We've all been there: you have an idea for a cool Raspberry Pi project, or you've seen one online, and you don't know where to start. Well you can either buy everything individually, or choose from one of the many, many, many starter kits out there.
What is a starter kit?
A starter kit comes with a set of components, including a Raspberry Pi computer, that you’ll need to complete a project. They usually include cables, adapters, a case, and everything else you need to get started.
Should I buy a starter kit or just buy each component individually?
The answer is a resounding "that depends". Much of the time, you can save a lot of time and money by buying a starter kit rather than buying each component individually. Whether or not a starter kit is worth it largely depends on three factors:
What you plan on using the Pi for.
Whether the individual components in the kit are up to snuff.
In this guide, I will briefly explain which components your starter kit should contain, what's important to watch out for with each component, and how the cost stacks up. Even if you don't want to buy a starter kit, this guide should teach you about everything you need for your Raspberry Pi.
To help us in our analysis, I bought what seems to be a pretty good starter kit on Amazon (you can check it out here). I chose it because it looks to use quality components and because it includes the bare minimum of what you'll want for any Raspberry Pi project. This Canakit kit is also a great choice and also includes the newer Raspberry Pi 4. Check out our full Canakit Raspberry Pi 4 starter kit review to learn more!
I created both a video and written version of this guide. CHOOSE YOUR PATH, BRAVE WARRIOR. Or, check out both, because they contain slightly different information presented in a slightly different way. :)
Every starter kit you find will (should) come with some version of the Raspberry Pi computer. If it doesn't, then are are you doing? The version you choose will depend on what kind of project you're looking to build.
Raspberry Pi 4
99% of the time you'll want the Raspberry Pi 4, which is the most powerful Raspberry Pi currently made. For most projects, definitely go with the Pi 4. The Raspberry Pi 4 is available in 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB versions.
The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is also a good choice. It's powerful enough for most Raspberry Pi projects and is well-supported.
Never buy a kit containing a Pi A, B, B+, or 2. These are old stock that the kit manufacturers are trying to clear out, and those Pis pale in comparison to the mighty Pi 3 B+ or 4.
Raspberry Pi Zero
There are also kits containing a Pi Zero W. This is a smaller but far less powerful Raspberry Pi computer. If size considerations are more important to you than processing power, you might go this route.
Note the W -- this stands for wireless, meaning it has onboard WiFi and Bluetooth. There's also a Pi Zero (without the W) that has no WiFi or Bluetooth. Stay away from this one if you care about internet connectivity.
Only buy a kit containing a Raspberry Pi 4, 3 B+ or Zero W. For most projects, go with the Pi 4.
I mention this second because the power supply, or "AC adapter", is an extremely important part of your setup. You can't just plug your Pi into your smartphone charger.
All power supplies are 5V, which is the standard USB voltage. However, not all power supplies provide enough amps to run your Pi properly. Your Pi needs at least a 2.5A power supply to run properly.
If you plan on plugging several accessories into your Pi, I recommend a 3 amp or larger power supply. Even a keyboard with LEDs and a built-in hub will draw more current than you think! If you provide too little current to your Pi, it will show usually show a small yellow lightning bolt in the corner of your screen. Other times, it won't, but things will randomly fail and act funky. Trust me, I've been there.
Your kit should specify how many amps the power supply is. If it doesn't specify, don't buy it. If it's under 2.5A, don't buy it.
A lot of people have started selling AC adapters with a built-in toggle switch, which they call a "power button". Here's the funny thing about that -- you really only want to use this switch to turn the Pi on, not off.
Let me explain: when you power off your desktop computer, do you just rip the power cord out of the wall? Probably not. That's basically what this switch does. Removing power from the Pi (or computer) without shutting it down properly will corrupt any data currently being written, making it unusable.
However, after safely shutting down your Pi via the shutdown command or using a Pi power button, you can use this toggle switch to turn the Pi back on. So it's kind of neat I guess, but mostly useless.
Only buy a kit that lists an Amperage of 2A or larger. Built-in switches are neat but not necessary.
Example kit (ABOX)
The ABOX kit came with a 5V 2.5A power supply with built-in switch, as listed. This will work fine!
The microSD card is the hard drive of your Raspberry Pi and not all cards are created equally. These are the things to look out for when choosing a starter kit that contains an SD card:
An old or slow SD card will make your Pi run slowly. If your kit contains an SD card, make sure it's a brand name or scan Amazon reviews for the card for mentions of transfer speed. I've had great success over the years using _SanDisk Ultra _cards. That's the one the ABOX kit came with, which is sweet.
You don't need a massive card. For most applications, a 16GB card is fine. I usually go with 32GB in case I want to add more functionality to my Pi later (like, recently, adding Kodi to the Pi and wanting to store lots of media files).
If you're looking to use your Pi to emulate retro video games via RetroPie, 16GB is probably fine. ROMs aren't as big as you think -- see, back when many of these games were made, computer memory was pretty expensive. So the game developers had to be clever in order to keep everything as small as possible. For example, in order to save space, the clouds in Super Mario Bros. use the same sprite as the bushes, but are a different color. But I digress..
The Raspberry Pi will have issues running hugely massive SD cards -- think 128GB and 256GB cards. It's just not designed to run them, but it is possible to do so with some hackery.
