Raspberry Pi 3 B+ review: Petite perfection

Improved networking and performance makes this tiny microcomputer even more attractive

  • Faster processor; Improved networking; New PoE capabilities
  • No GPU improvements; Struggles with demanding web pages

Almost two years ago, Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton spoke to IT Pro about the future of probably the most widely used micro-computer in existence.

He explained that the next iteration of Raspberry Pi most probably wouldn't be ready until late 2019, but to our surprise, this was accelerated and here we are, with perhaps the most impressive version yet.

And what's even more impressive is that the price point of the Raspberry Pi hasn't shifted at all, despite the Raspberry Pi Foundation packing in a whole lot more tech into such a diminutive computer. And this has once again wooed both Raspberry Pi fans and those yet to discover its potential.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is an updated version of the 2016 Raspberry Pi 3 Model B with a decent catalogue of updates, only it's still available for just 36. Some of the most substantial changes relate to the design rather than the function, but it's still worth an upgrade if you're serious about creating some seriously powerful work with Raspberry Pi forming the basis of your creations.

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In a quest to see just how good the Raspberry Pi is, we've compared the microcomputer against its predecessor and explored whether it's worth replacing the old with the new.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ review: Design

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is pretty much a carbon copy of its predecessor, but this is by no means a bad thing. Because it has an identical 56 x 85 x 16mm footprint as the Raspberry Pi 3, this means its younger brother will fit in exactly the same space as older iterations.

So if you just want a bit of a power and performance upgrade you can slip the most recent Raspberry Pi range addition into your existing hardware.

It's totally compatible with any third-party cases, mountings and other add-ons you have used previously and because all the connections and ports are in the same places, everything matches up perfectly. So all you need to do is remove the older device with the new.

Talking of ports, the Raspberry Pi 3 doesn't bring a whole lot more than its predecessors either - but as pretty much everything you'd ever want is packed into such a small design, what more could you want?

There's a Gigabit Ethernet port, a full-sized HDMI port, four USB 2.0 ports, and connections for camera and display ribbon cables. If you'd rather reach for the composite cables, you can hook the Raspberry Pi up to stream video to a display.

Eagle-eyed users will spot a small physical difference in the Pi 3 P+ in that there is now a 4-pin connector placed in the top-left corner of the computer's board; we will explain more a little later.

The other change is that there is now a big, aluminium square stamped with the Raspberry Pi logo next to the processor. This is the Pi's new RF shield - it covers the networking components, and it allows the B+ to meet the FCC's modular conformance requirements. For companies looking to integrate the Raspberry Pi into their IoT products, this greatly shortens the testing process for FCC approval, allowing for a speedier time-to-market.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ review: Performance

One of the biggest changes in the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is performance. Although the look and feel of this microcomputer hasn't wandered at all far from its roots, neither has the majority of its internals (quad-core, 64-bit Broadcom chip paired with 1GB of LPDDR2 SDRAM), the clock speed has been bumped up to 1.4GHz - 17% more than its predecessor. And this extra oomph really does make a difference to running speed.

During our tests, this latest iteration of the Raspberry Pi achieved a single-core score of 35.7 in the Blowfish cryptographic benchmark - up 13% on the Raspberry Pi 3. If we compare the B+ to the Pi 2 B, these scores represent an improvement of 40% - that's pretty impressive, even for such a tiny device. 

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Similar improvements were noted when using the Whestone benchmark. A 14% boost in single core tests and almost identical results in multi-core processes to blow the previous Raspberry Pi out of the water.

However, these great strides were somewhat dampened upon exploring the most up-to-date Raspberry Pi. The GPU clock speed is the same as the Pi 3, with no improvements at all using MotionMark's benchmarking tool. There was a 23% improvement when using Quake 3, but this is most likely down to the Raspbian OS graphics drivers rather than anything new in the hardware.

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But, numbers aside, the upgrade to 1.4GHz has made for great improvements in real-world tests. Where Raspberry Pi 3 would have struggled a little with multiple windows open, Raspberry Pi 3 B+ breezed along with seven windows open at the same time, including a spreadsheet, a document, Firefox with multiple tabs open and Minecraft.

The one area in which the Pi does appear to struggle is Javascript-heavy webpages. Trying to use SaaS-based browser tools like Slack was a frustrating struggle, but given that it's a $35 computer the size of a packet of cigarettes, complaining that it can't run feature-rich SaaS apps as part of a multi-tasking browsing session feels somewhat unfair.

We would, however, advise anyone planning to use this device as a desktop computer to ditch the pre-installed Chromium browser and install Firefox instead. We found Chromium to be a seriously sluggish experience on the Pi, and while the browser it's based on remains our favourite choice in most cases, it's simply too much of a memory-hog for use on such a bare-bones machine.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ review: Networking

Aside from performance, the real meat of the changes for the Pi 3's mid-generation update is in the networking. The 3 B+ now supports Power over Ethernet (PoE) via a four-pin connector and a separate hat, which will be very useful for anyone seeking to use the Pi for IoT projects.

The Ethernet port has also been swapped for a faster model, and now supports the Gigabit protocol. While it can't achieve the maximum speeds possible with Gigabit Ethernet, it's capable of a very creditable 300Mbits/sec, according to the creators.

In our tests, the newer Pi's Ethernet port was just over 20% faster for download tasks, with a speed of 11MB/sec. Upload speed is a different story, though; the new port managed uploads at almost 21MB/sec, which is a whopping 88% improvement over the Pi 3.

Wireless networking has been improved too, with a new dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi chip. The improvements are similar to those achieved with the Ethernet upgrade. Download performance of 5.2MB/sec is 18% faster than the Pi 3, while upload speeds are more than twice as fast, clocking in at 9.6MB/sec.

It's never going to match the performance of a dedicated NAS box, true, but the upgraded networking capabilities make the new and improved Pi even more attractive for cobbling together a basic DIY fileshare.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ review: Verdict

On the surface, the creators of the Raspberry Pi haven't changed all that much with the Raspberry Pi 3 B+. PoE support is a nice addition and the RF shield will be useful for manufacturers, but the main improvements are a decent increase in speed and faster networking.

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This shouldn't be all that impressive, but taken together, the handful of minor upgrades combine to form a noticeably improved experience. In particular, the speed boost to networking makes certain operations much less of a chore than with previous Raspberry Pi devices.

Really, though, when you get right down to it, the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is a $35 device that can act as a fully-functional desktop PC with few limitations. In terms of value for money, it's simply unbeatable, and its technical capabilities are nothing to be sniffed at. Even if the B+ doesn't constitute a great leap forward for the Pi, it's a refinement of an already-excellent device. It's perfection, improved upon.

ProcessorQuad-core 1.4GHz Broadcom BCM2837B0
Dimensions56 x 85 x 16mm
Ports2x USB 2.0, 1 x HDMI, 1x DSI, 1x CSI, 1x microSD slot, 1x GbE
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