Raspberry Pi engineers on the making of Raspberry Pi Pico | The MagPi 102

In the latest issue of The MagPi Magazine, on sale now, Gareth Halfacree asks what goes into making Raspberry Pi’s first in-house microcontroller and development board.

“It’s a flexible product and platform,” says Nick Francis, Senior Engineering Manager at Raspberry Pi, when discussing the work the Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) team put into designing RP2040, the microcontroller at the heart of Raspberry Pi Pico

It would have been easy to have said, well, let’s do a purely educational microcontroller “quite low-level, quite limited performance,” he tells us. “But we’ve done the high-performance thing without forgetting about making it easy to use for beginners. To do that at this price point is really good.”

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job,” agrees James Adams, Chief Operating Officer at Raspberry Pi. “We’ve obviously tossed around a lot of different ideas about what we could include along the way, and we’ve iterated quite a lot and got down to a good set of features.”

A board and chip

“The idea is it’s [Pico] a component in itself,” says James. “The intent was to expose as many of the I/O (input/output) pins for users as possible, and expose them in the DIP-like (Dual Inline Package) form factor, so you can use Raspberry Pi Pico as you might use an old 40-pin DIP chip. Now, Pico is 2.54 millimetres or 0.1 inch pitch wider than a ‘standard’ 40-pin DIP, so not exactly the same, but still very similar.

“After the first prototype, I changed the pins to be castellated so you can solder it down as a module, without needing to put any headers in. Which is, yes, another nod to using it as a component.”

Getting the price right

“One of the things that we’re very excited about is the price,” says James. “We’re able to make these available cheap as chips – for less than the price of a cup of coffee.”

“It’s extremely low-cost,” Nick agrees. “One of the driving requirements right at the start was to build a very low-cost chip, but which also had good performance. Typically, you’d expect a microcontroller with this specification to be more expensive, or one at this price to have a lower specification. We tried to push the performance and keep the cost down.”

“We’re able to make these available cheap as chips.”

James Adams

Raspberry Pi Pico also fits nicely into the Raspberry Pi ecosystem: “Most people are doing a lot of the software development for this, the SDK (software development kit) and all the rest of it, on Raspberry Pi 4 or Raspberry Pi 400,” James explains. “That’s our primary platform of choice. Of course, we’ll make it work on everything else as well. I would hope that it will be as easy to use as any other microcontroller platform out there.”

Eben Upton on RP2040

“RP2040 is an exciting development for Raspberry Pi because it’s Raspberry Pi people making silicon,” says Eben Upton, CEO and co-founder of Raspberry Pi. “I don’t think other people bring their A-game to making microcontrollers; this team really brought its A-game. I think it’s just beautiful.

Is Pico really that small, or is Eben a giant?

“What does Raspberry Pi do? Well, we make products which are high performance, which are cost-effective, and which are implemented with insanely high levels of engineering attention to detail – and this is that. This is that ethos, in the microcontroller space. And that couldn’t have been done with anyone else’s silicon.”

Issue #102 of The MagPi Magazine is out NOW

MagPi 102 cover

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Tom avatar

will you build a RISC-V verion of the normal Pi one day?

Ray Allen avatar

Please have that Pico BBC Micro emulator available as Pi Foundation official product so we can re live BASIC and the joys of our childhood experience with computing.

Harry Hardjono avatar

I believe we already have BBC basic somewhere in the repository. Also Tiny Basic and RTB Basic which became FuzeBasic.
Personally, though, I prefer TinyCCompiler or Processing. About the only thing I don’t like about Processing is that it takes 450 MB RAM, and RaspiZero only has 512MB RAM.
I wonder if Scratch, which I consider as Graphical Basic, is any better. I believe that it’s even more resource hungry than Processing.
I like to do my developments on RaspiZero because if I can make it work there, then I can make it work anywhere. Besides, isn’t the goal is to make great things inexpensively? I love it if I can build a book with built-in working computer inside the hardcover!

James Carroll avatar

I’d dearly love to see a new Pi Zero with at least 1GB of RAM.

W. H. Heydt avatar

Can’t be done without a new SoC, and if there is to be a new SoC for a follow-on Pi0, may as well make it 64-bit capable.

Now go find someone who will fund a suitable new SoC.

Michal Tarovsky avatar

Is there a road map for making Pi a Secure Device (DRM compliant) to make it a ultimate media center?

Yaroslav avatar

I on the other hand have hope that the Pi developers know better and never add such an antifeature to their devices. DRM, or as Stallman would call it — Digital Restrictions Management, is an anti-consumer anti-feature, it’s only purpose is to allow corporations to restrict what users can and cannot do with their own devices and content that they bought. If the content that you buy forces you to use such restrictive software/hardware, I would suggest you take your money somewhere else.
Adding DRM would go against the spirit of the Raspberry Pi, which is to provide an open platform that doesn’t limit their users in any artificially imposed way. I would be pretty disappointed if the developers of the Pi were to add such an anti-feature to their products.
That said, if you are content using DRM content, I suggest you buy one of the many “consumer-friendly” appliances out there.
Some interesting reading on the topic, for any still unconvinced of the evils of DRM: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/opposing-drm.html

Jamie avatar

We need some form of hardware encryption or pub/priv key encryption or be able to make memory readonly to protect our code on the device. Why spend months coding a product when someone can edit code and remove checks and release the product for free

Richard Mullens avatar

If you read the book “The Hardware Hacker” then I think it will tell you why.

solar3000 avatar

Thanks RPI engineers.
Thanks Eben the giant.
I’ve had the pleasure of taking a selfie with Eben the giant in NYC Maker Faire.

James Hughes avatar

Actually, it’s “Unfeasibly Tall Nick” who is the giant…;-)

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