For those who read my blog regularly, I know that I always order my PCB’s from SeeedStudio. Recently SeeedStudio contacted me if I wanted to write a review for them for the Raspberry Pi Zero W. Which they offer through their web-shop.
Linux-based kit PCs like the original 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 is just $10. 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.
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.
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 SeeedStudio. For example, the $20 starter kit we received from SeeedStudio to test includes a Raspberry Pi Zero W, Official Raspberry Pi camera strip – Connect camera with Pi Zero w. and a Pi Zero Case – Included three kinds of cover. Keeps your Pi Zero safe and sleek.
The board measures 0.2 by 2.56 by 1.18 inches. 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 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.
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.
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.
It’s easy to build a basic desktop PC with the starter kit. We started by slipping the 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 4-port USB Hub to connect a keyboard and mouse to the single micro USB port with the USB 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 Wi-Fi network, and we were online in seconds.
A New Linux Flavor
The starter kit we tested form SeeedStudio does not includes a preloaded 8GB micro SD card with Raspbian, a version of Linux based on Debian. Buster replaces Jessie (at time of writing), the OS found on previous models like the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. Buster 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 512GB of memory in a Broadcom BCM2835 system on a chip (SoC) package. This translates into performance that’s close to the original Raspberry Pi. 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 XR, 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 $20 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. 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 4 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! You can Order your’s here at SeeedStudio!
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