The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon

Why the Rasp­berry Pi 4 is the best choice for your dig­i­tal pic­ture frame project

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When I start­ed my first dig­i­tal pic­ture frame DIY project in 2014, I looked at many poten­tial com­put­er hard­ware solu­tions. But then I dis­cov­ered the Rasp­berry Pi, and have remained faith­ful to the plat­form until today.

In this post, I will tell you why I think it remains one of the best, if not the best, hard­ware solu­tion for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame.

And with the intro­duc­tion of the Rasp­berry Pi 4 in June 2019, I won­der if any com­peti­tor will stand a chance to catch up any­time soon.

Small com­put­ers with huge poten­tial

The intro­duc­tion of mini­com­put­er boards has cre­at­ed many new appli­ca­tions for home and busi­ness.

Where­as a typ­i­cal Intel or AMD moth­er­board used to be rather large and demand­ed an ample pow­er sup­ply, the mod­ern sin­­gle-board ARM com­put­ers have a cred­it card sized form fac­tor and only require a small pow­er sup­ply.

This has made them ide­al for all sorts of do-it-your­­self projects for hob­by­ists, but also many com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions.

When I looked at pos­si­ble hard­ware options in 2014, I came up with these require­ments that still hold pre­cise­ly as they were today:

  • 0 dB noise. This means fan-less oper­a­tion and no oth­er mov­ing parts
  • HDMI video out­put capa­ble of dri­ving a 24 inch­es mon­i­tor with a res­o­lu­tion of 1920 x 1200 px and ide­al­ly 4k
  • A small form fac­tor, ide­al­ly cred­it card sized, which can be glued onto the back of a com­put­er dis­play and does not have a height exceed­ing 1.2 inches/3 cm
  • Pow­er con­sump­tion of few­er than 10 watts
  • Enough CPU (main proces­sor) and GPU (graph­ics) pow­er to run an advanced image view­er soft­ware

Regard­ing an oper­at­ing sys­tem, I quick­ly con­clud­ed that using a Microsoft Win­dows or Apple macOS oper­at­ing sys­tem would be overkill, so the choice for Lin­ux was an obvi­ous one.

Back then, the Rasp­berry Pi was the clear leader in mini­com­put­ers and the easy choice for my project. But in 2019, would I still rec­om­mend it as the best option?

Anoth­er fruit com­pa­ny con­quers the world

The Rasp­berry Pi is the brand name for a series of small sin­­gle-board com­put­ers devel­oped by a foun­da­tion in the UK. It intend­ed to pro­mote com­put­er sci­ence in schools and devel­op­ing coun­tries, and yes, they have reached that goal.

Last year over 20 mil­lion units of these cred­it card sized mini­com­put­ers were sold world­wide, and it trig­gered a whole gen­er­a­tion of young and old(er) peo­ple to learn about pro­gram­ming.

The Rasp­berry Pi may be a bit too slow for the use in an office, but it is great for tin­ker­ing with elec­tron­ics, exper­i­ment­ing, home automa­tion and gen­er­al­ly for projects called the Inter­net of Things (IoT). And it proved to be the per­fect plat­form for my dig­i­tal pic­ture frame project.

The tech­ni­cal data sheet sounds unim­pres­sive com­pared to Intel desk­top com­put­ers. Even the very lat­est mod­el of the Rasp­berry fam­i­ly, the Pi 4 only offers a rather mod­est CPU per­for­mance and mem­o­ry. But still, this is prob­a­bly more com­put­ing pow­er than Neil Arm­strong and his col­leagues had in their cap­sule for the first moon land­ing and plen­ty for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame project.

What I like about it is the aver­age pow­er con­sump­tion of 3-4 watts which is prob­a­bly less than the stand­by pow­er of your tele­vi­sion. What­ev­er your motive may be to keep an eye on pow­er con­sump­tion, it just feels right to have a device that is very ener­gy effi­cient.

