Pi-Top - A Raspberry Pi Laptop - Review

Table of contents

RoadTest: Pi-Top - A Raspberry Pi Laptop

Author: vlaine

Creation date:

Evaluation Type: Development Boards & Tools

Did you receive all parts the manufacturer stated would be included in the package?: True

What other parts do you consider comparable to this product?: If you compare the Pi-Top to a regular laptop, you would be tempted to list the Chromebook or a cheap Windows laptop as comparable products. However the Pi-Top is something else. The main purpose of this device is to teach software AND hardware development with a portable unit. You could see it as a Lego MindStroms / mini laptop combo. The best equivalent would be the Pi-TopCEED or to build your own using a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ running Pi-TopOS. You can also visit the Plytop Shell project https://www.element14.com/community/community/raspberry-pi/blog/2018/04/11/the-plytop-shell?CMP=SOM-FACEBOOK-PRG-RASPI-BLOG-RJOHNSON-PLYTOP-COMM-GBL

What were the biggest problems encountered?: 1. My tab key is defective, but the customer support team replied within 20 minutes and directly offered to swap the unit. 2. In Pi-TopCODER, some circuit diagram where not clear enough. I could not distinguish which resistor goes where because they all looked the same. I had to analyze the circuit to get my answer (no kid friendly). 3. In Pi-TopCODER, the tutorial had some bugs. As an example, one tutorial gave an incorrect GPIO port number. In an other tutorial, an IF condition had a && operator instead of an And operator. It was giving a syntax error. 4. The spell checker was not installed by default for LibreOffice. I had to install it manually

Detailed Review:

Pi-Top Review

 

Specs

  • DISPLAY
    • 14” full HD LCD screen
    • 1920 x 1080 resolution
    • 180° screen angle range
  • CHASSIS
    • 6-8 hour battery life
    • 105mm sliding keyboard for internal access (US layout)
    • 104x75mm trackpad with Gesture Control
    • Modular Rail for pi-top accessories
  • INCLUDED HARDWARE
    • 18V, 2.5A charger with AU, EU, UK and US adapters
    • 8GB class 10 SD CARD with pi-topOS
    • SD Card Removal Tool

 

Prerequisite

Material Required

The following are not included with the Pi-Top.  You need to purchase them separately

  • Raspberry Pi
  • The Pi-Top comes with an 8Gb Micro SD Card. However, I would suggest to get a 64Gb Class 10 or UHS
  • An external speaker or earphones.  The Pi-Top has no speaker so you have to provide your own.

 

Install Pi-TopOS (Optional)

The Pi-Top comes with Pi-TopOS pre-installed on a 8Gb micro SD Card.

However, I suggest that you get a larger card (64Gb) and install the latest version yourself.

Format the Micro SD Card

If your SD card is larger than 32Gb (SDXC), follow this guide to format the entire card to Fat32.
https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/installation/sdxc_formatting.md

** Note that you can also format it using a camera.  Quick, easy and always my favorite choice.

Download and Install Pi-TopOS

The Pi-TopOS is free and available to anyone who wants to install it on it's Raspberry Pi.It is regularly updated and since the last update, it is based on Raspberry Stretch instead of Jessie.If you tried Pi-TopOS before, give it an other try because ithey say it now runs smoother and faster.The latest Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is now supported.

 

Video Review

This video is a small portion of the current review.

Sorry about :

  • My Video resolution: The quality is lame.  My mobile would have given me a better resolution.  I tried the 1080p 60 fps resolution on my Chinese sport cam and it looks like a 320x240 resolution.  I realized it only when everything was filmed and was too lazy to start over.
  • My accent: I am French Canadian.  I know it might be hard to understand

Please don't complain about the 2 issues above.  I am already desperate about that. 
I thought it would be a good idea to do a video review, but after seeing the result I'm not so sure anymore. 
Please don't destroy me.

 

Unboxing

Pi-Top and Raspbery Pi 3 B+ Boxes

Important: the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is a very sweet and appreciated bonus included for this review.  It is normally not included when you purchase a Pi-Top.

{gallery:autoplay=false} Box Content

Everything I received

Here's what I found in my shipping box: There was a Pi-Top AND a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ as a BONUS :-D

The Bonus Raspberry Pi 3 B+: Closeup view of the bonus Raspberry Pi 3 B+.  I am repeating myself, but when you purchase a Pi-Top you have to purchase the Raspberry Pi separately.

Opening the box

There is a black pocket in the cover.  What's in there ?

It's the the cutout for the pi-topCODER Smart Robot, Music Maker, Space Race activities: See the links below if you want to print them yourself

Let's go deeper in the box

I found two manuals: Getting Started and Inventor Guide.  See links below.

