8 Reasons to Choose the Raspberry Pi Pico Over Other Models


There are several single-board computers from the Raspberry Pi company but only one microcontroller, the Raspberry Pi Pico. This tiny board is not intended as an alternative to the more powerful SBCs, but it does have a unique set of features that makes it more suitable for certain projects.

Here we’ll explore various reasons you might want to use a Raspberry Pi Pico instead of other Raspberry Pi models in your electronics projects.

1. Microcontroller Architecture

Raspberry Pi Pico
Image Credit: Raspberry Pi/YouTube

While the other Raspberry Pi models make lofty attempts at replacing your main computer or at least serve as a worthy alternative, the Pico is instead a simple, understated microcontroller board with no other mission than to help you bring your electronics projects to life.

While this makes it less capable overall than the other Pi models, it also brings several advantages, as described in the following sections. Due to its much simpler architecture, the Raspberry Pi Pico uses much fewer resources to accomplish the same tasks as a regular Raspberry Pi.

It is also much easier to set up and has none of the security issues of a single-board computer. Furthermore, the Pico offers 2MB of non-volatile flash memory and has no SD card slot, although you could use an adapter to connect one to the Pico. This flash memory will retain your data even through a sudden power outage, whereas you would most likely have a corrupted SD card on your hands.

2. Cost-Effectiveness

The Raspberry Pi Pico is the cheapest Raspberry Pi product, starting at $4 for the base model. This is about a quarter of the price of the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W and much less expensive than the cheapest Raspberry Pi 4. The Raspberry Pi Pico offers a low barrier of entry to electronics tinkering, allowing you to kick off your new hobby with a minimal investment.

Even in the world of microcontrollers, the Pico’s price is still highly competitive, and you are unlikely to find a board that offers similar features, ease of use, and documentation at that price point.

There are three variants of the Pico, all priced differently. The base model has an official price of $4, but it comes with unsoldered headers and lacks wireless connectivity. To get those features in the box, you will need to pay $1 to $3 extra. The Pico WH version, with both Wi-Fi and pre-soldered headers, costs $7.

3. Power Efficiency

Raspberry Pi Pico connected to a computer
Image Credit: Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Pico might not be the most power-efficient microcontroller board, but it does well enough for itself, especially within the Raspberry Pi family. Using a Pico instead is one of our recommended tips for saving power in your Raspberry Pi projects.

It offers two low-power modes, sleep and dormant. The dormant mode uses the least amount of power but requires an external trigger to return the Pico to a more active state. Sleep mode, on the other hand, uses more power as some clock infrastructure in the chip is left active to wake the Pico if needed.

Although the Raspberry Pi Pico lacks the advanced sleep modes of the ESP32, it consumes less power in active modes. It used less than 100mA during a video playback test recorded in the datasheet (with power-saving disabled).

4. Programmable Input/Output

The Raspberry Pi Pico has a 40-pin header with 26 multifunction General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) pins. The Pico features different communication protocols, including 2 x I2C, 2 x SPI, and 2 x UART channels, similar to other Raspberry Pi models. We have a detailed guide to the Pico’s pinout that you should definitely check out.

However, a unique feature of the Raspberry Pi Pico is its ability to create custom digital interfaces and communication protocols.

This is made possible by the eight PIO state machines on the Pico. These are essentially processing cores capable of handling data coming in and out of the microcontroller. They can take the burden of certain, time-critical tasks off the CPU, allowing for better resource management on the microcontroller.

PIO can come in handy when you need to work with addressable LEDs, control motors, or interface with proprietary protocols or legacy hardware.

5. Analog Input

The Raspberry Pi Pico is the only model that is capable of reading analog signals. To send signals from an analog device to a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, you would need an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to read these signals and send them to the Pi in a digital form that it can read.

The Raspberry Pi Pico, on the other hand, is capable of receiving analog input directly, due to the built-in 12-bit ADC. Three out of the 26 GPIO pins on the board can be configured as analog inputs. So you can use a Raspberry Pico to read a potentiometer, for example.

6. Compact Size

The Pico is the smallest Raspberry Pi (2 x 0.8 x 0.04 inches), followed closely by the Raspberry Pi Zero (2.6 × 1.2 × 0.2 inches). If you were building a portable gaming console, smart glasses, heart rate monitor, or any other wearable electronics project, the Pico would likely be a much better fit than most other Raspberry Pi models. Overall, the Pico’s compact size broadens its range of use cases and makes it a valuable tool for projects where space constraints are a major consideration.

7. Real-Time Applications

Unlike other Raspberry Pi models, the Pico is suitable for real-time applications. Real-time in computing usually refers to a system that is designed to respond to an external event within a specified time constraint or deadline. Real-time systems are quite important in applications that require quick response times, such as defense, telecommunication, aerospace, and automotive applications.

The Pico has an internal real-time clock that functions mostly as expected but is unfortunately not designed to continue working after the device is powered down. However, you can connect an external real-time clock to the Pico for even more accurate timing.

Since there is no operating system to interface with on the Pico, your code runs immediately at startup, unlike other Raspberry Pi models where you have to wait for the operating system to boot first. While bare-metal programming is technically possible on other models, it is harder to work with and is best suited for advanced developers.

The Pico is therefore more suited for time-critical projects such as game controllers, home security, robotics projects, and even home automation applications.

8. Supporting Raspberry Pi Silicon

rp2040 chip
Image Credit: Raspberry Pi

Unlike the single-board computers and Compute Modules from Raspberry Pi, the Pico sets the trend for being the first microcontroller board and the first product based on the company’s very own in-house chip, the RP2040. The low-cost but high-performance chip also powers several alternatives to the Raspberry Pi Pico.

Buying a Raspberry Pi Pico means that you are supporting Raspberry Pi Silicon and making it more likely that we will see even better chips than the RP2040 in the future.

The Raspberry Pi Pico Is a Cheap Alternative for Your Electronics Projects

What the Raspberry Pi Pico lacks in power and storage space, it makes up for in real-time capability, size, and affordability. It is perfect for projects where a fully-fledged Raspberry Pi computer would be overkill. If the I/O pins on the Pi are all you need to bring your project to life, you may be better off with one of the variants of the Raspberry Pi Pico.

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