Naturally, that question depends greatly on what it is you want to do with your Raspberry Pi. If you have a particular project in mind, such as a home media centre server, then you’d probably opt for the more powerful and hardware-capable model of Raspberry Pi. If you want to set up a wireless security camera project, using the Raspberry Pi as the core hardware, then perhaps the Pi Zero W would be a better fit. To begin with, let’s have a brief look at the models available.
First Generation Pi
Although now quite old, in computing terms, the first generation Raspberry Pi models are still available to purchase. These are the Raspberry Pi 1 Model A+ and Pi 1 Model B+. The Pi 1 Model A+ was released in November 2014 and replaced the original Model A. It features the now standard 40-pin GPIO, Micro SD Card, lower power consumption, and better audio circuitry. It’s also a smaller package than the original Pi, while having a 700MHz processor and 512MB of memory.
While a worthy Pi, it does lack the built-in networking of its newer model counterparts; both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. The processor is somewhat lacking in the performance department, which can be an important factor if you are thinking of using this model for any serious CPU-related projects. In short, it’s probably worth avoiding the Pi 1 Model A+.
The Pi 1 Model B+ is a far more capable design than its sibling Model A+. Released in July 2014, the Pi 1 Model B+ boasts built-in 100Mb Ethernet and four USB 2.0 ports. It does, however, still feature the same lacklustre processor as the Pi 1 Model A+, but its extra USB and Ethernet ports help make up for any lack in available hardware.
The first generation models are decent enough, providing you’re undertaking a relatively low-level project. Fundamentally, although you can pick them up from a variety of online stores slightly cheaper than the current models, they probably aren’t worth the savings.
Second Generation Pi
There are two, Pi 2, second generation models available: the Model B and the Model B version 1.2. Although you may be hard pressed to find an original Pi 2 Model B (without the 1.2 version), so we will be referring solely to the Pi 2 Model B as the 1.2 version that was released mid-2016.
The Pi 2 Model B offered the user a more powerful Pi experience. With 1GB of memory, an upgraded 900MHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor, and an improved HDMI port. As with the previous first generation Model B, this version also comes with a built-in 100Mb Ethernet port and four 2.0 USB port hub.
Overall, this is a superior choice of Raspberry Pi over the first generation models. The extra processing power, even though it’s only 200MHz, does make a difference, alongside the extra 512MB of memory. If you fi nd one that’s significantly cheaper than a more recent Pi, then it’s worth considering.
Third Generation Pi
The third generation Pi models are significantly more capable than the previous, but they may cost slightly more than the second generation model. However, you do get more Pi for your money. The first third generation model to be released was the Pi 3 Model B, in February 2016. A newer quad core 1.2GHz Broadcom BCM2837 64-Bit processor, 1GB of memory, and a 4-pole stereo output and composite video port meant that this was the power-Pi to have. It’s still a very good model to use, and can accomplish most of the tasks its younger sibling, the Pi 3 Model B+, can do.
The second of the third generation models released was the upgrade to the Model B, the Pi 3 Model B+, released in March 2018. With an impressive 1.4GHz quad core processor, 1GB of faster LPDDR2 memory, dual frequency built-in Wi-Fi and a gigabit Ethernet port, the Pi 3 Model B+ is the most powerful Raspberry Pi to date, and is therefore capable of running all your projects without any problems.
The newest member of the third generation Pi models is the replacement for the second generation A+. Released in November 2018, the Pi 3 Model A+ enjoys the same processor as the more powerful Pi 3 Model B+, but has half the available memory, at 512MB. It also loses the Ethernet port and three of the USB ports, but it does boast dual band Wi-Fi and a far smaller footprint than previous models.
Out of the third generation models, the ones to look out for are the Model B+ and Model A+. The B+ will give you a more powerful Pi experience, but it costs slightly more, whereas the Model A+ is much smaller, but lacks the extra memory and additional USB ports.
Fourth Generation Pi
Introduced on 24th June 2019, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B is a significant leap in terms of Pi performance and hardware specifications. It was also one of the quickest models, aside from the original Pi, to sell out.
With a new 1.5GHz, 64-bit, quad-core ARM Cortex-A72 processor, and a choice of 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB memory versions, the Pi 4 is one-step closer to becoming a true desktop computer. In addition, the Pi 4 was launched with the startling decision to include dual-monitor support, in the form of two micro-HDMI ports. You’ll also find a pair of USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth 5.0, and a GPU that’s capable of handing 4K resolutions and OpenGL ES 3.0 graphics.
In short, the Pi 4 is the most powerful of the current Raspberry Pi models. However, the different memory versions have an increased cost. The 1GB version costs £34, 2GB is £44, and the 4GB version will set you back £54. Remember to also factor in one or two micro-HDMI cables with your order.
In between the first and second generation Raspberry Pi models, the foundation launched the Pi Zero and Zero W.
The Raspberry Pi Zero was a significant release, as the extremely popular Pi was now even smaller. Measuring at just 65 x 30 x 5mm, the Zero still managed to pack in a single core 1GHz processor, 512MB of memory, a mini-HDMI port, micro USB port, 40-pin GPIO and a micro-SD card slot. However, it lacked wireless and other networking capabilities, so you would need to factor in a USB hub and network hardware.
The Raspberry Pi Zero W, on the other hand, is a far better choice. The processor and memory are the same, as are the other hardware items, but, as the W indicates, this model comes with wireless networking built-in. With a 2.4GHz single-band Wi-Fi module, as well as Bluetooth 4.1, the Pi Zero W is an impressive, slim bit of hardware.
While the Pi Zeros may sound like a logical choice, considering their far smaller footprint, they do lack the performance power of the newer third generation models. We’d recommend you opt for a Pi Zero W over the older Pi Zero, as networking is available out of the box.
The Pi 4 Model B is the main Raspberry Pi worth considering if you want the full Pi experience; use it for programming, gaming, projects, connectivity and so on. The Pi 3 Model A+ can be used for projects that require more power, but where a smaller size is needed, and the Pi Zero W for projects where a much smaller footprint and lower power draw are needed, and CPU performance isn’t too important.