Yes, SD card counterfeiting happens. Your card might say SanDisk Ultra but in reality is a cheaper, worse card. This really only happens with larger SD cards (64GB+). After all, nobody counterfeits $1 bills. You can mitigate this risk by checking reviews for the kit and by choosing a kit with a smaller card. Also, check and make sure the kit lists the exact
Choose a brand-name card with good write speeds. A 16GB card is fine, but I recommend a 32GB card.
Example kit (ABOX)
The ABOX kit came with a 32GB SanDisk Ultra card, which is perfect. I checked it against some other SanDisk Ultra cards I own and they're identical, so it appears to be authentic.
Your Pi will run better with heatsinks so I recommend using them for every project. Most kits come with two heatsinks -- one for the CPU, and one for the Ethernet/USB controller. These two components get the hottest. Heatsinks are designed to conduct heat away from these components, cooling them.
Unless you're water-cooling your Pi, it makes little difference whether your heatsinks are copper or aluminum. What does matter is the size of the heatsinks and the adhesive they use.
Jamie Bainbridge wrote a great analysis of Raspberry Pi cooling. His tests concluded that the short (4mm) heatsinks do next to nothing. Choose a kit with taller heatsinks, but keep in mind that you'll need a case that can accommodate. If the kit doesn't list the heatsink dimensions, simply ask or stay away from it.
The material used to stick the heatsink to the component is just as important as its size. Cheaper adhesives insulate rather than conduct heat, which is worse than having no heatsinks! 3M adhesive is a quality standard, and most heatsink kits come with this. Try to find a kit that lists the adhesive brand (or check photos).
Choose a kit with comes with two tall heatsinks that uses 3M adhesive. Copper or aluminum is fine, but you're more likely to find tall heatsinks in aluminum.
Example kit (ABOX)
The ABOX kit came with two different heatsinks. The copper heatsink for the CPU is definitely a bit short and I can't read its label. However, the second heatsink it came with is a gold color and it clearly states 3M. It appears this heatsink is for the memory chip on the bottom of the Pi, and it has to be shorter or it wouldn't fit in any Pi case. I don't think this one is necessary, but it's neat that they included it. Overall, I wish the CPU heatsink was larger but this set should do. Though I'm unsure which brand adhesive the other two heatsinks use, the fact that the third states 3M gives me hope that they also use 3M adhesive.
I'm not going to spend much time on this as the Raspberry Pi case doesn't really matter. Look for a kit that contains a case that provides ample cooling, easy access to ports (including the GPIO header, if your project requires), and can fit a Pi with tall heatsinks.. If you want a bit more fun, there are also some neat cases out there like the NES Raspberry Pi case, but most kits don't include super interesting cases like that.
Cheap cases are fine. Look for good ventilation and easy access to ports.
Example kit (ABOX)
The ABOX kit came with a pretty standard Raspberry Pi case. It has good ventilation and the top lid comes off for easy access to the GPIO header, if needed.
There are other things your kit should include and are worth mentioning:
You probably have some spares already, but these are always nice to have. Look for a cable that's long enough for your needs.
Individual cost: +$6
microSD card USB adapter
Many kits will come with a USB adapter for connecting the microSD card to your computer. This is a necessary step for setting up your Pi. The microSD card usually comes with a full-size SD card adapter, so if your computer has an SD card slot, you really don't need a USB adapter.
Individual cost: +$7
USB game controller
The ABOX didn't come with one of these, but if you're looking to build a RetroPie gaming rig, you can find kits that come with USB gamepads. However, the generic ones are usually very terrible and won't last long. I recommend buying your controllers separately so you can read reviews for them. Or, if you're serious about gaming, grab a Raspberry Pi bluetooth controller. :)
LEDs and electrical bits
Some of the more massive and expensive starter kits come with tons of LEDs, resistors, switches, sensors, and servos. These are cool, but it's usually cheaper to buy these separately or to buy a dedicated electrical component kit, like a set of resistors or LEDs. Chances are you'll be buying a lot of things that you'll never use. Still, it's neat to have these things readily available should you have a spark of inspiration. That's definitely worth something.
Buying a kit that comes with everything you need is a good way to get a great deal.
Example kit (ABOX)
The ABOX kit came with a microSD USB adapter and short (2-foot) HDMI cable. These will both be be very useful. Of course, it didn't come with a USB gamepad or miscellaneous electrical components.
As I said before, Raspberry Pi starter kits can be worth it and often are. Just be sure they're up to snuff and do your research. I did this research before selecting the kit that I showed here (the ABOX), so I'm definitely happy with it. I wish the CPU heatsink was taller but those are cheap and easily replaced.
Can kits be cheaper than buying each component individually?
Apparently, yes. Of course, this really depends on what type of Pi project you're going after. I looked up the price of each component on Amazon and if I purchased them separately it would have cost me $87:
Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+: $40
Power supply: $9
32GB MicroSD card: $13
Raspberry Pi case: $7
HDMI cable: $6
MicroSD card USB adapter: $7
Total without a kit: $87
The ABOX kit price seems to fluctuate between $65-70, saving between $17 and $23. Thus, going the kit route was definitely cheaper in this case (in addition to making shopping more convenient). However, not all starter kits offer the same value; I hope this guide will help you determine if a particular kit is worth it.