Raspberry Pi and Arduino: What's the Difference and Which Is Best for Your Project?

Do you need to choose between the Raspberry Pi and Arduino? Then join us as we take a quick tour of these highly popular boards and discuss their pros and cons.

Raspberry Pi and Arduino: What's the Difference and Which Is Best for Your Project?
Raspberry Pi Model B und Arduino Uno redcctshirt/Flickr

For those who love to tinker with electronics, the Raspberry Pi and Arduino have become invaluable tools. They are both extremely popular options but are also very budget-friendly. Both have their pros and cons, but also their own particular applications. But which should you choose?

Robotics

Here's How You Can Master Raspberry Pi Programming

Raspberry Pi is actually a system-on-a-chip, or SOC, for short. It runs a full version of Linux, such as Raspbian, and is designed to help teach you as you go. Arduino, on the other hand, is more of a micro-controller than a computer that has a massive support community as well as hundreds of expansion options. 

When the Raspberry Pi was first released, it seemed to some that Arduino might now be obsolete. This, however, is not really fair as they perform different tasks. Whether the Raspberry Pi or the Arduino is your weapon of choice, the fact remains that each has distinct advantages and disadvantages over each other. 

The following article will briefly touch on what they are, touch on their general applications and make a quick comparison between them. For more in-depth analysis of each, you can find a myriad of resources out there.

Raspberry Pi and Arduino: What's the Difference and Which Is Best for Your Project?
Source: Sven.petersen/Wikimedia commons

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is, effectively, a mini computer on one board. It comes with a dedicated processor, memory, graphics driver and inputs and outputs like HDMI. Raspberry Pi boards run a specially designed version of the Linux operating system as well.

Owing to this, Linux software is very easy to install and with a little effort, you can use it as a media streamer or video game emulator. The Pi does lack internal storage but you can use SD cards for this purpose. This gives you a lot of flexibility to try out different operating systems or updates, especially for debugging purposes.

With the Pi, you can run multiple programmes at once and even use the Linux API. Raspberry Pi lets you interact with your programs using a keyboard and mouse, and see what's going on using a monitor.

Raspberry Pi can be set up for access via SSH or transferring files by FTP due to its independent network connectivity. You can even use it as a network bridge.

Arduino

Unlike the Raspberry Pi, Arduino boards are actually micro-controllers rather than 'full' computers. Arduino lacks a full operating system but can run written code that is interpreted by its firmware.

Because of this, you do lose access to basic tools that an OS would provide but you gain the flexibility of executing code directly with no OS overhead.

Arduino has no API and cannot provide user interactivity as there is no operating system. It basically runs code on 'bare metal'

Arduino is really better suited as an interface for sensors and other devices. In this capacity its brilliant for hardware projects where you want something to respond to sensor readings or other inputs.

At first glance, it might not seem too impressive but it's actually a very sophisticated system that allows for excellent management of devices. For instance, it is superb for interfacing with other devices and actuators where a full OS would be overkill for relatively simple tasks.

Raspberry Pi and Arduino: What's the Difference and Which Is Best for Your Project?
The first Arduino board, circa 2005. Source: Ales9000/Wikimedia commons

Pros and cons of the Raspberry Pi and Arduino

Here's a 'rough and ready' comparison between Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

Pros of Raspberry Pi

-Raspberry Pi easily connects to the internet

-The Pi has the entire Linux software stack available

-The Raspberry Pi can be programmed using a variety of languages

Pros of Arduino

-Arduino is easier to get started with

-Best used for real-time applications of hardware, software and IDE is open source

-You don't need a lot of programming knowledge for basic applications

-Very easy to extend and has a lot of contributed shields and libraries. 

Cons of Raspberry Pi

-Hardware access is not real time. If CPU is bogged down hardware interfacing can be delayed

-Lacks enough power to drive inductive loads

-Pi lacks an inbuilt analog to digital converter

-Hardware is not open source

Cons of Arduino

-Not as powerful as the Raspberry Pi

-Can only be programmed using Arduino or C/C++

-Connection to the internet is more tricky than the Pi but is possible. You can pass data using YQL or JSON

So, at the end of the day if your project needs you to interact with a lot of hardware devices Arduino is probably better. If, on the other hand, you need to run a lot of complex software you're probably better off with the Raspberry Pi. 

So which one is best for you?

Choosing between Raspberry Pi and Arduino depends entirely on what you need for your project.

Arduino is best suited for tasks that need sensor data read and reacted to in real time. Also, Arduino has a low power requirement and has very low maintenance requirements. It is ideal for projects that need to be constantly running with little or no interaction.

Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, should be considered when the task might need a personal computer to work. The Pi simplifies projects when a lot of operations are required to manage. This could be connecting to the internet to read and write data. It could also include jugging media of any kind or connecting to an external display. 

In reality, you might find yourself needing both. There are plenty of options out there for getting the two to 'talk to each other'. This kind of setup will give you client-side access to the settings and code for the Pi. It will also let you have the Arduino toil away on its own gathering sensor data and reacting to it accordingly. 

They can both be connected through a variety of options like USB, local networks or through IO ports on the Arduino into the Pi. The choice is yours. 

At the end of the day, the differences between Raspberry Pi and Arduino are subtle but important. You can liken Arduino to your spinal cord making local, small-scale decision with the Pi more akin to your brain. You might well find you'll want to take advantage of both of these great little pieces of kit for your project. Good luck!