Continuation of our previous blog on The Raspberry Pi 4 (Part 1)

In this blog, we are going to cover the following points.

The RPi 4

So let us now talk about the latest avatar of the Raspberry Pi. After tasting success with its earlier models, the Raspberry foundation wanted to expand the scope of the product. Has it been too ambitious? Can the new model fulfil the roles it is ‘designed’ for?

‘Designed for’ is questionable. In my mind, the designers of RPi found certain loopholes in the earlier versions of the product and filled them. On a broad scale, they have introduced a more modern CPU, enhanced the RAM to 4GB, introduced two micro HDMI interfaces, and introduced an advanced graphics processor. The RPi 4 is just a natural evolution of what happens in the electronics market.

Seeing all this, the market is agog as to what the intentions of the foundation are? I would say nothing. For the same prices, the foundation could introduce a new CPU, a graphics processor, more RAM, and, current communication and I/O standards. Beyond that, the foundation expects the product to create its own niche market, whatever that may be. They have hinted at some opportunities, but they are just hints.

Before we discuss this in detail, let us look at the specs of the product.

Feature RPi 3 RPi 4 Change
CPU Broadcom BCM2837 SOC using the quad-core ARM Cortex-A53, 1.2GHz. Broadcom BCM2711 SOC using the quad-core ARM Cortex-A72, 1.5GHz. Slightly more modern and more powerful CPU.
GPU Broadcom VideoCore IV. Broadcom VideoCore VI. Full 4K video with the use of hardware for decoding of H.265.
RAM 1GB LPDDR2 (900 MHz). 1GB, 2GB or 4GB LPDDR4-2400 SDRAM. More and faster memory.
Networking 10/100 Ethernet, 2.4GHz 802.11n wireless. Gigabit Ethernet, 2.4GHz and 5.0. GHz 802.11n wireless. Faster Ethernet as well as options for stronger wireless connectivity.
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.1 Classic, Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth 5.0 Classic, Bluetooth Low Energy. More modern Bluetooth connectivity.
Storage microSD. microSD. Same.
GPIO 40-pin header, populated. 40-pin header, populated. Same.
Ports HDMI, 3.5mm analogue audio-video jack, 4× USB 2.0, Ethernet, Camera Serial Interface (CSI), Display Serial Interface (DSI). 2x Micro HDMI, 3.5mm analogue audio-video jack, 2×USB 2.0, 2xUSB 3.0, Ethernet, Camera Serial Interface (CSI), Display Serial Interface (DSI). The dual micro HDMI allows two simultaneous displays of 4K video.

The interesting part is that graphics processing has been upgraded. The new SoC has VideoCore VI with OpenGL ES 1.1, 2.0, 3.0.

Whoa! Hold your horses. Videocore? SoC? OpenGL? What the heck are these?

Let me explain.

SoC stands for System On a Chip. In the regular world, the CPU does very specific tasks and other tasks are outsourced to other processors. This means large boards and more circuity. For example, on your regular PC motherboard, you will have multiple ICs for CPU, GPU, communication, I/O, etc. Today, the GPUs offered by companies such as Nvidia and AMD are more powerful than many CPUs available in the market.

An SoC, on the other hand, integrates a CPU, a GPU, I/O ports, secondary storage, co-processors, and even WiFi on a single chip. In this case, the BCM2711 is an SoC that has a 4 core processor, and a GPU called Videocore on a single chip, in addition to other components. Videocore is a low-power media processor developed originally by Alphamosaic, now owned by Broadcom.

Videocore uses OpenGL, a computer graphics rendering application programming interface (API) for rendering 2D and 3D computer graphics. OpenGLES is a sub-set of OpenGL, that gives more power and control to the programmer to display graphics the way he wants. OpenGL is available free from its developers – the Khronos Group in the US.

OpenGLES 3.0 is huge progress from the previous versions and enables multiple rendering of targets, additional texturing capabilities, uniform buffers, instancing and transform feedback. These are essential steps to display high definition video. Though many of these were originally developed for gaming, they are also very useful for the rendering of any video.