It only costs around US$35/€35 so exper­i­ment­ing with it is not a too expen­sive endeav­or to under­take. You need to add a pow­er sup­ply, a case and an SD card, so the final tab will be around 60 but still rea­son­able.

No great hard­ware can thrive with­out an ecosys­tem of soft­ware devel­op­ers, and this is where the Rasp­berry Pi shines excep­tion­al­ly bright. Mil­lions of enthu­si­as­tic fans result­ed in a vast num­ber of Rasp­berry Pi forums, clubs and devel­op­ers all around the world open­ly shar­ing their knowl­edge and find­ings to build yet anoth­er fan­tas­tic appli­ca­tion.

Even the mod­el from 2014, the Rasp­berry Pi 2 Mod­el B, had enough horse­pow­er for my dig­i­tal pic­ture frame. Over four years lat­er, the orig­i­nal pic­ture frame is still run­ning flaw­less­ly much to the delight of friends & fam­i­ly.

And unlike mobile phone oper­at­ing sys­tems which appear to get slow­er with every upgrade on the same hard­ware plat­form, this is not the case with Rasp­bian, the Rasp­berry Pi oper­at­ing sys­tem, a Debian deriv­a­tive (Lin­ux).

When I orig­i­nal­ly wrote this arti­cle, I stat­ed that there were a num­ber of hard­ware alter­na­tives to choose from and I men­tioned the ODROID-C2 as an exam­ple.

With the intro­duc­tion of the Rasp­berry Pi 4, I don't believe any­more that there are real alter­na­tives on the mar­ket. This is not just a func­tion of the much-improved hard­ware but of the ever increas­ing user com­mu­ni­ty around the Rasp­berry Pi.

Rasp­berry Pi 4

The lat­est Rasp­berry Pi 4 released in June 2019 is a huge upgrade to his pre­de­ces­sors. The most rel­e­vant improve­ment for home brew­ers of dig­i­tal pic­ture frames is obvi­ous­ly the abil­i­ty to dri­ve 4K mon­i­tors with a res­o­lu­tion of 3840 x 2160 px. Not only one but two!

The Rasp­berry Pi 4 Mod­el B

The CPU has received a slight bump to 1.5 GHz and Blue­tooth 5 is also part of the stan­dard pack­age. Plus you can now order the Rasp­berry Pi with up to 4 GB in RAM.

What I find a bit incon­ve­nient in the lat­est mod­els (start­ing with Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+), is that the SD card slot has no spring ejec­tion any­more. When I first got it, I thought that my mod­el was bro­ken and was ready to send it back. But after some inter­net research, I dis­cov­ered that this was the new tech­ni­cal design. My wor­ry that it could slide out is prob­a­bly unfound­ed in a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion, but I pre­fer tight con­nec­tors. Also, when your case is fas­tened onto a sur­face (in my case glued to the back of the mon­i­tor), you now have to take the moth­er­board out of the case to change the SD card. This was eas­i­er with pre­vi­ous mod­els although tak­ing the SD card out always required long fin­ger­nails or some­thing like a paper clip.

How­ev­er, to put this into per­spec­tive: The addi­tion of 4K is a big plus, the more RAM very love­ly and I only real­ly change the SD card dur­ing test­ing and set­ting up, so it's not much of a deal.

The size hasn't changed, and pow­er con­sump­tion with the dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion run­ning remains at 3-4 watts, about 1 watt more than with the old­er mod­el 3 B+.

It still costs US$35/€35 plus pow­er sup­ply and SD card. The 2 GB and 4 GB mod­els cost about US$10 more each.

Long live the fruit com­pa­nies

The clone wars

The suc­cess of the Rasp­berry Pi has inspired many ven­dors to come up with their own brands. It's a bit like the clone wars of the 1980s after the launch of the IBM PC. There is a Banana Pi, an Orange Pi, a NanoPi and a few more with or with­out "Pi" in their name.

