Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pi-Top Raspberry Pi Laptop

Earlier this year I learned about the Pi-Top, a kit for turning a Raspberry Pi single board computer into a laptop, from a friend's post on Facebook. A portable RPi-based system is something I've been interested in for awhile, because if it has enough horsepower to run Fldigi, it would make a neat, relatively inexpensive system to run digital modes on ham radio while in the field with low electrical power requirements.

Last weekend I was down at Microcenter in St. David's, PA to return a cell phone car mount that didn't work out for me*, when I wander over into the DIY section. A few years ago, Microcenter decided to cater to the maker movement and has been carrying a lot of neat stuff. Its what Radio Shack should've done instead of trying to be another cell phone hawker.

Anyway, I saw that they had the Pi-Top kits for sale so I decided to get one. The Pi-Top kit does not include an RPi, so I also got a RPi 3 Model B, which included onboard Bluetooth and WiFi.

The Pi-Top was about $265, while the RPi 3 was on sale for $30.

Laptop guts on my dining room table:

The kit was well packaged in a cleverly designed box and came with an 8 GB microSD card pre-loaded with a version of Raspbian customized for the Pi-Top hardware. The instruction booklet that came with it was pretty good but lacked any info about the OS, except a pointer to the Pi-Top website. It didn't even include the default login info.

Closeup of the USB hub (left) and the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B:

The Pi-Top case is molded from plastic and feels about like what you'd expect from a $250 laptop. Assembly was pretty straightforward except that I initially mounted the RPi too far to the right in the case. The cables that link the RPi and the USB hub aren't long enough. This results in the RPi being inset to the left inside the case, which makes using the USB ports inconvenient. The case also blocks access to the Pi's onboard Fast Ethernet port.

Click on any of the pics to embiggen.

Boards mounted in the case:

The Pi-Tops 13.3" screen is decent. It's nothing to write home about, especially after one is used to a MacBook Pro with Retina display, but it ain't bad.

The keyboard is OK. I wouldn't want to do any extended writing or coding on it, however.

The shiny plastic cover at the top of the keyboard slides in and out from the right side of the computer. This helps when trying to connect something to the USB ports.

Side-by-side with my mid-2009 15" MacBook Pro:

Because of the plastic construction and a lot of empty space within the case, it's very lightweight.

The Pi-Top doesn't ship with a speaker, so as it comes there's no audio unless you buy the $20 add-on speaker, or run a cable from the RPi's audio jack to a set of external speakers.

After getting it up and running I naturally ran apt-get update and apt-get upgrade to bring the system up-to-date. Normally this wouldn't cause any issues but something related to dpkg got munged and I had to do about an hour's worth of troubleshooting to fix it and restore the ability to install or upgrade packages. Unfortunately I don't recall the specifics and didn't take notes.

Last weekend was ARRL Field Day, so I dragged my Icom 7200 and the Pi-Top out back on Sunday to see how it would fair as a portable digital mode laptop. It decoded PSK31 well, but the screen wasn't bright enough to use without a lot more shade than I had available, so I kept losing the cursor.

There are buttons on the keyboard to adjust screen brightness but they aren't working. I'm not sure if they would have worked pre-update, but they aren't post-update. Such is desktop Linux. Flakiness like that is why I normally run macOS as my desktop UNIX.

The manufacturer claims a 10+ hour battery life and from my testing so far, it sips power.

So, would I recommend the Pi-Top? It depends. If you're an experienced Linux user in search of a portable machine with low electrical power requirements, it's worth considering. Keep in mind that it's also a low computing power device. Web pages render relatively slowly. The OS includes Libre Office. I have not putzed with it yet but based on prior experience with that suite, it's going to run slowly on this hardware.

* Don't try to use a magnetic mount with an iPhone 7+ in a MagPul Field Case. The first bump in the road that you hit, and the phone will fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never heard of this, but with the help of my older son, I sorted it out. It sounds interesting, but more like a little hobby machine, unless you set it to make some part of something you need made. Kept you out of trouble and off the streets for a while, though, didn't it? =)