Elecrow CrowPi L: Chromebook Killer for Creatives?

Computers & Mobile Electronics
Elecrow CrowPi L: Chromebook Killer for Creatives?

When the Raspberry Pi first launched, it promised a $35 computer for the masses. But what does “computer” really mean? After HDMI cables, SD cards, power supplies, keyboards, mice, monitors – even if you already have some of that stuff – you’re probably looking at a several hundred dollar outlay, minimum. And in the early Pi days, what you could actually do once you had all of that together was still fairly limited, even compared to inexpensive Chromebooks and mobile devices. But the Raspberry Pi 4 brought desktop performance from “technically usable” to “potential replacement.” Now all that was needed was a potent exoskeleton to realize the full potential of the groundbreaking single board computer. Enter the Elecrow CrowPi L.

Raspberry Pi-powered laptops are not anything new, with offerings from Pi-Top, Kano, and Elecrow themselves, not to mention homebrew projects from makers, the desire to create a fully featured computing device based around the Pi is almost as old as the venerable board itself. The CrowPi L, however, represents a ready-to-run, full-featured maker lab in a box, with a price point and capabilities similar to a low-end Chromebook – but seemingly much more potential.

The worst reviews are those that compare a niche device designed for a specific purpose by a smaller, innovative manufacturer to a flagship device from a behemoth like Apple or Lenovo, ignoring what makes this particular offering special, and instead focus on how devices that cost several times more have better screens and specs. So we’re not going to do that here, but rather focus on what the CrowPi L offers, and the value it provides in that context. The “L” in CrowPi L stands for “Lite, Light, and Laptop” – intended to distinguish it from the company’s CrowPi2 model. It is comparatively “Lite” in that it has a lower-resolution display and other reduced features, “Light” in that it ditches the under-keyboard electronics lab, and “Laptop” in that unlike the CrowPi2, it has a built-in battery, so can function as a “real” portable device.

The CrowPi L features an 11.6” 1366×768 IPS display panel, which is comparable to what is found on current lower-end Chromebooks from Lenovo and HP. While the pixel density isn’t going to blow anyone away, the screen is bright, has a great viewing angle, and looks fantastic with the included software that we used to test it. The chassis is somewhat on the chonky side, but the design is limited by the port configuration of the Pi itself, which is exposed along the left edge of the device, and provides gloriously easy access to USB and Ethernet, unlike so many dongle-necessitating modern laptops. Along the right-hand side are a USB-C charging port (yes!), a 3.5mm headphone jack (thank you!) and most gloriously of all: full-size HDMI out! While the Pi 4 is capable of dual displays if you can bring yourself to buying not one, but two microHDMI adapters, the CrowPi L allows users to add a second display using the vastly more common full-size cable, which really opens up possibilities for using the device, and helps assuage any concerns about the resolution of the built-in display. But there’s one more trick up the device’s right sleeve: a unique 40-pin slot provides access to the Pi’s built-in GPIO, breaking the pins out as a Grove-style shield, with the delightful moniker of “Crowtail.”

A $55 add-on, the Advanced Kit contains the required Crowtial shield, plus a Starter Kit of 20+ hardware modules, such as IR, motion, moisture, range, and temperature sensors, plus LEDs, buttons, cables, and a motor, servo, and LCD display. The kit adds more than 20 new lessons to the almost 100 Letscode and Python courses that come preinstalled on the included 32GB mSD card. And speaking of SD cards, the device features an interesting 2-in-1 adapter, which allows you to effectively dual-boot to an alternate operating system, without having to dig deep into the machine’s internals to access the Pi’s own slot. In addition to a small, yet functional touchpad, Elecrow includes a nice wireless mouse with the kit, which really transforms its usability (note that its dongle consumes one of the three exposed USB ports). A 5000mAh battery claims to provide three hours of runtime, though we did not verify this, since our usage was primarily in a maker context, with ample power available on the workbench.

The Elecrow CrowPi L is an extremely impressive package for the budding maker, or as an auxiliary device for exploring the Raspberry Pi. While it’s not going to replace your gaming rig or be much fun for video editing, it does what it sets out to do fantastically, with no painful lag or other serious impingements. The Elecrow team have loaded it with features, including some real surprises like dual-boot, active cooling, easy GPIO access (via optional Crowtail or breakout board), and seamless dual-monitor support. Despite the “L” moniker, we’d say its impressive feature set make it more than “Lite” – in fact, we’d take that L and make it a W!

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David bought his first Arduino in 2007 as part of a Roomba hacking project. Since then, he has been obsessed with writing code that you can touch. David fell in love with the original Pebble smartwatch, and even more so with its successor, which allowed him to combine the beloved wearable with his passion for hardware hacking via its smartstrap functionality. Unable to part with his smartwatch sweetheart, David wrote a love letter to the Pebble community, which blossomed into Rebble, the service that keeps Pebbles ticking today, despite the company's demise in 2016. When he's not hacking on wearables, David can probably be found building a companion bot, experimenting with machine learning, growing his ever-increasing collection of dev boards, or hacking on DOS-based palmtops from the 90s.

Find David on Twitter at @IShJR.

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