Raspberry Pi: Sense HAT vs Unicorn HAT, which one to choose?


The Sense HAT is the most popular extension on the Raspberry Pi. Created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it offers many features. But is there a better choice available, like the Pimoroni Unicorn HAT?

Sense HAT and Unicorn HAT include a similar 8x8 LED matrix on the top.
The one from Pimoroni is bigger, but the sense HAT offers several other features like temperature, humidity and more.

Let’s see in this post the complete differences between both, and which one to choose in your case.

Note: as a reminder, “HAT” means “Hardware Attached on Top”. It’s a standard for Raspberry Pi extensions boards. They are almost plug & play, with the GPIO pins.

Raspberry Pi Sense HAT

Let’s start with the Sense HAT, an official extension from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Story

Firstly branded as “Astro Pi”, the Sense HAT has an interesting story.
Astro Pi is the name of a small computer, created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation for the International Space Station.
Basically, it’s a Raspberry Pi and a Sense HAT in a specific case for the astronauts.

With so many features (I will detail this in the next paragraph), the Astro Pi is the perfect tool to lead some experiment in space.
A competition also took place for students to run their experiments (from Earth obviously).

If you are interested and want more information, check the Astro-Pi website hereOpens in a new tab..

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Features

As you can see on this picture, the main feature we note on the Sense HAT is the 8x8 LED Matrix. But there are many other ones included to create all sorts of experiments.

Here is a complete list:

  • 8x8 RGB LED Matrix
  • A joystick
  • Humidity sensor
  • Gyroscope (rotation)
  • Temperature sensor
  • Barometer (air pressure)
  • Accelerometer (movement)

So it’s really a good extension for beginners, as you can invest in one card to run multiple experiments, without spending too much money on them.

How to use it?

The Sense HAT is intended to work with a Python library. It’s already installed on Raspberry Pi OS Full, but you might need to install it depending on your system version.

I have an entire tutorial on how to get started with the Raspberry Pi Sense HAT, I recommend you checking it if needed.

Pricing

The Raspberry Pi Sense Hat is pretty affordable, given the features offered (check the current price on AmazonOpens in a new tab.).
If you want to start using your GPIO Pins, or even if you already know how to do this but want to have more choices for your project, it’s a good investment.

As it’s built by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you can easily find help on their website, and also on many websites and forums. You’ll not be lost, even if it’s your first HAT (and my tutorial should help a lot to get started).

Pimoroni Unicorn HAT

Presentation

Pimoroni is an electronics company, mainly known for their Raspberry Pi extensions. They are also based in the UK.
They have a solid reputation in this field, and create excellent products.

The Unicorn HAT look is very similar to the Sense HAT:

Features

There is a giant RGB LED Matrix on the top. It’s also 8x8 but the LED are bigger and takes up all the space.
As for any HAT, you can plug directly the extension on the GPIO ports, and a Python library is provided to manage the LED matrix.

But, it’s the only feature you’ll get with it. So, it’s a good choice if your goal is to have a big LED screen, but don’t expect anything else.

How to use it?

I bought mine for this article, to see how it works, so I’m not yet experimented with it. But Pimoroni also has a dedicated Python library to help you to use it (GitHub linkOpens in a new tab.).

They are many examples you’ll get with the library. So, you can try many things without doing any code. And once you are ready to try your code, you can take the examples as a basis.

I will probably write a detailed tutorial in the next few months if you are interested, but for now, you can check the one from PimoroniOpens in a new tab. on their official website.
If you are not sure with Python, you can always check my beginner tutorial about this language here.

Pricing

The Pimoroni Unicorn HAT is available at a decent price (check on AmazonOpens in a new tab.).
It’s an easy-to-use HAT to get started. You can start from the examples and build your project with it.
It’s far to be the cheapest HAT available, but it’s a good solution to play with a LED Matrix.

For your information, an HD HAT is also availableOpens in a new tab. (with 256 RGB LEDs but double the price) and a pHAT Opens in a new tab.(for Raspberry Pi Zero).

Differences between Sense HAT and Unicorn HAT

Features

As listed before, the Sense HAT includes much more feature like temperature, humidity, air pressure, etc.
Whereas the Unicorn HAT is only a bigger LED Matrix, without other features.

So depending on your goal, you can probably already make a choice between both (I will help you later if needed).

Usage / projects

The Unicorn HAT allow you to build very cool cases to play with the light from the LED matrix (this one is 3D printed and act as an audio visualizer).

Unicorn HAT under top cover for Raspberry Pi box

On Sense HAT, the visual will probably not be as good, but the main strength of the Sense HAT is that it includes several features.
Except if you have a specific project to build with lights, the Sense HAT will keep you busy longer than the Unicorn HAT.

Pricing

As explained in the previous sections, both HAT are available at a decent price.
In fact, it’s even the same price for both.

So, your choice will probably not depend on the price, but on the features you need.
The Raspberry Pi Sense HAT has more interesting features, but the Pimoroni Unicorn HAT is focus on the LED Matrix.
It really depends on how you want to use it.

Recommendation

If I can try a recommendation knowing this, I would advise starting with the Sense Hat (direct link to AmazonOpens in a new tab.).
This way, you can experiment several things (LED Matrix but also Temperature, Accelerometer, etc.), and create more projects with it.

It’s also a perfect tool to learn Python from scratch. You can follow an example for the first feature. Then just read the documentation and try another thing with the next feature, etc.
Once you know how to use them all, you would have pretty solid knowledge in Python.

The main problem that users often report with the Sense HAT is that is perfect for beginners, but as soon as you want to go further, you’ll be stuck by poor sensors and not enough freedom.
So, if you are an experimented user, maybe the best idea is to find a pack like this one on AmazonOpens in a new tab., with dozens of sensors that you can use in your circuits.

The Unicorn HAT is not a bad device I think, but it’s only useful for light projects, so very limited for me (and the price is the same…).

Conclusion

That’s it for this quick comparison between the Sense HAT and the Unicorn HAT. I hope it was useful for you, with a good overview of both products.

As I wrote earlier in this chapter, I will try to build a few projects with the Unicorn HAT that I know less, and probably give you a complete review of this product in the next few months.

If you have any question, feel free to ask in the comments. Many people are using them and can probably give you the perfect answer.

If you are looking for your first HAT, you can browse the list of my 13 favorites extensions hereOpens in a new tab..

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