Can You Really Replace Your Desktop PC (or Mac) With a $45 Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is loved by hobbyists all over the world, but is it powerful to help run your business?

The credit card sized Raspberry Pi is a mini-computer aimed at hobbyists. It is a worldwide hit and you can even find a couple on the International Space Station. But, is it powerful enough to replace your desktop PC and to run your office on?

To test this, I ran all my day-to-day office tasks on a Raspberry Pi for a week. It is an experiment I have been meaning to carry out for some time, and I feel guilty for not trying it before. Especially as I live a stone’s throw from where they are manufactured.

In the real world, the primary reason someone would look to replace an expensive desktop PC with a Raspberry Pi, is to save money. So, in this article, we will also look at the true costs involved and some of the potential drawbacks.

All the applications I used during my experiment are listed below, along with what I thought of them. As someone who has been using Windows since the very first version of Windows, I must admit the results surprised me.

Getting Things Set Up

When you get your Raspberry Pi, you will find you need to buy a few cheap bits and pieces to complete your setup. The first things you will need are your keyboard, mouse, and monitor from your old desktop setup, so don’t throw them out.

To connect to your monitor, you will need a Micro HDMI to HDMI lead (about $9 on Amazon). Surprisingly, the Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to drive dual monitors, so you will need to order 2 leads if you want to use dual monitors.

For the initial set up, you will need a Micro SD Card and SD Card Reader. This is so you can install your operating system and store some files. For most people, a 64Gb micro SD card (about $10) is more than enough. The SD card reader is another $10 and is only used to transfer the operating system from a PC.

That is that — it is all you need to get you up and running! However, you may want to look at some optional storage solutions for extra speed and reliability.

Other (Optional) Storage Options

Note — This is an optional part of your setup. You may want to experiment with these options once you are more comfortable with your Raspberry Pi.

Micro SD cards were originally designed to hold photos and videos from digital cameras. So, they are not designed for the rapid file accessing needed by an operating system. This has caused some reliability issues for some users, but cases are rare.

Luckily, with the latest version of the Raspberry Pi (version 4) you can replace the SD card with a USB 3.0 flash drive or a USB 3.0 external hard drive. A 64Gb flash drive is about $10, but you may want to consider a 128Gb flash drive as it is just a few dollars more.

For a real speed boost, look at using an external SSD hard drive. I found my SSD drive to be at least 10 times faster than my flash drive! This can be a massive benefit if the low-powered Raspberry Pi has to process large files. A 500Gb USB 3.0 external SSD drive is about $60.

So, in total, you will be looking at spending $30-$80 on top of the initial $45 cost of the Raspberry Pi. Alternatively, you can buy a Raspberry Pi bundle, including the Raspberry Pi, and most of the items mentioned. These retail for around $120 upwards and (depending on what is in your chosen bundle).

What Are The Big Differences I Should Expect?

So, now you have fired up your Raspberry Pi, what are the big changes you will notice?

Raspberry Pi runs on its own dedicated operating system, which is based on the Debian version of Linux. Although it looks different to Windows, it is actually very similar. Like Windows, you navigate to the software you want to use via a start button or icons on the system tray.

If you don’t like the look and the quirks of the Raspberry Pi OS, you can install any version of Linux that you like the look of. Ubuntu Mate seems to be a very popular choice with ex-Windows users.

For most users, how an operating system looks and works are not all that important. To them, the operating system is just the mechanism by which they find software and access files. For them, the big important differences are to be found in the software and not the OS.

Office Software

For most businesses, the first software that they will need to source will be an Office suite to handle their word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and emails. Without these basic tools, the admin side of the business would grind to a halt.

Luckily, there are several excellent solutions available to you.

Libre Office — Free / Open Source

Libre Office Logo

Libre Office has become the “go-to” office suite to install on the Raspberry Pi.

It includes Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentations), Draw (diagrams), Base (databases), and Math (a maths formula / graphing tool). No email software is included, but I will cover options for this later in the “Other Useful Software” section.

Having installed it, the first thing I noticed was its surprising speed. When I opened the Writer word processor, it booted up in a few seconds and I could start typing almost straight away. Far quicker than Microsoft Word booting up a document on my Windows PC.

Libre Office is compatible with a wide range of document formats including Microsoft Word (.doc, .docx), Excel (.xls, .xlsx), PowerPoint (.ppt, .pptx) and Publisher. It also supports the growing Open Document Format (ODF).

The only compatibility issues you are likely to experience is if you use Word/Excel files that include Macros. Libre Office will still be able to open the files and you will be able to edit them. You just won’t be able to run the macros.

As a power user of Excel, I’ve been really impressed by the Calc application. It is far more powerful than I expected. A lot of my word processing, spreadsheet work, and studying will be done on Libre Office in the future.

Microsoft 365 (Online) — Starts at $60 a year

Microsoft Office Logo

For those that find weaning themselves off Microsoft products is more difficult than expected, there is some good news. You can still access the online versions of the Microsoft 365 packages via your browser.

The suite includes Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheets), PowerPoint (presentations), OneDrive (cloud storage), and Outlook (email). The exact contents of your suite will depend on the subscription you have with Microsoft.

A major advantage of this approach is that most subscriptions include 1Tb of OneDrive online cloud storage. This reduces the need for a large external hard drive attached to your Raspberry Pi.