Getting Started manual index

There's something in the Getting Started manual.  What is it ?: Oh! they included a Sandisk 8Gb Micro Sd Card and SD Adapter.  It already as pi-Top on it.  This was unexpected and very nice.

Inventor Guide manual index

18V, 2.5A power adapter with international plugs

AU, EU, UK and US plugs

 

Here are the links for the pi-topCODER activities cutouts, if you want to print your own:

 

Manuals:

Inventor's Kit

{gallery:autoplay=false} Inventor's Kit

Wow I didn't know the Inventor's kit was included with the Pi-Top: I thought it was sold separately.  I am very excited at this point.

Included components

The box is filled with goodies

Closeup view of most of the content: Note that the LEDs are not the typical 5mm I normally use.  They are 10mm large. If you decide to build your own Pi-Top and print your own activity cutouts (because yes you can), take that into consideration.

CloseUp View of the pi-topPROTO+ board: It gives an easy access to the raspberry pi GPIO, VCC, Ground and 2 analog ports.

pi-topPROTO+ board

All sort of resistors: 100Ω, 150Ω, 330Ω, 470Ω, 1KΩ and 10KΩ (5 of each)

Jumper cables and a metal wire for the space race activity

 

Pi-Top Full Tour

I was out of banana, so I took a Raspberry for scale

{gallery:autoplay=false} The Pi-Top

Front view

Back view

Back view, closeup: It's still empty

Left side view: Nothing to see

Right side view: You can lock the Pi-Top with a standard laptop lock cable

Bottom view

Inside view: The screen and the touchpad are very large.  I love it.

 

Installation

{gallery:autoplay=false} Installation

Slide the keyboard to open the Pi-Top

You will find the multi tool on the rail, attached by a magnet

It is both an SD card removal tool and a screwdriver

Unscrew the cooling bridge: The multi tool seems to be working

Slide the hub

Hub fully slided

Remove this part.  It was used to protect the cooling bridge during shipping

Part removed

Install the Raspberry Pi: If you give a little angle to the Raspberry Pi, as shown above, it will be easier to install

It's time to screw the Raspberry Pi

Multi tool is ok, but...

I gave up.  I was unable to screw the Raspberry Pi with the multi tool so I took my favorite screw driver.

Slide the hub.  Make sure the HDMI and the audio port are connected properly

Install the cooling bridge: Apply a gentle pressure where my fingers are located to make sure the 2 ports are properly connected.

Screw the cooling bridge

Reward yourself by removing this slooooowly

The Raspberry Pi ports are perfectly aligned

Time to boot the Pi-Top

This is the initial configuration

Select your language: The selection is limited.  If you want to change the OS language, you can do it later in the standard Raspberry Pi settings.  However, Pi-Top applications embedded in the Pi-Top Dashboard (like Pi-Top coder and CeedUniverse) will keep the language configured here.

Read and accept the license of agreement

Select your keyboard language: The selection is limited.  If you want to change the OS language, you can do it later in the standard Raspberry Pi settings.  However, Pi-Top applications embedded in the Pi-Top Dashboard (like Pi-Top coder and CeedUniverse) will keep the language configured here.

Configure your Wi-Fi: If you have the new Raspberry Pi 3 B+, you will have access to the 5Ghz WiFi :-)

Pi-Top will check for updates: It will also check for updates periodically

Apply the updates

Press Enter to install

That's it.  The Pi-Top is ready to go

 

Preinstalled applications

{gallery:autoplay=false} My Gallery Title

Pi-Top Dashboard:When you boot Pi-topOS, the Pi-Top Dashboard opens automatically. The Dashboard gives an easy to navigate view / launcher for the major applications that comes with the OS. It is an app so you can be closed if you prefer the Raspberry Pi Desktop

Raspberry Pi Desktop on the Pi-Top

Programming

Office Tools

Internet

Games

Accessories

Education

Graphics

Python Shell

Node-RED: Node-RED is a programming tool for wiring together hardware devices, APIs and online services in new and interesting ways. https://nodered.org/

 

Development Application

CeedUniverse

{gallery:autoplay=false} CeedUniverse

 

CeedUniverse main screen: This game has a story mode or an arcade mode.

Arcade mode: It gives you a quick access to the games you find in the CeedUniverse story mode.  All the puzzles are there in one place.

Data Types game: This is a agility game.  Different data type values (int, float, bool, string) will appear in the middle of the circle and move to the outer circle.  Your goal is to change your type to match the value coming and catch it before it disappear.  Each data type is color coded to help the player.  By the end of this game, I can promise you will be a master of those 4 types.

