Can a Raspberry Pi fully replace a desktop computer?

Can a Raspberry Pi adequately replace you desktop ?

 

The answer is, “Yes, but…” We’ll have a look at some of the key considerations if you are thinking about making the switch and look at some of the decisions you’ll need to make.

The debate over desktop replacement suitability was going as soon as Raspberry Pi made a first appearance. Earlier models struggled to replicate a functional desktop, and some people have made their mind up about this issue based on earlier releases.

The shortfall was not surprising, given that desktop replacement was not the goal of the early Raspberry Pi computers. The release of Raspberry Pi 3 changed that. For the first time, a sub-$50 Raspberry Pi could deliver the power to manage most basic day-to-day tasks.

The Raspberry Pi 4

And then came the Raspberry Pi 4. We’ll be looking at the capability of the Raspberry Pi 4 as a desktop replacement in this article. For obvious reasons of portability, your Raspberry Pi does not make a great laptop replacement. That is unless you do a bit of engineering to make it happen. To illustrate, check out this awesome creation. Once again, this demonstrates that there are no limits to what you can do with a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi 4 has a 64-bit quad-core processor. Happily, it supports dual displays up to 4K as dual displays are standard for many desktop users productivity needs. Connectivity includes Bluetooth, dual-band wireless LAN, two USB 3.0 ports, and gigabit ethernet.

For most cloud-based users the standard microSD card is fine. Alternatively, you can connect an SSD harddrive and run your OS from the drive, but you’ll still need to boot up from a microSD card as per all Raspberry Pi computers.
The Raspberry Pi comes in 1GB, 2GB or 4GB of RAM options. While some people do use the 1GB version for a desktop, your experience will be much more pleasant using the 2GB or 4GB options.

What tasks do you do on your desktop?

Let’s start by defining what we consider standard desktop tasks.

  • Web browsing with multiple browser
  • Use of an OS (Windows, Linux,…)
  • Email
  • Wordprocessing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Presentations
  • Basic image editing
  • Printing
  • Multimedia playback

And some basic hardware standards we’d expect with a standard desktop.

  • Keyboard and mouse
  • Single or dual monitors
  • Network connectivity

Here are some examples of things we consider outside of standard functionality

  • Editing video
  • 3D modelling
  • Compiling large projects

The Raspberry Pi software that makes this possible

While there are other options, the Rasbian operating system is generally favoured for a desktop replacement. The OS is impressively stable and fast. It is a high quality a Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Although the Raspberry Pi foundation does not produce it, the creators of Rasbian operate on the same principals. The OS is free (although donations to support ongoing development, hosting, and support are appreciated). New functionality, improvements, and bug fixes are consistently rolled out.
Raspian is created and highly optimised for Raspberry Pi. Raspian also ships in three versions. To get started, there is a “With Desktop” option that will work best for your desktop replacement project.

How to add additional software tools to your Raspberry Pi desktop

Installing everything you need is easy. The Raspian desktop has two GUI utilities for the task. Recommended Software (categorised and a more manageable list to get started) utility, or you can use the Add / Remove Software (also categorised, but much more comprehensive) utility.

Some software recommendations to create a standard desktop

There are multiple options for all your requirements. Finding the perfect combination will be up to you and your preferences. We’ll give you an inside track on our favourites to get you started. With these installed, you will be able to happily complete all the standard desktop tasks we listed on your Raspberry Pi desktop computer.
The disclaimer again, there are countless options out there. Have fun exploring if our recommendations don’t suit!

Some software recommendations to create a standard desktop

There are multiple options for all your requirements. Finding the perfect combination will be up to you and your preferences. We’ll give you an inside track on our favourites to get you started. With these installed, you will be able to happily complete all the standard desktop tasks we listed on your Raspberry Pi desktop computer.
The disclaimer again, there are countless options out there. Have fun exploring if our recommendations don’t suit!

Browser: Chromium

The Chromium browser that ships with Rasbian is a good product. It is stable, fast, and optimised for your Raspberry Pi. Firefox or Vivaldi are other options here.

Multimedia: VLC

VLC is a well know option. It is a mature open-source software. It’ll handle most media files without any problems. It can stream as easily as play from your libraries.

Email: Webmail

Gmail and Outlook web clients are more than acceptable for most people. They are the most common options for people running a Raspberry Pi desktop. Having your storage hungry mailbox in the cloud is also an advantage. If you can’t live without a desktop mail client, have a look at Thunderbird. It is available on Rasbian and has a wide range of functions and extensions.

Images: GIMP

GNU Image Manipulator Program is another open-source software that will do most of the image manipulation tasks you throw at it without breaking a sweat.

Office Suite: Libre Office

Libre Office is an open-source Linux productivity suite. It includes Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations), Draw (vector graphics and flowcharts), Base (databases), and Math (formula editing). While there are other options, this is an impressive offering that works well with your Raspberry Pi. It will easily deal with files from Microsoft Office and G Suite without any issues. It’s used by millions, updated 6-monthly, and is free.

 

Some hardware options to enhance your Raspberry Pi desktop

Fan or Heat sink

The Raspberry Pi CPU runs exceptionally efficiently, and heat will not be a problem. Having said that, if you throw a ton of processing at the CPU it will heat up, and you Raspberry Pi may throttle down impacting performance. If this is becoming an issue, there are numerous heat sink or fan options available to you.

Case

Puttin your Raspberry Pi into a case protects it and keeps it neat. Do consider heat issues as some case designs are very tight with no airflow considerations. These are fine for low processer projects, but something that manages heat is better for your desktop project.

So, what is the conclusion?

The answer is a categorical “Yes!”. A Raspberry Pi can fulfil the functions of a standard desktop. There is a “But.”
The Raspberry Pi takes a bit of setup. Additionally, it forces you to make decisions about what you use and how you use it. For those in the Raspberry Pi community these are features, not bugs. Setting up your Raspberry Pi and working in the way you want is all a part of the experience. And when you can get your desktop working the way you want for under $150 including all your periferals – that is satisfaction.