Raspberry Pi Buying Guide: Everything you need to know in 2021


If you intend to buy a Raspberry Pi, there are a multitude of questions you need to ask yourself.
I will answer all of them in this article. What should you know before buying a Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is not a computer like any other, because of its format, its operating system and its unique expansion capability. It requires to spend a little time to understand the concept and how it works.

I will explain here the 21 most important things to know before letting you play with one.

If you need help getting started on Raspberry Pi, I have an entire course to help you take your first steps the right way. I’ll help you use the perfect hardware, plug everything and install your first system. You’ll also do your first project with me, just to make sure you are ready for the next level. Get all the information on this page if you are interested.

1 – Discover the Raspberry Pi


If you are lost in all these new words and abbreviations, request my free Raspberry Pi glossary here (PDF format)!

No doubt if you are looking for information on the subject, you already know the basics, but I decided to tell you everything.

A Raspberry Pi is a computer.
It has many differences with usual computers, and we’ll see that in detail in the next points, but it’s still a computer.

Raspberry Pi was created in 2012 by a charitable organization whose purpose was to facilitate the learning of computer programming.
They quickly achieved this goal. We estimate that more than 15 million Raspberry Pi have been sold since 2012.
This product has been used in much home automation, robotics and security applications.

2 – Learn about the different models

Let’s get down to the concrete and things that will help you make your choice.

The Raspberry Pi exists in two main versions:

  • Standard: The original flavor of Raspberry Pi with several models (1/2/3/4)
  • Zero: A smaller size version

Standard models

raspberry pi 3B+
Raspberry Pi 3B+

In short, you must know that since 2012, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released its models by following three things:

  • A version number: 1/2/3/4
  • Model number: A / B
  • Sometimes the + character to mark a minor change

During writing, the latest version available is the Raspberry Pi 4 B.
Version 4, model B (available here on Amazon). If you want to purchase one of these models, take the newest one. They always have better performance, and more compatibility in the future.
If you are new and have no specific needs regarding architecture or components, the latest model will often be the best choice.

Please don’t hesitate to ask in comments if you are reading this post a long time after the writing, so you can have an updated answer.

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Zero models

Raspberry Pi Zero

In 2015, the Raspberry Pi Foundation launched the Zero.
A $5 model even more compact but with fewer components and ports.
In 2017, the Zero W was released for $10, with the addition of Wi-Fi that makes the product much more interesting.

If you start, I advise you to avoid this range, which is less powerful and less scalable.
It has its interest in some applications, but the Raspberry Pi 4 B will be a better choice to start.
On a lower budget, it’s an option as it’s a way cheaper than the Pi 4 (check the current price here on Amazon).

3 – What about the price?

As stated above, the original purpose of the Raspberry Pi is to be inexpensive.
By this, it’s meant to be much cheaper than a standard computer.

Today you will find the Raspberry Pi standard version around $40.
The Zero model on the other hand can be bought for about $15.

These are the first prices, only with the motherboard, you’ll often need some more stuff to make it work (power supply, SD card, …).
I will give you some good tips for shopping it at the end of this guide.

4 – Different operating systems

Most of the time, Raspberry Pi runs on Linux.
If you’re used to computers running Windows or macOS, this may upset you.
It will be necessary to learn to use another system with a different logic.

Linux is free and available in several distributions.
A “distribution” is a version of Linux assembled in a certain way, with a different look and software.
It’s as if the different versions of Windows were still maintained and available, and you had the choice to install the one you want.

Do not worry, most Linux distributions compatible with Raspberry Pi have an intuitive graphical interface so that learning will be fast.

There are dozens of operating systems for Raspberry Pi.
You will find the list of the best ones by clicking on the link.

5 – Compact size

The Raspberry Pi is very small, about the size of a credit card for a 4 B, and even smaller for a Zero.