Nano Bot: The goal is to teach about function.  The goal is to lead the nanobot to the destination by selecting the next steps.

Nano Bot Functions: You will learn that a function can be called multiple times

Nano Bot Functions Within Functions: You will also learn that a function can call a function

Crack Locks: the goal of this game is to lean Python.  A Python code is presented and you have to modify a few variables win

Crack Locks: The complexity increase with each level

Crack Locks: In the last level, you have to write the entire code in Python

CeedUniverse Story Mode: In the story mode, your character is an astronaut.  It's spaceship crashed on a mysterious planet.  Your goal is to repair your spaceship by traveling through the planet and resolving puzzles related to software development. Image Source: Games of 2018: British Games | Kotaku UK

Story Mode Puzzle: I found a puzzle.  Each puzzle is also available in the Arcade Mode.

 

PiTopCODER

PiTopCODER is an application designed to teach about Python development. 
Combined with the Inventor's kit, it also teach about GPIO and electronic circuits.

{gallery:autoplay=false} My Gallery Title

Pi-TopCODER Sections: Pi-TopCODER has 3 sections.  The tutorial is located in the left section.  It contains instructions and code samples.  The middle section is the development dashboard.  This is where you code.  The right section is the console.  If you print information this is where you will see it.

Tutorial: the tutorial is in the left section

Components information: If the project includes hardware, you can click on the name of each component to see what the component looks like and with is it's function in a circuit

pi-topPROTO+: the connections clearly displayed in the left section.  If you can count holes, you can do it

Middle section: You can manually write the code in the middle section OR you can click the green arrow in the left section and the code will be automatically pasted to the middle section.

Console: As you can see, "blinking" was printed to the console (right section)

Cutouts: This is my teenage girl, Alicia, having fun with the Smart Robot cutout.  Everything is precut.  You just have to glue.  She used 2 sided tape.  She's shy so you won't see her face.

Smart Robot: The smart robot is assembled and Alicia is starting with the first activity "Hello World".  The goal is to make the LEDs blink

Coding: The first activity is almost over.  You can see that she is very concentrated

Smart Robot is almost finished: The connections and the hardware is getting more complex with each chapter.  This is the last chapter of the Smart Robot activities

Proximity Sensor: Good job Alicia. The proximity sensor is working.  The LEDs are blinking when detecting a presence

Smart Robot last activity closeup

 

Office Applications

My goal was to determine if this laptop could be used for school.  My teenage girls need a fast browser, Youtube, and document editors.

 

Install LibreOffice Spell checker

The LibreOffice spell checker is not installed by default.  I installed English US and French dictionaries.

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install myspell-en-us
sudo apt-get install myspell-fr

 

LibreOffice, Google Docs, Office365 and Youtube

I decided to compare the same relatively complex document in LibreOffice, Google Docs and Office365. 
I also tried Youtube and cought my daughter on the Pi-Top instead of her old slow Windows 10 laptop.

See the result in the image gallery below

{gallery:autoplay=false} Office Applications

Libre Office Writer: The document is as expected.  No issue

Libre Office Writer Spell Checker: The spellchecker shows too many choices.  Often, the correct word is in the 3rd or 4th position.  It could be better.  Also, it does not correct grammar.  -1 for this test.

Google Docs : The document is as expected.  There is no lag in Chromium and if you open in full screen, you forget you are in a browser

Google Docs Spell Checker: the result is as expected.  Only one word is proposed and it's the one I want.  Google docs also verify grammar.  +1

Office 365: The document is as expected.  There is no lag in Chromium and if you open in full screen, you forget you are in a browser

Office 365 Spell Checker: the result is as expected.  Only one word is proposed and it's the one I want.  Office365 also verify grammar.  +1

Chromium is fast and doesn't lag: At some point I had Google Search, Office365, Google Docs, Youtube all open at the same time and it was still strong.  +1

Youtube doesn't lag thanks to the new Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and it's faster WiFi.  I only had a few lags in full screen with HD resolution.  Other than that, it was strong.  +1

I caught Florence, my older teenage girl, on the Pi-Top instead of her old and slow Windows 10 laptop: Her Windows 10 laptop was recently formatted but it remains slow.  She decided to try the Pi-Top and preferred it to her Windows laptop.  That's a very good sign

LibreOffice Impress: Florence was creating a presentation about elephants using LibreOffice Impress

 

Issue with the tab key / my appreciation of the customer support

I had issue pressing the tab key. 
Upon further investigation I found out that the key is larger than the hole. 
I removed the key to be sure and reinstalled it after.

