2 years ago

Pi-top laptop review

A laptop built from a Raspberry Pi and crafted yourself. Is it too limited by the Pi, or is it a great little portable teaching tool?

It’s really not that old, but do you remember the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project? It’s a cheap laptop with yesteryear’s components, created specifically to try to make getting computing into the poorest of developing nations as easy as possible. It was also originally very green, and we don’t mean ecologically – although it’s also quite low-powered, so it technically is ‘green’ in that sense. When we got the pi-top out of its box, that was the first thing that came into our minds, but definitely not in a bad way!

The full article can be found in The MagPi 40, out on 26 November

The elevator pitch for the pi-top is that it’s a crowdfunded laptop kit that the user needs to assemble, which is powered by an included Raspberry Pi. There’s a lot more to it, though, and we’ll get into that shortly, but already this gives you a basic impression of what we’re dealing with.

Very few components are needed to construct the pi-top

Very few components are needed to construct the pi-top

Brush away those first impressions

The pi-top has a big educational focus built into it. Each pi-top user has to create a cloud account before logging in, which then syncs settings and such to this account. It also syncs data from CEED Universe, the gamified learning software that is custom-made to meet the new GCSE curriculum. This, on top of the usual Raspberry Pi teaching resources, gives it an edge in the classroom, as students can use whatever pi-top they want without having to carry too much in the way of data around with them.

It sounds great in theory. Let’s first go back to the box opening, though, before we start discussing its other merits. The box itself is lovely, with the first thing you see being the detached laptop screen’s bright green back with the pi-top logo in it. All the parts are stored in layers, carefully packed with a soft foam. You’ll have to look carefully to find the laser-cut removable circuit cover and the selection of required screws and cables, but they’re all there.

The instructions, and indeed the assembly, are quite simple. There are three main parts of the laptop chassis, and only two pieces of circuit board including the Raspberry Pi, so the majority of the process is preparing and fitting the parts together. While the instructions are generally good, they don’t distinguish very well between the two types of screws. Hint: the screws that look like motherboard spacers need to be affixed to the PCBs; they have a thread running down the centre of the head. Also, one of the connection orientations is not completely clear. We found ourselves having to take it apart a bit so we could reconstruct it properly at one point.

Otherwise, assembly was quite quick. We stuck on Netflix and after a couple of episodes of BoJack Horseman it was ready to boot up, so less than an hour and probably quicker without giggling every minute. Make sure all the ports and cables are properly connected and you can turn it on for the first time.

You can access the insides for breadboarding and upgrades as well

You can access the insides for breadboarding and upgrades as well

It’s quick and easy to set up an account the first time, and you get some choices as to what software you want to be able to quick-launch from the panel. The pi‑topOS is a custom interface built on top of Raspbian Wheezy that has a different offering of default software, albeit with full access to the standard packages you can get on Raspbian anyway. The interface is roughly the same as normal Raspbian’s, but with the panel down at the bottom and a bit more of an OS X vibe with some of the display characteristics. It looks great and works absolutely fine, thanks to the extra oomph of the Pi 2’s processor; the only issue we had was that the Chromium browser selected by default is still a little too slow.

The CEED Universe, currently in early alpha at the time of writing, is quite interesting. Taking the resource-gathering and building elements from Minecraft, and applying them to a top-down aesthetic from early nineties PC games as a way to teach coding and physical computing, is fairly unique. Players are asked to perform Python coding tasks as part of the game, starting off with something akin to Hello World. It’s very gamified, and the final version could be really something if done right.

The pi-top, then, is a great piece of kit. While it’s probably not going to replace a normal laptop in a similar price range, it’s an excellent educational tool. It’s also a portable Raspberry Pi with a ten-hour lifespan, which is pretty great on its own. Hopefully, it will make its way into classrooms or into the hands of budding young coders.

Last word

4/5

Makes great use of the Raspberry Pi to create a fully functional laptop that you build with your own hands – the entire system is a great experience for those wanting to learn.

  • Rich H

    Cost of PI-Top kit ?

  • Howard

    I’ve had my PiTop for a little while now and I have to agree with the reviewer. The case is brilliantly thought out and extremely well made. The instructions could be more clear – knowing which screws were which was a little tough from the pictures. I ended up figuring out what to use by counting the screws.

    The only problems I’m having with it are that the usual Raspbian tricks to get Bluetooth audio to work on this distro don’t seem to work. I may end up just using the standard Noobs image and forgoing the special hub support. Second, the keyboard is failing after only a few weeks. Sometimes you have to press extra hard and sometimes you get double entries. I had to stop using the touchpad after a week and switch to a mouse, and I may end up disconnecting the keyboard entirely and just using an external keyboard.

    As a battery powered Pi that lasts all day and looks amazing on screen though, this thing is amazing. I hope they iron out the documentation and keyboard issues.

  • Everest Liu

    looks like $270

  • Ian Hollis

    Kermit – my green Pi-Top – was purchased without the Raspberry Pi 2 as I already own one. So that came to $269.99 US ($299.99 US for the complete kit) plus postage to Australia. With the poor exchange rate in April 2015 it cost me $400 Australian.

    Not really that cheap in comparison to Windows based entry level laptops I suppose. But those are pre- built and you get Windows and around 6-7 hours battery life if you are a light user.

