Raspberry Pi 400, a taste of the eighties

Raspberry Pi 400, a taste of the eighties

I've been wanting a Raspberry to tinker with for a long time and, as I've already anticipated here, the kings gave it to me.

The initial idea was to get an 8 GB Rapsberry 4, but to build an auxiliary PC I also had to buy a keyboard, mouse, MicroSD card or SSD disk and power supply. It didn't add up. I risked that the Three Wise Men would reject my request.

The most reasonable option was to get the Rapsberry Pi 400 kit (4GB) that comes with everything, including a MicroSD card (also called Noobs) with Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) preinstalled, just in the absence of plugging it into a monitor, the only thing I already had from when I retired the old one to get one of those stretched ones.

The party came out for 130,87€, including shipping costs. It was bought from Raspipc as I couldn't find a cheaper one with a Spanish keyboard anywhere else and when it was bought, in mid-December, it was still in short supply. Although it was something that Raspberry was supposed to have fixed by 12 December.

This kit, inspired by the mythical personal microcomputers of the 1980s such as the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64, was launched on 2 November 2020. A complete computer with very low power consumption integrated in a compact keyboard.

Comparison chart Commodore 64 vs Raspberry PI 400 / Simon Martin

If you're a die-hard Linux-lover, you can find something else to read because you won't find much useful information here beyond my personal impressions of this kit. Besides, I stopped using Linux in 2009, so I don't remember much and maybe even that is outdated now, so for me it's almost a rediscovery.

That's how the unpacking went. When you open the box, the first thing you see is the keyboard. The first impression is that it is an almost toy-like little plastic thing. It's not quite like that. It is not badly finished, nor is it as flimsy as it looks.

On the back, in the brand's characteristic raspberry colour, there is a whole string of holes for putting things in.

Pictured, from right to left: the GPIO port for caching, which is covered with a rubber protector, the slot for the MicroSD card, which will be our hard drive for both OS and storage, two micro HDMI ports (supports two monitors), two USB 3.0 and one 2.0 ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port for plugging fibre into. There's also dual-band WiFi and Bluetooth 5.0.

Finally, there's a hole for a Kensington lock. A mechanical system that, rather than protecting, deters theft because you have to break a bit to remove it if you're not an expert thief.

Here are the rest of the specifications.

Underneath the keyboard is the 5.1V 3A USB Type-C power supply and MicroSD card.

Also the official mouse, rather large. Almost as big as the length of the keyboard.

Its quality is that of a normal mouse.

At the bottom of the box is the micro HDMI to HDMI cable to connect the monitor.

And finally there is the official guide, very well edited and with many illustrations. As good books should be. This book can also be downloaded for free.

The keyboard, 78 keys in its English version, is without a doubt the life of the party because everything important goes inside.

To give you an idea of the size, it's halfway between an 88-key TKL keyboard and a ZX Spectrum 48K, but much thinner than both. Just 23mm thick.

and how is all this cooled?

Well, with a large, integrated 100-gram heatsink that covers almost the entire keyboard and that, besides being the heaviest part of the keyboard, fulfils another mission, reinforcing it and giving rigidity to the whole.

Rear of the keyboard with ventilation grilles

Despite their dimensions, the keys have a good size and feel. However, the narrower keys, the arrow keys, are so small that it is difficult to get used to using them because they are so small and close together. You don't have to have very fat fingers to press three at once by mistake.

They look big here, but those arrow keys are tiny.

The Pi 400 is the first Raspberry Pi to incorporate a button to turn it on and off

Pressing Fn + F10 for two seconds can do a soft shutdown, and pressing Fn + F10 for ten seconds does a hard shutdown. Press F10 (or Fn + F10) to turn it back on.

It also incorporates three LED indicators, one red for the numeric lock, one red for the caps lock and a third green one that informs if the device is on.

Now it's time to plug it in and get it up and running. This is as simple as plugging each cable into its place with the MicroSD inserted in its slot and the operating system will be installed in less than ten minutes.

The Raspi spouting its usual linuxist nonsense

Some additional gadgets added

As the table was going to have to house even more cables, I took the opportunity to solve once and for all the mess of cables on the floor.

For this purpose I got a vertical power strip like this one. They are around for less than 40 euros.

The cables are strategically hidden and rolled up behind the monitors and the floor is free.

Now the last cables are hidden behind the tower and nothing has happened here.

Another issue that had to be solved was to run the fibre cable to the corner of the table where the Raspberry was to be placed. Although it has WiFi, the best thing to do was to plug in a cable to get the maximum speed with a stable connection.

These were the tools that made it possible: a cable splicer, three pieces of category 8 Ethernet cable of different lengths and a 5-port Ethernet switch.

Another thing I could have done without (had I had a decent SSD or USB drive), but which is very useful is the MicroSD card reader, as my computer (from 2012) didn't have one.

Lector de tarjetas SD y MicroSD
Lector de tarjetas SD y MicroSD
Lector de tarjetas SD y MicroSD. Detalle

Thanks to the reader I have been able to replace the 16 GB card (a bit tight for some projects) that came with the Rapsberry with a 32 GB card and record different distributions to test them at will.

On the left, the one supplied with the device, on the right, the replacement card

Being able to burn the card or on disk and save backups on another computer as many images of operating systems as you want is a pleasure, for that you can use Balena Etcher or Raspberry Pi Imager, which works really well, and Win23Disk Imager to save copies.

Even so, the best thing to do is to get an internal 2.5" SATA SSD with a USB to SATA adapter and plug it via USB to the Rapsberry to boot from the disk because, apart from gaining a lot of performance in terms of writing/reading, MicroSD are much more fragile and their lifespan is much shorter than that of SSD disks. Moreover, you can already buy a good 240 GB SSD for just 25 euros. Maybe that's what I'll get next when I can.

I have already tried the following distributions, all 24-bit, in this order:

  • Rapsberry Pi OS. A very well resolved OS. By far the lightest, fastest and most stable as it sacrifices all frills.
  • Manjaro ARM KDE Plasma 22.12. Not bad at all. I christen it as my second choice. I like it. It's relatively fast, although when I started to remember sudo, it comes with the Arch pacman:P. Anyway, Manjaro invites you to skip the console quite a bit.
  • Ubuntu Desktop 22.10. I knew it would happen, the 4Gb is a bit short and it moves quite slow. Much to my regret I had to give up indulging my nostalgia attack and it was only installed for a few hours. Ubuntu Mate seems to improve a bit, but it's not really light.

The winning choice, so far, has been Rapsberry Pi OS Lite with KDE Plasma as desktop by disabling Compositor and making some optimisation tweaks that leave it close in performance to the Pi OS that comes pre-installed with the LXDE-based PIXEL desktop.

And there it is.

Thanks for the tips to:

@matas / @Sr_Kenobi / @karlggestd/ @NiLace / @salva_pl / @slamelov / @LarreaMikel / @VictorMoral

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