this time. You can, however, use Raspberry Pi as a NAS, music server, or personal web server.
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