  • Standard dimensions: 85 mm x 56 mm x 17 mm
  • Zero dimensions:  65 mm x 30 mm x 5 mm

6 – Raspberry Pi specifications

Do not expect incredible specifications on a Raspberry Pi; this is not the goal.
But given its size and price, it’s still not so bad.
(I even succeeded to use a Raspberry Pi as my desktop computer).

Here is the main information about the two most recent models:

4B

  • CPU: 4x Cortex A72 1.5Ghz
  • RAM: 1, 2 or 4 GB
  • 2x USB 3.0 ports, 2X USB 2.0 ports
  • RJ45 1Gbit/s, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
  • Video: Dual micro-HDMI
  • Audio: Jack 3.5 mm

Zero W

  • CPU: ARM1176JZF-S 1Ghz
  • 1 micro-USB
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
  • Video: Mini HDMI

7 – Power supply

The Raspberry Pi is powered by a micro-USB port (except the 4B which use a USB-C connector).
Its electricity consumption is very low.

  • 4B: 575mA (2.85W) when idle, and can increase fast with graphic interface, dual 1080p output and video
  • Zero: 100mA (0.5W) when idle, 350mA maximum (1.75W)

For comparison, a PS4 consumes about 80W and a small desktop PC around 200W.
It would even be possible to power your Raspberry Pi from the USB port of your computer (but I do not recommend it).

8 – No hard drive

Another important thing you need to know before buying a Raspberry Pi is that it does not use a hard drive.
Indeed, the Raspberry Pi has a Micro SD port and most operating systems are optimized for use on an SD card.

raspberry pi zero

That doesn’t change anything in most cases, but if you intend to store many files on it, think about getting a larger SD card. I offer you a good model of SD card in my recommended products.

9 – No screen

Another thing you should not expect to find on a Raspberry Pi: a screen.

Like a desktop computer, it comes without a screen.
You can still connect to an external display via the HDMI port, or add one that you connect to the GPIO ports to turn your Raspberry Pi into a touchpad.

10 – No case

Last thing, the basic model of Raspberry Pi is supplied without a box.
That is to say that for the prices indicated above, you will only receive the motherboard, then you have to get a box to put it in (you can check the two best kits on this page).

There are more and more kits on Amazon, at all prices, which allow you to buy a case simultaneously with your Raspberry Pi.
These kits also contain more or fewer accessories, to benefit directly from your device.

11 – Connectivity

The Raspberry Pi is rather well supplied regarding network connectivity.
On the 4B you will find a 1GBits/s network card, an 802.11ac Wi-Fi card and Bluetooth 5.0.
On the Zero W, no RJ45, but the Wi-Fi and the Bluetooth are available.

12 – Mobility

Thanks to all the strengths we mentioned earlier (size, low power, connectivity), the Raspberry Pi can easily be turned into a mobile device.

There are compatible batteries that allow you to run it outdoors.
We can also imagine solar panels recharging these batteries during the day to make it an autonomous device.

Two battery on a Raspberry Pi (source: Hackster)

More easily, its small size makes it a perfect travel computer when you cannot bring a computer.
It is also often used in the security field, to remain as discreet as possible.

13 – Games

We have already mentioned that there are multiple operating systems available for free for Raspberry Pi.

Know that there are some that allow you to turn it into a video game console.

For example, Retropie is a distribution that allows you to play retro games that you have downloaded and installed (ROM format).

14 – Smart TV

Another frequent use is to connect a Raspberry Pi to a TV to turn it into a smart TV.

netflix menu on kodi
Netflix on Raspberry Pi / Kodi (tutorial here)

You will have access to the Internet, YouTube or Netflix on your TV for a purchase of less than $50.

15 – Overclocking

The Raspberry Pi is not reputed for its computing power, but know that it is often possible to improve its performance (especially on older models).

You can easily gain a few MHz of power.
You are welcome to read my article about overclocking to learn more.

16 – GPIO Pins

A powerful feature of the Raspberry Pi devices is the GPIO Pins.
You can find it along the edge of the board (see the picture below).

gpio pins raspberry pi

These pins allow you to connect additional components on the Raspberry Pi, usually “hats”.
For example, a hat to measure temperature and humidity, a card to add SATA ports or a sound card.