As this is browser-based software it is not as powerful as the desktop version of Microsoft Office. For example, the use of Macros is not possible and one or two of the more powerful features are not available. However, most users won’t be power users and they won’t meet this issues.

Compared to its desktop big brother, the online version of Office can seem laggy at first (this will depend on your internet speeds). A negative that is far outweighed by the many positives offered by the rest of the package.

Google G-Suite (Online) — Free

Google G-Suite Logo

As well as using a PC and a Raspberry Pi, I also use a Chromebook when I’m traveling for work, and as a result I’m already a bit of a G-Suite convert. G-Suite’s super power for me is, no matter what I do in G-Suite, it seamlessly follows me everywhere I go. It’s instantly on my desktop, my Raspberry Pi, my phone and on my Chromebook.

The G-Suite contains an eclectic collection of applications including Docs (word processing), Sheets (spreadsheets), Calendar (appointment organizer/scheduler), Meet (online meetings), Slides (presentations), Keep (note keeping), Drive (cloud storage starting at 30Gb) and Contacts (phone book).

Some more eclectic applications you can include in your G-Suite suite are Google Translate, Google Earth, and Google Forms.

Even more applications (website hosting, basic automation, etc) and extra cloud storage can be added by opting for one of the paid-for G-Suite subscriptions.

At first sight, each of the applications seems under-powered when compared to their equivalents in Microsoft 365 and Libre Office. However, the true power of the G-Suite applications is how integrated they are with one another and the cloud.

Everything just works together over whatever platforms you put it on. Microsoft 365 attempts this level of integration, but, in my opinion, doesn’t pull it off as well as G-Suite does.

Editing Graphics on a Raspberry Pi

Some businesses will need to occasionally use more power-hungry software in their business for things like editing graphics. There are several options for this on the Raspberry Pi.

While it is perfectly possible to edit graphics on a Raspberry Pi, it would be foolish to think your experience will be the same as someone’s on a $5,000 Apple Mac. You will be using all the processing power of the Raspberry Pi can muster, so you should expect some things to need a bit of time to process.

All of which is perfectly okay for the occasional user, but if you need to process graphics on a daily basis, it’s safe to say the Raspberry Pi is not for you!

To help speed up processing times, it is worth buying a Raspberry Pi with as much RAM as possible. The Raspberry Pi comes in 2Gb, 4Gb and 8Gb RAM flavours, each costing slightly more than the one before.

When handling larger images performance can be improved even further by using an external SSD drive.

Editing Newsletters and Organisational Charts

If you are looking at simple graphic work such as producing a newsletter, the Draw application in the Libre Office suite is more than up to the task. It can also be used for organizational graphics such as flowcharts and process maps.

Editing Vector Graphics

Inkscape Logo

Inkscape is a powerful open-source package for creating and editing vector graphics. It can handle Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and with some additional extensions it can handle PostScript or EPS files.

Editing Raster Graphics and Photos

Gimp Logo

GIMP Is the granddaddy of open source photo editing packages and is fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi. However, this is an area that the Raspberry Pi struggles with because of its lack of power. It produces results as good as the desktop version of GIMP, but you will need to allow yourself extra time to complete the work.

Other Useful Software

We’ve looked at the main applications you can run on your Raspberry Pi, but what about all those smaller applications that we rely on each day? What about zipping files? Sending emails? Or Accessing FTP sites? There are also open source solutions for them.

Browsers

Browsers are a matter of personal preference — what one person likes, another will hate.

As standard, the Raspberry Pi operating system comes pre-installed with Googles Chromium browser. Personally, I think it’s a great browser, but others may prefer the Vivaldi browser, which is another popular browser on Raspberry Pi.

There is nothing between them spec or performance-wise, so it is just down to personal preference.

Email

Thunderbird Logo

If you are using Microsoft 365 or G-Suite, Outlook or G-Mail, they will cover most of your emailing requirements. If you need an email client to be installed on your Raspberry Pi, the most popular option is Thunderbird.

Users of Microsoft Outlook will feel instantly at home as it looks and operates very similarly to Outlook. They also share a lot of similar features like Calendars, Add-ons, Search Tools, Address Books, and so on.

FTP Client

Filezilla Logo

FileZilla is not officially available for Raspberry Pi; however, an unofficial version is available and easy to install. If you are moving over from a Windows system, it is worth hunting out and installing, as it looks and acts the same as the PC version.

The Raspberry Pi operating system has its own built-in FTP client, but in my experience, it is nowhere near as user friendly as FileZilla.

Compression / Zipping Software

Archiver, AKA Xarchiver, is preinstalled with the Raspberry Pi operating system and there is very little to compete with its ease of use.

It will open and compress files in a wide range of formats (including .zip, .tar and .rar).

Summary

So, can you replace your desktop PC with a $45 Raspberry Pi?

For 95% of people, the answer will be a simple “Yes” and they could start the transition today.

The other 5% will be split into two camps. Those that use specialist software not available on the Raspberry Pi, and those who are power users of power-hungry applications (graphics, video editing).

As more and more software is converted into online services, we will see less and less need for powerful desktops to run power-hungry applications. Instead, if you have a browser, you will be able to use the most powerful software out there. Maybe this is the future of single-board mini-computers like the Raspberry Pi.


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