In layman terms, the Videocore VI using OpenGLES 3.0 functions at 500MHz, uses all the four cores and offers Dual 4K 2160P video rendering. In other words, the RPi 4 can drive 2x4K displays concurrently. Most important, the GPU has the hardware capability to decode H.265 video codec. This is a new video compression standard that offers up to 50% better compression of video. H.265 is also called High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) or MPEG-H Part 2. Though the RPi does not do hardware decoding of H.265, it allows and enables external software to directly access the hardware GPU to decode and display the H.265 perfectly.

Let us now discuss in detail the possible uses of RPi4.

Is it a PC?

Speaking to TechRepublic, Raspberry Pi co-creator Eben Upton said, ‘This is a PC. It’s a realization of the vision that this thing is a PC. You could surf the web on it, run office applications, open a lot of tabs in Chromium…. This feels subjectively more PC like, in terms of the performance.’

Though theoretically, the RPi has the brawn to run as a PC, here are the shortcomings.

  • No integrated display
  • No Integrated keyboard and mouse
  • No integrated storage device
  • Lack of Windows (or close equivalent) as an OS

Let us assume you add a keyboard+mouse, an HDD, and a FullHD monitor. You will add some $250 to the cost. You end up with roughly $300 as the total cost. That is a decent price for a system that has the power of RPi4. But, what about OS and application software?

Upton argues that at some level OS is less interesting because the browser is becoming the operating system and device works well with a browser.  He is both right and wrong. Though application companies are trying to offer their products as cloud services, people are still reluctant to adopt that. I may not be connected all the time. Does that mean I can’t use my laptop? What if I am writing a hugely confidential document? What if I am writing a book or an article?

Just to keep things in perspective, here are the OS popularity as on July 2019:

  • Windows 10 – 58.95%
  • MacOS – 10.18%
  • Linux – 7.05%
  • ChromeOS – 0.42%

Leaving aside the arguments and counter-arguments on popularity and human issues, a laptop with Windows, MS-Office and a few other applications is very much what Xerox means to photocopy. Microsoft makes more money from MS-Office than from the Windows OS.

This is missing in RPi to make it anywhere being competitive in the PC market.

OK. What about other OSes and other software?

Well, there are three main contenders – Linux, Haiku, and ReactOS. I am ignoring every variant of Linux as their underlying theme is the same.

Linux is technically an excellent OS, maybe even better than Windows. But the percentage of people using Linux is small. Even a person like me who has been working on software for 30 years, Windows is what I always fall back on. I know how it behaves, what it does, and where my files are stored. When it crashes, I know how to get it back on its feet. Agreed I can do all that with Linux, but why would I learn a new OS when my current OS works so well and I am so familiar with it?

Haiku is a new avatar of BeOS. BeOS was developed in late 1980 by Jean-Louis Gasseè and his team. Gassee is an ex-Apple developer who wanted to do something different. I remember a meeting I had with Gassee in the early 1990s when he displayed the BeOS to me. Running on a Pentium processor, he was able to open 64 windows in less than 15-20 seconds. BeOS was a very powerful OS, and far ahead of its time. It was the only OS to run natively on both Macintosh and PC.

Unfortunately, Gassee was not able to license his OS to computer manufacturers because of the tight clauses that they had signed with Microsoft. He did have a wonderful opportunity where Apple wanted to purchase the OS for Apple products. He asked for a sum that Apple was hesitant to pay. Ultimately Be, the company that designed and developed BeOS, was shut down.

Haiku is now an open-source OS that has its own kernel. It is a decent OS with a good user interface. But, will it replace Windows for many people? Just like an iOS user will never use Windows or vice-versa, I very much doubt if there will ever be a wholehearted migration to Haiku. With or without RPi.

ReactOS is another OS that is built from the ground up. It mimics Windows in many ways. The developers are also trying to enable Windows applications to run directly on ReactOS. I have seen a demonstration of Adobe Photoshop running without a hitch. I am not very sure whether the developers can ensure every Windows application installs and runs without a hitch. If they get some primary application such as MS-Office, Photoshop and others running, they may have a potential winner on their hands. It is also quite possible some large company will wake up one day and send a busload of attorneys to shut them down.

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