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Pi-top

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Pi-Top
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Summary

Key Features

  • Raspberry Pi 3-based laptop
  • Build-it-yourself
  • 12-hour battery life
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • No speakers
  • Modular design
  • Linux-based Pi-top OS
  • Manufacturer: Pi-Top
  • Review Price: to be confirmed

What is the Pi-top?

The Raspberry Pi is the beloved mascot of makers and tinkerers all across the world and has sold more than eight million units. While the sales figures are impressive, the Pi hasn’t yet made the jump to being an everyday device for the masses. To most people, it remains a circuit board that they don’t understand.

Pi-top is hoping to change that, with an eponymous build-it-yourself laptop kit that turns the Pi into something a little more familiar. Granted, the idea may sound ludicrous at first – but it actually has plenty going for it.

Weighing a meagre 1.5kg, it’s light for a 13.3-inch laptop and has a long 12-hour battery life. Combine that with the low $299 price point and the Pi-top is capable of giving Chromebooks a run for their money.

Yet for all these benefits the Pi-top isn’t trying to replace budget laptops for adults. Instead, it’s set itself up as a laptop for kids between the ages of nine and 16. Pi-top has even developed a suite of workshops and games to teach kids how to code and build their own hardware.

Related: Best Linux Distro 2016

Editor's note: We're not scoring the Pi-top as there's nothing in the market to compare it against

Watch: Raspberry Pi 3 vs Pi 2 – what's the difference?

Some assembly required

The Pi-top’s lurid green shell arrives in four pieces, which, along with the internal components, have to be assembled before you can do anything else. If you’ve ever played with Airfix planes then this won’t be particularly taxing; the assembly process is illustrated with Lego-like diagrams that kids can easily follow.

Parental guidance is still recommended, but the Pi-top isn’t something you’ll have to assemble the night before just to make sure it works. It took me around 20 minutes, and I was amazed that it was mostly a tool-free experience. The chassis simply slots together with a few bolts to reinforce it.

Initially, I was a little concerned about this simplified design. The hardware is protected by a single, easily removed piece of black plastic. But after two weeks of testing, the Pi-top proved as resilient as any other laptop – and the fact that you can easily reveal the innards made it fascinating, even for supposed adults like me.

The design isn’t without compromises, however. The biggest is that the are no speakers, which makes it impossible to play music or enjoy many games to their fullest. It does have a 3.5mm jack, so headphones of external speakers are supported.

PPi-top 20

Pi-top is also an expandable platform and speaker modules are available. If you’re approaching Pi-top as an adult’s laptop then the need to wire in your own speakers would be awful, but for kids, this is a great weekend project.

Speakers aren’t the only add-on available either. There are official Pi-top prototyping boards for open-ended experiments, plus a huge array of sensors. The Pi-top’s chassis is a limiting factor, however. You’ll need to ensure that any modules you buy are no bigger than the Pi itself. If they are, they won’t fit in the chassis.

Raspberry Pi 3 vs BBC Micro BitPPi-top 4

It's what you do with it that counts

Unlike other laptops, Pi-top runs a unique operating system known as Pi-topOS – a fork of Raspbian, which is based on the Debian, Linux distro. The OS is kind of like Windows, but newcomers should be prepared to step outside of their comfort zones occasionally.

Pi-top has done everything it can to lessen the learning curve. Pi-topOS is divided into two basic layers: one with a simplified interface and one that’s vanilla Raspbian. The Pi-top will default to the trimmed-down layer at boot, with a colourful background, on-screen tutorial and limited options. At any time, however, you can switch to the more complete interface or get access to the full power of Linux through the command line terminal.

Then there’s CEEDuniverse, the exclusive game that teaches kids to program in Python. CEEDuniverse does this by casting you as an explorer who must program machinery to make their life easier. CEEDuniverse slowly eases kids into the idea of exploring the Pi-top’s deeper potential and is the rarest sort of gamified learning: it isn’t patronisingly saccharine.

CEEDuniverse isn’t the only teaching tool Pi-top offers. The SD card comes pre-loaded with Minecraft and a whole curriculum of coding workshops that offer an excellent introduction to computer science. A lot of the software is rough around the edges, but Pi-topOS will receive on-going updates and support to help iron them out.

Related: Best Raspberry Pi projects

PPi-top 9

Verdict

Despite the rough edges and need for potentially critical upgrades such as speakers, I'm incredibly impressed by the Pi-top. The long battery life and simple ergonomics made it my writing machine of choice whenever I was out and about.

For children that have a pre-existing interest in computing and who can rely on a bit of adult support to help them out now and then, the Pi-top is tremendous value; the logical next step after Lego Technic, perhaps. But for kids who don’t have the same passion, the Pi-top is a riskier gambit.

Is the Pi-top enough to inspire and excite kids across the world to get more hands-on with computing? I'm inclined to think it could – and I'm excited to see what they can make of the Pi-top too.

jimmy

August 15, 2016, 2:50 pm

tremendous value? it will cost around £300 to build one of these, and it will be far chunkier and underpowered compared to a basic windows laptop.
I get it's a great tool to inspire kids for coding etc, but £300 can hardly be called value.

jan_poster

February 1, 2017, 8:44 pm

Here's my $.02. I'm a RPi enthusiast, own 10 3's, and try almost every project I can find. When I discovered the Pi-TopCEED I had to try it. I set it up with a bluetooth keyboard/trackpad, RPi 3, 64 GB card and attached it to my wifi. Here's a few of my knit-picks although overall I really like it:

1. I watched an older unboxing video and noticed that they have now improved the cabling making the install easier and neater. The Pi is attached to magnetic tracks that work really well EXCEPT there is nothing but the cabling to stop the Pi from moving when inserting USB plugs. When I do insert a USB plug I just slide the front panel over and hold the Pi. A screw or bracket to stop it from sliding over would have been nice.

2. Speaking of the access panel, it would have been better if it slid open to the left instead of the right. The Pi is on the right and it would have been much easier to access it if the panel slid to the left.

3. I had no luck with the included Pi-Top software. It was sluggish and the bluetooth manager wouldn't allow me to pair the keyboard. I had to do it from Terminal and then connect it through the GUI so it would reconnect on a reboot. It has it's own update utility and it was not clear if that should be used instead of sudo apt-get update/upgrade. After struggling with it I used a full Raspian image and it works great with the Pi-TopCEED. The BT keyboard connected on the first try and the OS is very robust. I stream HD movies from PLEX without any glitches and Chromium responds just about as quickly as my Windows PC. I recommend just using the full Raspian OS instead of their limited version.

4. If you don't open the access panel a little it gets very warm inside since there is no real ventilation. It's not a problem normally but when I run projects in BOINC, which use 100% of the CPU, it gets very warm. A few ventilation slots would help.

5. As mentioned, it doesn't come with a speaker. I ordered one from Pi-Top ($20). It installs easily but requires a speaker process to run that uses 3-5% of the CPU even when idle. I had to wonder why they didn't just provide a speaker that sits on the magnetic rails with a cable that plugs into the headphone jack which wouldn't have needed addition software/process.

6. The other problem with the speaker is that the panel that covers it has no slots to let the sound out. That means you have to slide the access panel open to get unmuffled sound. They could have easily fixed that with a few slots in the access panel.

7. The screen is not the brightest and sharpest I've seen but it's not bad for the price.

Again, these are knit-picks and I'm really liking the Pi-Top CEED as a basic desktop for a total investment of about $160.

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