The pi-top revisited

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 12, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Publication schedules mean that reviews are rarely the result of more than a few days of testing. Should the product develop long-term problems, they remain undocumented. Such is the case with the pi-top, the do-it-yourself laptop powered by the Raspberry Pi. Nine months after I reviewed it, I realized that I was spending more time trying to get it to run properly than I was using it, and could no longer recommend it with a clean conscience.

No one could have been more excited than I was about the pi-top. I not only gave it an enthusiastic review, but also wrote an article to help people assemble it with fewer problems, and interviewed the company founders a couple of times. Financed by crowdfunding, the pi-top seemed one of the first of a new breed of small open hardware businesses.

The pi-top had its problems, of course. It lacked sound and bluetooth support, but I told myself that first product runs often leave out features. Similarly, the keyboard was barely adequate for touch typing, but then, so far as I am concerned, the same can be said for the keyboards of most mobile devices. Being reasonably ambidextrous, I didn't even mind that the touchpad was on the right, making it awkward to use with my preferred left-hand. The pleasure of assembling the laptop myself was strong enough that I was willing to overlook such things.

The Broken Battery
However, after I wrote about the product, more serious issues emerged. Despite the pi-top being described in the campaign as open source, neither schematics for the pi-top hub nor for 3D printing of the case have been released. In fact, on the community forums, requests for these items have been ignored.

At the same time, the cables that connect the screen and the keyboard tend to wriggle lose when the pi-top is carried about like any other laptop, even when taped in position. If I wanted to use the pi-top, I had to open the stiff, snap-together case to re-position the cables.

Worst still, after a few weeks, the battery failed. I returned the bottom of the case that held the battery, but for several weeks, the pi-top was a lime-green brick while I waited for the replacement. Nor was I alone -- since the pi-top release, the community forum has had 234 posts about similar problems.

For a few weeks, all was well. Then an operating system upgrade left the pi-top without a battery indicator. When a patch was released after a few months, the instructions suggested applying it nine or ten times, or until it took hold. At least several posters on the forum tried considerably more times without any luck, including me. Nor could battery indicators from other desktops work.

As I write, one customer has posted a solution that supposedly works, but that was after I became frustrated. Meanwhile, the pi-top company has been unable to post its own solution.

Shipping and Reassurances
To compound my reaction, in my early enthusiasm, I paid for the company's second product, the pi-topCEED, in the first days of its fundraising campaign. The pi-topCEED began shipping several months ago, but I have yet to receive mine, even though my online account has listed it as shipped since June. Twice, I was assured by support that it was in the mail, but I never received it.

Finally, two weeks ago, I had had enough and asked for a refund. A week ago, I was told the refund would be processed within five days. This morning, I received the refund via PayPal. I couldn't help thinking that, had I received a similarly quick response to my order, I would never have given up on the company.

The pi-top is an intriguing idea, but it is now clear to me that the company behind it lacks the infrastructure necessary for a business. I was involved with two startups, so I know how much of a scramble one can be. Often, there is too much to do and not nearly enough people to do it, even with copious amounts of overtime. Bringing a product to market can add to the nightmare, with many uncontrollable delays from manufacturers on the one hand, and increasingly impatient customers on the other. All the same, I have been patient for many months, and I now have no expectations of the situation improving.

Even more importantly, I see no excuse for not living up to fundraising claims, nor for giving meaningless reassurances to patient customers -- let alone for being unable to provide something as simple yet as essential as a battery monitor.

I am going to let my pi-top gather dust until I need its Pi 3 elsewhere. For others, I suggest that they learn from my experience and approach crowdfunding campaigns more cautiously than I did. I specifically advise everyone to keep away from the pi-top and its related products, at least until the community forums indicate that the company has become more reliable.

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