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Raspberry Pi Zero W

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$10.00

  • Pros

    Costs less than a movie ticket. Integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

  • Cons

    Most connections require adapters, which come separately. Only one micro USB port. Significantly slower than full-sized options.

  • Bottom Line

    Add some accessories, and the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a full PC for pocket change, but its potential for DIY electronic projects is its real draw.

By Joel Santo Domingo

Linux-based kit PCs like the original $35 Raspberry Pi have been popular with the maker community for years. In its latest iteration, the Raspberry Pi Zero W, the PCB (printed circuit board) is shrunken down to the size of a stick of gum, and the price starts at just $10 ($35 as tested). This tiny PC supports a graphics-based OS, and integrates Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it's nominally a cheap desktop, but what makes it really exciting is that it can be used as the base for a variety of build projects, from crop monitoring, to vintage arcade gaming, to creating your own science fiction movie props with blinking lights. It's definitely worth the pocket change you'll pay.

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The Raspberry Pi community has grown by leaps and bounds. At the time of this writing, a Google search for "Raspberry Pi projects" returns more than 4.6 million results. Be warned, though, that this is a true DIY PC; you'll have to set everything up and possibly even build enclosures yourself with a 3D printer. If you want to take the easy route to a cheap, tiny PC, pick up an Asus Chromebit or an Intel Compute Stick instead. But it won't be as much fun, and it'll cost you more than the price of a movie ticket.

Get Ready to Buy, Then Build

The $10 entry point includes just the Raspberry Pi Zero W PCB. You'll need additional accessories (and there are many), which you'll either have to purchase separately, or source from kit resellers like adafruit.com or canakit.com. For example, the $35 starter kit we received from the Raspberry Pi Foundation to test includes a micro USB power supply, a USB OTG (on the go) micro-USB-to-USB-A adapter, a 8GB SD card, and a mini HDMI adapter.

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The board measures 0.2 by 2.56 by 1.18 inches, smaller and lighter than the Chromebit and Compute Stick mentioned above. There are several connectors on the PCB, including a mini HDMI jack, a micro USB port for I/O devices like mice and keyboards, a micro USB port solely for power, a connector for a compatible camera cable (a camera kit with a Zero W PCB, cable, case, and camera itself are sold together for $45), and a micro SD slot. That's a far cry from the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, both of which have four USB 2.0 ports, as well as full-sized HDMI and Ethernet jacks, and therefore don't require a handful of adapters.

Raspberry Pi Zero W

The PCB has holes for the GPIO (general purpose input/output) connector found on older models of the Raspberry Pi, but you'll have to source one and solder it to the PCB if you need connectivity with accessories like LED light bars and sensor modules. An alternate case and top panel that lets you use the GPIO port is available for $6.

Raspberry Pi Zero W

The do-it-yourself aesthetic is one of the prime draws of the Raspberry Pi brand, since it's up to you to decide when the project is done, and how far to take it. Just to the point of working, or complete it and make it look like a souped up mini PC. The official Raspberry Pi Zero W case you see in our photos is good looking and will keep dust and prying fingers away from the sensitive PCB, but if you're building a classic games emulator, why not 3D print an NES-style case? Other neat builds we've seen are a miniature arcade cabinet and plans for a light saber.

Raspberry Pi Zero W

A Simple Build

It's easy to build a basic desktop PC with all the pieces included the starter kit. We started by slipping the included micro SD card into its slot on the Zero W's PCB. The board then clips neatly into the provided case without tools, while still providing easy access to the card's ports. Then plug the mini HDMI adapter into its jack, and connect it via a cable to any HDMI-equipped display. We used a $30 Kensington PocketHub 4-port USB Hub to connect a keyboard and mouse to the single micro USB port with the USB OTG adapter. The hub's two spare ports could then be used for an Ethernet adapter, a printer, or other accessories. You could theoretically use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with the Zero W, but you'll need to hook up a wired USB mouse for the initial pairing process. Last, but most importantly, we connected a 1A USB power supply to the Zero W's power connector. It booted up in a few minutes. We connected it to our Lab's Fios Wi-Fi network, and we were online in seconds.

A New Linux Flavor

The $35 starter kit we tested includes a preloaded 8GB micro SD card with Raspbian Jessie, a version of Linux based on Debian. Jessie replaces Wheezy, the OS found on previous models like the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. Jessie boots into a familiar-looking GUI, so you can easily navigate with a keyboard and mouse in preloaded programs like the LibreOffice suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, etc.), the Claws Mail client, and a Pi-optimized version of Minecraft. You can also choose to use the command line interface, like previous versions of Linux, or download and install other disk images including Ubuntu Linux and a core (stripped-down) version of Windows 10 built for IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

Not Built for Speed

The Zero W packs a single-core ARM11 processor running at 1GHz, with 512MB of memory in a Broadcom BCM2835 system on a chip (SoC) package. This translates into performance that's close to the original Raspberry Pi. This was confirmed when we ran Sunspider 1.0.2, a JavaScript-based benchmark test, which measures performance at tasks like encryption, screen redrawing, and text editing. The Zero W managed a score of 20,064 milliseconds (ms). To put that in perspective, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B with a 1.2GHz quad-core Cortex A53 processor took just 2,860ms on the same test, a 604 percent increase in time. The Zero W is fast enough for word processing and mild surfing using the preinstalled Epiphany web browser, but you'll have a better time on your phone if you need to quickly respond to posts on Facebook, Twitter, or surf the selection in Netflix. These simple tasks would each take 5-10 seconds on an Apple iPhone 6s Plus, but took more than a minute on the Zero W. Sometimes we waited up to 5 minutes to locate and start a 1080p HD video stream. A speed demon it's not, but we wouldn't expect quicksilver from a $35 desktop PC kit.

The Zero W is a must-buy if you're already a Raspberry Pi enthusiast, and at $10 to start it's a no-brainer. But it's also an inexpensive foundation for your next set of home-built projects. Since it's Linux-based, there is a wide range of resources online to help you along, including step-by-step tutorials on how to turn it into a pocket-sized game emulator, a download manager, or the brains for a motorized skateboard. It's not the fastest piece of hardware, but it does perform as well you'd expect for the price. Because of the performance and connectivity gap, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is the better choice for the first timer, but if your builds are becoming smaller and more efficient, the Zero W is an intriguing piece of kit.

Joel Santo Domingo By Joel Santo Domingo Lead Analyst Twitter Email

Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes managing mobile, desktop and network infrastructure on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Joel is proof that you can escape the retail grind: he wore a yellow polo shirt early in his tech career. Along the way Joel earned a BA in English Literature and an MBA in Information Technology… More »

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