I wrote to the pi-top support support@pi-top.com and they replied within 20 minutes
They explained that it was a first and they offered to swap the pi-Top on the spot. 
I asked to keep it until I finished my review.  I will swap it after.  They had no problem with that.
My conclusion: very good support.  You can purchase their product with confidence.

If you are interested, here's their reply :

"Thanks so much for getting in touch and sorry to hear your received a pi-top with a very unusual tab key on your keyboard. I've not come across this before as our pi-top's go through a number of tests so I'm surprised to see how this one slipped through

 

Of course as this is likely to be preventing you from using that key we would happily replace your pi-top unit with a new one. In order to do this we would collect this unit so we can get out engineers to investigate further and simultaneously deliver a new unit the same day.


Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused and if you're happy to go ahead with the collection and replacement of your unit, kindly confirm the details below so I can book this on with our courier straightaway."

 

{gallery:autoplay=false} Issue with the tab key

Tab key is hard to press and sits on top of the hole

The tab key is definitely larger than the hole

 

Tips and Tricks

Raspberry Pi Magazine #59: PC Challenge

If you want to use the Pi-Top as a regular laptop, I suggest to read the Raspberry Pi Magazine #59: PC Challenge.

It contains lots of tips and tricks about that and it's free to download.

https://www.raspberrypi.org/magpi/issues/59/

Direct download: https://www.raspberrypi.org/magpi-issues/MagPi59.pdf

Natural Scrolling on the touchpad

If like me you prefer natural scrolling on your touchpad, here's the recipe.

Source: https://raspberrypi.stackexchange.com/questions/75440/how-to-invert-scrolling-direction-on-trackpad-in-raspbian-stretch

 

Navigate to the 40-libinput.conf file in /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d

and change the first section as follows:

Section "InputClass"
        Identifier "libinput pointer catchall"
        MatchIsPointer "on"
        MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*"
        Driver "libinput"
        Option "NaturalScrolling" "true" #ADD THIS LINE
EndSection

 

Final Thoughts

This laptop is definitely strong enough to be used as a laptop for students.

  • Speed

    Mine was built with the built with the latest Raspberry Pi 3B+. 
    The WiFi connection and the CPU are visibly faster than it's predecessors so I would really suggest to get the Pi 3B+ the Pi-Top.

    Hardware

    • Screen

      The Pi-Top bright large screen and 1080p is vivid and easy for the eyes.
    • Keyboard

      The keyboard feels comfortable, gives good feedback on the finger, is not too noisy and you have a large palm rest on each side of the touchpad.
    • Touchpad

      Speaking about the touchpad, it is large and supports 2 fingers natural scrolling. The only CON I find is that I have been unable to configure two fingers for the right click.
    • Battery Life

      The specs says 8h battery life.  6h is what I truly got.  Considering I had WiFi on, played with the GPIO, had an external speaker connected, was using multiple applications at the same time, honestly I am very satisfied of the battery life.
    • Speaker

      The Pi-Top has no speaker.  It annoyed me a few times. 
      You can optionally purchase an Pi-Top MK2 speaker or a Pi-TopPULSE (with built in mic and LED matrix). 
      Considering the price of the Pi-Top, I would prefer if an internal speaker was provided
  • Office Applications

    • LibreOffice Spell Checker

      The LibreOffice spell checker is not installed by default.  It think it should be.  Also, the spellchecker is lame and doesn't check for grammar errors.
    • LibreOffice

      LibreOffice allow you to create and edit documents offline.  It's fast and can open documents created with Word or Google Docs.  I opened a few relatively complex documents and they where not messed up.  Except for the spell checker, everything else met my expectations.  Sadly, the spell checker is such a downer that I suggest to use Google Docs or Office365 instead.
    • Google Docs

      The Pi-Top Dashboard has built in shortcuts for Google Docs.  It opens in Chromium and you can run it in full screen by pressing F11 to get an immersive experience.  The spell checker is perfect and checks for grammar errors.  It can open documents created with Word or LibreOffice.  It's free.  If you have an internet connection available, I would suggest to use it over LibreOffice because of the spell checker.