The word­ing "clone" is tech­ni­cal­ly not quite cor­rect as there is no direct com­pat­i­bil­i­ty with the hard­ware of the orig­i­nal Rasp­berry Pi.

So, if some­thing works on the Rasp­berry Pi, it is not guar­an­teed to work on the clone as dri­ver issues can intro­duce a lot of com­pli­ca­tions. "Pi" ven­dors try to ben­e­fit from the pos­i­tive image of the Rasp­berry Pi series, but in real­i­ty, the clone may have lit­tle to do with the orig­i­nal.

None of them can beat the Rasp­berry Pi on price. Most of them come with a more per­for­mant CPU, but this is not rel­e­vant for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion. My aver­age CPU load on the Rasp­berry Pi 4 is less than 5%, so there is just no need for more horse­pow­er.

The dif­fer­ence regard­ing soft­ware and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port means clones are only a suit­able sub­sti­tute in some cas­es and you may end up spend­ing many hours fix­ing bugs that you don't see on a Rasp­berry Pi.

All the tuto­ri­als on this web­site are work­ing on a Rasp­berry Pi com­put­er. There is no guar­an­tee that this will work on any of the oth­er Pis.

I fail to see a real advan­tage in rec­om­mend­ing the Pi clones. They are often more expen­sive and don't nec­es­sar­i­ly have any­thing that would make a real dif­fer­ence for this use case.

But what about Intel NUC and sim­i­lar­ly sized mini­com­put­ers? The rea­son why I have not includ­ed them in this post is that their price is about ten times that of the Rasp­berry Pi and they have much larg­er phys­i­cal dimen­sions and the space behind the mon­i­tor is very lim­it­ed.

Intro­duc­ing 4K

When I orig­i­nal­ly wrote this arti­cle, the most up-to-date mod­el was the Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+. And what this mod­el lacked bad­ly was sup­port for 4K mon­i­tors.

In June 2019 Christ­mas came ear­ly with the intro­duc­tion of the Rasp­berry Pi 4 which not only fea­tured one 4K HDMI out­put but two! You can now dri­ve screens with a res­o­lu­tion of 3840 x 2160 px allow­ing to bring utmost sharp­ness to even large dig­i­tal pic­ture frames.

This is where oth­er ARM-based mini­com­put­ers had been able to offer a real advan­tage. At least in the­o­ry, because I am hear­ing about many dri­ver issues that make it dif­fi­cult to exploit this advan­tage. But this advan­tage is no more.

The 4K road ahead

I am cur­rent­ly prepar­ing a tuto­r­i­al on how to make a great dig­i­tal pic­ture frame with out­stand­ing image tran­si­tions in 4K.

One issue is keep­ing me from build­ing it today.

It is the lack of a decent 27 or 30 inch­es high 4K mon­i­tor with an aspect ratio of 16:10. If they exist, please send me an email.

I haven't been able to find them except for some extreme­ly bulky and expen­sive mod­els for med­ical appli­ca­tions. 16:10 is essen­tial to avoid crop­ping too much from a stan­dard 3:2 cam­era pho­to.

Con­clu­sion

If you want to build a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame, pick a Rasp­berry Pi as your com­put­ing hard­ware of choice. Any Rasp­berry Pi start­ing from 2 Mod­el B+ will work. If you want 4K capa­bil­i­ty, get the Rasp­berry Pi 4.

CPU per­for­mance doesn't mat­ter for the dig­i­tal pic­ture frame use case. What mat­ters is com­pat­i­bil­i­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty and clear instruc­tions that you can fol­low.

The Rasp­berry Pi has the most sub­stan­tial fol­low­ing of any ARM sin­­gle-board com­put­er. The amount of guides, tuto­ri­als, and soft­ware avail­able for the Rasp­berry Pi is unmatched by any oth­er board.

All the DIY tuto­ri­als on this site are cur­rent­ly for the Rasp­berry Pi. So if you are inter­est­ed in pro­duc­ing a result quick­ly and reli­ably, this is the road to take.