Raspberry Pi 4: a full desktop replacement?

The MagPi magazine puts Raspberry Pi 4 to the ultimate test as writer and all-round tech tinkerer PJ Evans uses it for a week as his desktop computer.

When Raspberry Pi 4 was launched earlier in 2019, the significant improvements in processor speed, data throughput, and graphics handling lead to an interesting change of direction for this once humble small computer. Although it’s impressive that you can run a full Linux operating system on a $35 device, a lot of people were just using their Raspberry Pi to get Scratch or Python IDLE up and running. Many people were skipping the graphical side altogether and using smaller models, such as Raspberry Pi Zero, for projects previously covered by Arduino and other microcontrollers.

Raspberry Pi desktop experience

Raspberry Pi 4 was different. Tellingly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released a new all-in-one kit and named it the Desktop Kit. For the first time truly in Raspberry Pi history, the new model was considered powerful enough to be used as a daily computer without any significant compromise. Challenge accepted. We asked PJ Evans to spend a week using a Raspberry Pi 4 as his only machine. Here’s what happened.

Day 1 | Monday

Decisions, decisions

Our new favourite single-board computer comes in a selection of RAM sizes: 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB. Given a price difference of £20 between the 1GB and 4GB versions, it made sense to go right for the top specification. That’s the version included in the official Desktop Kit that I went out and bought for £105 (inc. VAT) at the official Raspberry Pi store; it normally retails for $120 plus local taxes. My last laptop was £1900. I’m not suggesting that the two can be reasonably compared in terms of performance, but £1795 minus the cost of a monitor is a difference worth remarking upon.

Back at the office, I inspected the contents. For your money you get: a 4GB version of Raspberry Pi 4, thoughtfully already installed in the new official case; the official keyboard and mouse; the new USB-C power supply; a 16GB microSD card preloaded with the Raspbian Buster operating system; and a copy of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide 252-page book. It’s very well packaged and presented, with little plastic waste. The book is the icing on the cake if you are looking at this set for a young person’s first computer, short-circuiting the ‘now what do I do?’ stage. What pleased me, in particular, was the inclusion of two micro-HDMI cables in the kit, allowing me to set up a dual-screen system without delay.

First tests

I set up my new workstation next to my existing laptop, with two 1080p monitors that only had DVI connectors, so I had to get a couple of £2 adapters and an additional cable to get sound out of the audio jack of my Raspberry Pi. Time for an initial test-drive. Booting up into Raspbian Buster was quick, about ten seconds, and connection to WiFi easy. There’s no doubting the feel of the speed improvements. Yes, I’ve read all the benchmark tests, but I wanted to know how that translates to user experience. This new kit does not disappoint.

Raspbian has matured impressively as an OS. For my daily desktop scenario, the jewel in the crown is Chromium: having such a capable web browser is what makes this whole experiment feasible. Others have upped their game, too: Firefox has come a long way, and many other browsers are now available, such as Vivaldi. A check of some of my most visited sites showed Chromium to be just as capable as Chrome on my regular machine. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t as snappy and I hit a few bumps, but we’ll get to that.

A day of impressions

I’m no expert when it comes to GPUs, but I was impressed with the dual-monitor support. The setup worked first time and didn’t seem to have any detrimental effect on the machine’s performance. I was expecting slow window drawing or things getting ‘stuck’, but this wasn’t the case.

By the end of the first day, I was getting used to the keyboard and mouse too. They are a nice mixture of being both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The keyboard comes with a three-port hub, so you can connect the mouse if you wish. It does not have the build quality and precision of my daily wireless keyboard and trackpad, but for a fraction of the price, I was surprised how much I got for my money. By the end of the week, I’d grown quite fond of it.

Day 2 | Tuesday

Back to basics…

If you’d like to see what PJ got up to for the rest of his week spent using Raspberry Pi as a desktop replacement, head over to The MagPi magazine’s website, where you can either buy the magazine with international home delivery or download the PDF for FREE!

The MagPi magazine is also available from most high street newsagents in the UK, or from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge.

What we’re trying to say, dear reader, is that there is absolutely no reason for you not to read the rest of this article. And when you have, let us know what you thought of it in the comments below.

And while we have your attention, here’s the latest video from The MagPi — a teaser of their review for the rather nifty RockyBorg, available now from PiBorg.


AL avatar

We have two raspberry pi 3 b + that my kids use as desktop computers, we force the sound through the HDMI and everything works smoothly. We have been using them for movies and youtube and a bit of other web surfing and they do the job. Also did a bit of homework and saved some documents with no hassle. So we recommend these as desktops too :)

ColinT avatar

I have been using one to replace my ancient AMD desktop since its release as I bought it on day one. It is a 4GB model, I have a fanshim on it in the pibow case and it never goes above 50C. I would not go back to anything else now as it does everything I request it to, of course I would upgrade if better model is release but until then I am happy.

Anders avatar

I’ve been using one as a full desktop since Pi3, now Pi4.
I am looking for a Laptop version to go on the road with.

Lada avatar

Me too. It was a pain to use a modern browser with 1GB of memory. The 4GB version is a blessing. And way faster. I’m using it as an always on workstation.