    • Office365

      There is no Dashboard shortcut for Office365.  It is not free, however some people received a free subscription from their school or their employer. 
      Office365 works really well in Chromium.  I did not experience any lag.  Running it in full screen (F11) is suggested.
      Spell checker and grammar are exceptional.  This makes it my favorite tool, almost equal with Google Docs.
    • Chromium
      It is fast, it doesn't lag.  I was able to run multiple tabs including one with Google Docs, one with Office365 and one with a Youtube video playing, all at the same time.
  • Pi-Top Exclusive Development Applications

    • CeedUniverse

      This game is perfect in every way (except for the graphics that are basic, but you quickly forget it).
      The story mode is entertaining and I got excited each time I could find a puzzle to solve.  It would suit better for a child at home
      The arcade mode has all the puzzles in one place for easy access.  It would suit better for a school.
      You learn something new with each puzzle and the progression of the complexity is perfect. 
      I started playing for the purpose of this review and realized I had spent much more time than expected because I was having fun.
    • Pi-TopCODER

      It's like having a teacher at home. 
      I like having the tutorial all the time in the left pane with detailed instructions.
      I like that you can press the green arrow to paste the code in the middle pane instead of writing it.
      The tool is awesome, however a child would need supervision and I will explain why below.
      (By the way, that could be fixed easily so I will contact them and I suggest you to do the same if you find bugs) :
      • The wiring are sometimes confusing.  Specifically when there are different resistors on the circuit. 
        The resolution of the wiring schema is not high enough so I was unable to see the resistor value on the circuit.
        I had to analyze the circuit to place the correct resistor in the correct spot.  A child cannot do that alone.
      • There are a few bugs in the code provided in the tutorials.
        In one code sample the GPIO port was incorrect
        In an other one, there was an IF condition with a && operator instead of an And so it was giving a syntax error.  A child would not fix it himself.
  • Cost

    I have mixed emotions about the cost.
    • $319.99 USD The Pi-Top cost $319.99 USD ($383.04 CAD)
    • $35.00 USD Raspberry Pi 3 B+ ($46.55 CAD)
    • $21.25 USD Pi-Top MK2 Speaker ($30.09 CAD)
      or
      $49.99 USD Pi-Top Pulse - Speaker + MIC + LED Matrix ($64.80 CAD)

Total is $376.24$ - $404.98 (or $459.68 - $494.39 CAD)


It's not cheap.  Of course for this price you will compare the Pi-Top to regular laptop.
My teenage girls Windows laptop cost about this price.

Since we have the Pi-Top, they stopped using their Windows laptop because it's too slow and they want to bang their head on the wall every time they use it.
Sometimes, better technical specs doesn't give you a better performance. 
The Pi-Top OS is what makes this little unit so powerful. It is light and won't consume too much memory or CPU.


There are cheaper options if the Pi-Top doesn't match your budget :

    • Pi-Top CEED
      The pi-Top CEED is only $115 USD $152.95 CAD. 
      You have to provide your own keyboard, and mouse and speaker
      Then you have to purchase the components that normally would come in the Inventor's kit
    • Build your own
      $35.00 USD ($46.55 CAD) to purchase the Raspberry Pi 3 B+
      You have to provide your own display, keyboard, mouse and speaker. 
      Then you have to purchase the components that normally would come in the Inventor's kit


After testing the Pi-Top, I learned that I should have purchased it sooner. 
If you still hesitate about purchasing it, build your own. 
It's the cheapest option and you will know for sure if your are ready for the Pi-Top.

Every school should have a lab with Pi-Top units (I would recommend Pi-TopCeed for school).

Every home user who can afford it should go directly to the Pi-Top laptop because it's hard to be tied to our desk when the couch is so inviting.

 

In the rating, I gave an 8 to Product Performed to Expectations because of the lack of a built in speaker and my deception with the LibreOffice spell checker.

Anonymous
  • One of the most complete and well done review. I appreciated every part.

     

    Enrico

  • I bought the V2 and B+ a few days ago, however, not from element14. I would not recommend this product for use. I bought it new and have had numerous issues with it. I'm not a newbie to this sort of kit as I've been building pc's, etc for many years. The only assembly issue I had is that two USB male plugs must plug into the B+. I had a difficult time getting these aligned. Other things that don't work(for me), 1) pi-topCoder: I can't get logged into it Without pi-topCoder, there isn't much you can do with the pi-top if you don't know how to build circuits yourself.. I opened an incident with pi-top and 4(four) days later I've not heard anything from pi-top. I did get an automated response that the ticket has been opened. 2) It runs out of memory quickly. It seems that having 2(two) browser windows open is it's limit. I've reviewed the pi-top forums for help but it appears no one has had my specific issue with pi-topCoder. What was more worrisome is that it appears there are a lot of open tickets but few have been closed. Again, this is based on the comments I read on forum. Therefore I don't have high hopes that my issue will be resolved. All that being said, I wouldn't recommend this product to newbies or even to those with some experience.

  • I thought this was a great review.  I applied for this road test and am glad to see it in action.  You did a detailed evaluation and added a nice bonus for the link to the magazine.

     

    P.S. I liked your accent and had no problem understanding you.

  • Very nice and detailed review. Love the quality of your pictures.

     

    Luis