There’s little doubt that the Raspberry Pi 4 is significantly more powerful than its predecessors. Its based on the faster ARM Cortex-A72 microarchitecture and has four cores pegged at marginally-higher clock speeds. The graphics subsystem is significantly beefed up as well, running at twice the maximum stock clocks as the outgoing model. Everything about it makes it a viable desktop replacement. But is it really good enough to replace your trusty old desktop? I spent three weeks with the 8GB version of the Pi 4 to answer that million-dollar question.
Setting It Up for Desktop Use
To use it as a Desktop, you will need external peripherals like the monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. There is an official desktop kit that you can get, but avoid it at all costs. The sizeable premium it commands doesn’t justify the unergonomic keyboard and lacklustre mouse bundled with the kit. With the exception of the 15.3-watt official power supply, none of the included accessories are any good.
Ditch the Official Case and microSD Storage
The official Pi 4 case has near zero ventilation and causes the SoC to thermal throttle under moderate desktop usage. We have an excellent guide showing how to modify it to prevent just that, but you’re better off purchasing this actively cooled aluminium case Instead. It fared the best from the half a dozen different cases I tested in this period. The thermal graph below shows how well this particular case cools a Pi 4 8GBm overclocked to 2.0 GHz, even when it is running at full tilt.
The Pi 4’s fast USB 3.0 interface allows you to ditch the slower microSD storage for a significantly faster SSD (through a USB 3.0 enclosure) or USB 3.0 flash drive.
Faster storage not only improves boot-up and application load times, but it also makes the entire desktop experience relatively snappier and more responsive. The only issue is finding an UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol) capable SSD enclosure compatible with the Raspberry Pi 4, because some enclosures have trouble booting the OS. Read our handy guide to know more about USAP enclosures and how to boot the Pi 4 off a USB drive.
Just be sure to buy a powered USB hub if you plan on connecting any additional USB peripherals. The powered bit becomes important because the Raspberry Pi 4 spec only allows the totality of USB ports to draw a maximum of 600mA of current.
Hardware Optimized for Multitasking
The two micro HDMI outputs allow you to run a dual display configuration, which is a godsend for productivity. The upgraded GPU can handle a 4K display, but I would not recommend two of them. The limited display bandwidth forces both monitors to run at 30Hz. That can be quite disorienting. I tried two 1080p monitors as well as a 1080p and 768p monitors successfully at 60Hz. There were no issues whatsoever. The built-in dual-display management utility does a good job of letting you set up and configure the displays and desktop options with a great degree of granularity.
It goes without saying that you’re better off opting for at least a 4GB version of the Pi 4 for this exercise. The additional RAM goes a long way toward allowing you to run multiple applications and browser tabs concurrently – something that is bound to happen in a typical work setup.
I had absolutely no trouble playing back a YouTube video while running an instance of terminal monitoring system vitals and productivity applications such as word processor (Google Docs), spreadsheet (LibreOffice), and image-editing software (GIMP).
The latest stable version of the Raspberry Pi OS is still 32-bit, and that limits each system process to a maximum of 3GB of RAM. In theory, a single application cannot use all 4GB or 8GB memory of the higher end variants but has no practical consequences for the typical use case. Furthermore, each Chromium browser tab is treated as a separate process, so the 3GB limit doesn’t have any real-world impact on performance or system memory access.
Don’t Expect It to Replace Your Desktop
Now that we have figured out the optimal way of using the Raspberry Pi 4 as a desktop, it’s time to delve into how it fares in this role after it has been equipped to give its best shot. That completely depends on where you’re coming from and what you expect from this tiny single board computer.
If you have abruptly moved from using a powerful gaming PC, like I have, you’re going to feel the general sluggishness associated with a relatively weak mobile SoC, such as this one. While launching applications and switching between browser pages is faster on an SSD, it cannot compensate for the Pi 4’s weaker mobile processing hardware. The couple of seconds spent waiting between the aforementioned tasks quickly add up and are quite annoying for someone coming off a decent laptop or a desktop PC.
YouTube videos, for that matter, are acceptable enough only up to 1080p resolution. Acceptable because the video playback still noticeably drops frames and reveals occasional screen tearing. The lack of proper OpenGL video hardware acceleration implementation in the OS is partly to blame. However, this is more a deficiency of the software engineering department of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so things may improve in the future after the OS has matured. Just don’t hold your breath.
Linux + ARM = Compatibility Woes
The Raspberry Pi 4 does most things a regular desktop can. Even seemingly resource-hungry tasks such as video editing can be done in a pinch with free applications such as Kdenlive. Although it’s relatively easy to find a Linux version of popular software, you’re bound to run into something that is available on Linux but isn’t quite compatible with the ARM version that the Raspberry Pi OS needs. That means you’ll have a hard time trying to install Dropbox or a Twitter client and must learn to make peace with the browser versions instead.
Things, however, get a lot worse when you begin running into hardware issues. The video feed of my old Logitech webcam worked perfectly out of the box, but Zoom absolutely couldn’t use the audio feed. I had to give up on conducting a Zoom video call.
While most common hardware is compatible, you are likely to hit a brick wall when something isn’t. And then you’d wish you had a PC or Mac to get the job done.
Temper Your Expectations
The Raspberry Pi 4 can perform basic computing tasks with reasonable competence, but you honestly can’t expect the snappiness and speed associated with a proper desktop or laptop computer. The Raspberry Pi 4 still has some ways to go until it can match those devices in terms of third-party software support. This SBC is nevertheless a viable low-cost, low-power computing alternative for those who don’t mind restricting themselves to basic web browsing and productivity tasks. That holds true just as long as you don’t mind putting in the effort to find (or even compile) ARM Linux alternatives for your favorite applications.