To use this ports, it is necessary to follow a specific diagram like this one.

gpio pinout

You will find a beginner’s guide for GPIO pins here.

17 – Accessories

Another way to upgrade your Raspberry Pi is to add accessories using the connectors already provided (USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth).

Here are some examples to give you an idea:

18 – Competition

Since its release in 2012, the Raspberry Pi has become the most popular single board computer.
And that makes envious.

Many manufacturers have embarked on the adventure and tried to offer either identical devices or specific alternatives.
All this with little success for the moment.

If you want to learn more about it, you can search for names like Orange Pi, Banana Pi or Arduino (by the way, I wrote a detailed comparison between Raspberry Pi and Arduino here).

To discover this environment, the Raspberry Pi remains the best choice regarding price, performance and possibilities.
Then for the more advanced, other alternatives can become interesting, by their specifications most of the time, but all of this has a price.
For example, the Asus Tinker Board kit is over $100 on Amazon (1.8 GHz and 2 GB RAM).

19 – The community

As I just said, the Raspberry Pi is very popular.
This fact is measured regarding sales, but also concerning its community size.

You will find many blogs, specialized sites, resellers, magazines, YouTube channels and other social networks on the subject.
Raspberry Pi has quality forums on Reddit and the official website.

Whatever information you are looking for, it should not be difficult to find help.

20 – Infinite possibilities

The Raspberry Pi is the basis of many projects, in many areas:

  • Automation
  • Robotics
  • Security
  • Servers
  • Weather station

Most of the time, it will be necessary to add parts to make it evolve, but it is precisely the interest of this device.
There is an infinity of possibilities, only your imagination and your creativity will be the limit.

21 – Where to buy


If you are lost in all these new words and abbreviations, request my free Raspberry Pi glossary here (PDF format)!

If you want to give it a try, I’ll give you some tips.

Where to buy

I always buy on Amazon.
No doubt by habit, but also because I know that everything will be fine.
My order will arrive on time and if something doesn’t suit me, I can return it without problems.

But you should know that the Raspberry Pi Foundation works with partners in every country, who often offer the material at a better price.
In the following paragraph I will give you links to Amazon, but if you want to save a few dollars think of looking at the Raspberry Pi store.

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What to buy

Starter Kit

If you are new and haven’t bought anything yet, go directly to a beginner kit.

This kit allows you to have all the necessary hardware immediately, and get something ready to use.

CanaKit is an excellent kit, which contains:

  • The Raspberry Pi 4B
  • A case
  • 32G SD card
  • Three heat sinks
  • USB-C power supply
  • A micro HDMI cable
  • USB SD card reader

Check the price on Amazon, but it’s way better than buying everything individually.

You can also find a similar kit from CanaKit for the Raspberry Pi Zero W here.

Motherboard

If you prefer to buy only the motherboard, you will also find it on Amazon.
Beware the Raspberry Pi is supplied without power cable or SD card.

Follow this link to buy the Raspberry Pi Zero W motherboard.

Essential accessories

Even if you buy the complete kit, you will always miss some useful accessories.

The most important is the keyboard.
Indeed, the Raspberry Pi is supplied without a keyboard, even with a kit, and it is not always practical to use the same keyboard as your PC on the Raspberry Pi.

I give you the model of my keyboard for Raspberry Pi in my recommended products page, take a look.
I also remember to have quickly bought controllers and a camera (also available in my recommended products), but after that, it will depend on your needs.

Conclusion

We have now gone around the subject, addressing the 21 things to know before buying a Raspberry Pi.

I hope this will help you in your choices and that you will discover this incredibly exciting world.
If you still have questions, feel free to ask them in a comment.

Good luck on your projects with Raspberry Pi!


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Patrick Fromaget

I'm the lead author and owner of RaspberryTips.com. My goal is to help you with your Raspberry Pi problems using detailed guides and tutorials. In real life, I'm a Linux system administrator with a web developer experience.

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