    I have Kermit which I assembled, Pi-TopOS, 10 hours battery life with moderate use and a bright green laptop which draws attention. At 64 years old I’m enjoying the thrills of old DOS with the Linux terminal (Linux is far more powerful), running LibreOffice, Icedove email, and learning something new.

    Kermit may not be all powerful, but when the 2GB Raspberry Pi 3 (????) arrives I’ll be able to upgrade for a small sum. So in the long run the Pi-Top may prove to be a wise choice.

    Meanwhile I’m having fun again. Something I can’t say about Windows since it became an industry. ☺

  • Chris Nuttall

    Price is just plain stupid! You can buy a very decent Android Tablet with 2Gb RAM, a better processor, 16Gb SSD and a 10.6″ screen for just over £100 with built-in WiFi and BT. Can’t see what market they are targetting. Plus, if you live in UK you have to buy it in DOLLARS + shipping.
    Daft

  • John Nguyen

    can you do web development on one?

  • I cannot find much information about Pi-TopOS. Does anybody know where to get some information about Pi-TopOS? Thanks in advance.

  • jack sh

    will the raspberry pi 2 B work with this

  • But you don’t truly own anything Android unless you root it, at which point it’s permanently compromised. Rapsberry Pi based laptop with Kali Linux or Arch? Yes please.

  • Nicholas Mattiacci

    You can install some linux distros on mobile devices, and I’m sure you could get a full mouse and keyboard setup with the tablet for well under the price of this.

  • wozza

    Hello
    I am in australia and have just brought i PI
    I was wondering if you could help me with the PI top
    my skype is wozza1927

    thanks

  • Ian Hollis

    Hi wozza. What do you need help with?
    I’ll try to assist if I can, but I’m not an expert.

  • wozza

    i have brought the grey Pi top but it has not come yet
    i have the PI 3 and PI 2 on hand now
    it has been 45 days since i ordered the PI top
    i want to know if i need to buy the Noobs firmware
    to get the PI TOP working as i am learning and playing with my
    PI 3 and a 7 inch screen while i wait for the laptop to come

    I am new at PI after playing with 3D printrs and Arduino
    it looks promising with Raspberry PI
    I am also printing a Retro Pie gaming console for my PI 2
    it is work in progress as i have the STL files for this

    I am not sure but does the Noobs firmware make the
    PI display on screen the linix OPS like a normal laptop

    Or should i just wait till i get my PI top and NooBs will come with the
    Kit

    thanks
    Warren

  • ianken51

    The Pi-Top comes with it’s own version of Raspbian called Pi-TopOS. It has been enhanced to add features which take advantage of the Pi-Top Hub and battery, etc. As Pi-Top has produced it’s own speaker ( still waiting for mine) I assume Pi-TopOS will be enhanced to use this addition.

    I’ve put the NOOBS SD Card into my Pi-Top and it seems to run perfectly well. You just can’t access the battery it Hub features. I assume this means you probably can’t access the Pi-Top Speaker either – though probably someone will soon provide a workaround.

    I only buy 16GB or larger cards now as Pi-TopOS takes up around 8GB when downloaded. I’ve also found that brand-name SD cards tend to be more reliable and faster than cheapie no-names. They aren’t much more expensive either.

  • warren

    My PI did not come
    i now have NOOBS SD card and PI 2 my PI 3 does not function
    Is it posible to buy or obtain a copy of the STL files so i can print a case

    I cant find were to get the STL files from other than purchasing another PI TOP

    thanks
    warren

  • Bris Vegas

    Just by a second hand laptop for half the price and install any Linux distro you want.

  • Doc Jones

    Though the Pi-Top may seem expensive for what you get, with a RPI-3 installed it is a very fine substitute for a mid-priced Chromebook but is far more capable and potentially secure. For serious typing you can add a Logitech K-400 for $30 or so. (I do this with regular laptops–this VASTLY improves the typing expeirence for touch typists.) You can run standard Raspbian Pixel, adding a few scripts, available free from Github, to control special features of the laptop. The current version of Pi-Top OS works very much as advertised. A heat sink on the SOC of the RPi-3 is useful, however, since there is little ventilation of the case. The battery life using the RPi-3 is no longer 10 hours but still very useful. I note that the new building instructions clearly distinguish the module screws (brass finish) from the rail screws (tin finish), though the illustrations are still monochrome. With the OS installed on a 32Gb or 64Gb micro-SD card, and the addition of a powered USB-2 hub, you have a very usable lap computer for well under $400. In a different form factor, the Pi-Top CEED is a real bargain at $115 if battery operation isn’t needed (or if you can rig an 18V power system out of rechargeable 6V batteries). Same very good 720p screen as the Pi-Top, in an all-in-one form factor, with built-in stand. Though I have not tried this, I suspect the Black Hat Hac3er pin duplicator would work for GPIO access in either form factor without disabling the special features. Overall I am impressed with the quality of the build and the ease of assembly of these products. Either would make a GREAT introductory computer for pre-teens…or seniors…who’d like to learn more about computers.

  • cyberqat

    They missed the mass adoption target by about $80. If they had been able to do this for under $200 uptake woudl be huge

  • I’ve decided to get one of these, as a straight-up Linux machine with Raspbian. It is a tad overpriced maybe, but unlike other laptops, this will be more upgradable, simply replace the Pi when a new one comes out. Other boards like the Asus Tinker Board should work too or maybe PC sticks, the internal connectors excluding the GPIO are standard USB, HDMI etc. There are more options for customisation too.

  • Joe Smith

    Way too high for what you get