Had to mill a big heatsink for it though…and create a 3d printable case. Performance comes with a price. It heats a bit more than RPI3B when loaded.

Marco Griep avatar

Using a Chromebook for a while and i am satisfied. I do not want to buy full blown computers anymore that need more maintanance and updates. All this maintanance prevent my from doing my actual work

gsgs avatar

I need one internal and 2 external HDs for my daily work.
a printer and lots of copying from/to HD by micro-sd
and I prefer touchpad over mouse

and can I have more pis ? 5 or such , running together,
not necessarily with fast RAM communication.
for multitasking

Andrew Waite avatar

I would like to replace my laptop with an Official Raspberry Pi laptop.

anders avatar

I agree, I would hurl boatloads of cash at Station Road for a Pi driven laptop.

This thing: https://cutiepi.io/ is only a physical keyboard away and uses CM3.

Disappointingly Pi-Top chose not to develop laptops any further and changed direction to making a device that I could easily knock up myself.

Rene avatar

Yes, pi-tops choice to not update their laptop to the Pi 4 is really disappointing. I also would like to see an Official Pi laptop.

Herman Bastiaens avatar

A RPi4/2or4 tablet (10,5″ or better) or — even more preferable — a RPi4/4 laptop (14″ or better) would be welcomed with open arms here! Since I’m used to a AZERTY-keyboard, i hope that the keys will be removable so that I will be able to physically compose the layout that I’m used to. And BTW, kudos for the RPi Foundation that their official keyboard comes in different layouts, thank you very much!

Saurabh avatar

I googled your product and found promising

But there is There are no Indian resellers for this product.

How I can buy it?

Liz Upton avatar

There are Indian resellers – Silverline Electronics are a) lovely people and b) authorised resellers. https://www.silverlineelectronics.in/ – fill yer boots!

Mai Freeman avatar

What model LCD monitors are you using for your Pi 4 set up?

Fred avatar

I use this one:
White in 24″

Roan Brand avatar

I really want to use this for 99% of my time in front of the desk, but the devs behind all this really, REALLY need to get the following done ASAP:

1) Official 64 bit Raspbian able to run 64-bit software.
2) Video decoding in the browser. It’s been years and still not working. I am aware of the alternatives, but the default OS with default browser MUST support this for mass adoption.
3) I notice x265 is also not hardware decoded in VLC yet on rPi4. Why even release the rPi4 without this ready? Surely this isn’t too much work?

Fred avatar

Video hardware decoding h265 is supported and work fine…
The same with Chromium and youtube and other….

Kim avatar

Are you saying that video streaming on Youtube full screen mode for 720p, 1080p and maybe 4K are now working properly via the browser? Used to be an issue when it was first released. And that issue was a deal breaker for me. Thanks.

Greg Browne avatar

Excellent article thanks. For a few years I’ve been pursuing a useable ARM based desktop. If the performance is there, the OS is not up to the job but the Pi4 has both performance and a mature OS.
The full article in the MagPi includes some very useful tips, but I do recommend a fan cooled case. The best I’ve found so far is the Bruphny acrylic case as the fan is almost totally quiet.
Yes, I’d love to see a Pi4 powered laptop but heat dissipation is going to be a problem.

Keith N avatar

As a pi newby, I recently purchased a pi v4 with 4 Gig ram. I tried raspian, and found it to be not so stable for my day to day rummaging around on the net.I squirrelled around and have found manjaro xfce to be a pleasing runner. It seems to retain all the adjustments and alterations that I may make whereas raspian failed. I am a bit of an arch fan, and may try the arch version as well. Most pleased with my acquisition.Over heating on larger progects is a bit of a problem, but have ordered a new case and fan assembly to hopefully over come that.I use this as a desktop only at this time.

Reece John avatar

Let me start off with stating that I own 8 raspberry Pi’s.
I do like them and use them in my home automation
But in my opinion a good desktop replacement would have the ability to connect a Bluetooth noise canceling headset with a microphone that is easily configurable using the manufacturer’s standard distro.
In my opinion a good desktop replacement would have a 64 bit operating system distro from the manufacturer capable of running modern 64 bit IDEs.

Alexa avatar

I’ve been using one as a full desktop since Pi3, now Pi4. Now
I am looking for a Laptop version to go on the road with.

Frits Schouten avatar

I just got myself a Pi4(2GiB), installed Kubuntu 19.10 with KDE Plasma version 5.16.5 and Kernel Version 5.3.0-1012-raspi2 (64bit). It’s quicker than my ‘Shuttle’.
The main reason I got it is for processing audio from my NOAA satellite receiver and present the images on my server.
I like the KDE desktop which is nearly as snappy as my ‘big’ computer.
I still have a bit of work to do to get WxToIMG to work.

LudwigIII avatar

I also used the Pi4 as desktop computer. It worked pretty well, if certain things are taken care of, e.g. a case with active cooling.
Also regarding software setup, I gave some hints which make it easier to change from a Windows desktop to Raspbian.
You could find the stuff at the website https://raspi4.wordpress.com/the-raspberry-pi4-as-desktop-computer/

Ankjit Budha avatar

I’ve been using one as a full desktop since Pi3, now Pi4.
I am looking for a Laptop version to go on the road with.

Comments are closed