It Won't Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool

Illustration for article titled It Wont Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

My kids love laptops. They especially love laptops that play Minecraft and let them watch YouTube for hours at a time. But, I wondered, would they like a laptop that features a four-segment LED display, motion sensor, and RFID programmer? Further, would they like a laptop that looks, at first glance, unlike any other laptop they’ve seen?

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That laptop is the $270 CrowPi2 ($450 in the configuration I tested), a “STEAM learning platform” that consists of a screen, a built-in Raspberry Pi, and a large breadboard like I/O system that lets you run experiments and test components using a wireless keyboard and mouse. It’s just like those 100-in-1 electronics kits you probably had as a kid, but far more powerful.

Out of the box it’s a very thick laptop.
Out of the box it’s a very thick laptop.
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo
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At its core, the CrowPi2 is simply a case for a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, the latest open-source, single-board educational computer. In addition to the included accessories - joysticks, a keyboard, a wireless mouse, IR remote control - you get an 11-inch, 1080p screen and a built-in 2-megapixel camera. The model I tested came preloaded with Raspbian, a powerful Raspberry Pi OS that gives you a simple, usable desktop OS without much hassle.

Pop the keyboard off and there’s a whole breadboard underneath to further help kids scratch that electrical engineer itch.
Pop the keyboard off and there’s a whole breadboard underneath to further help kids scratch that electrical engineer itch.
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

The OS includes Scratch for simple programming, a Python IDE for coding experiments, and an Arduino IDE for more granular device coding. It also includes Minecraft Pi, a slimmed-down version of Minecraft for smaller computers, and a Chromium web browser.

The case itself is mostly hollow since the raspberry Pi resides in a slot at the bottom left corner of the laptop. There is no battery and it runs off power that plugs directly into the side of the laptop. Aside from the open USB ports on the Raspberry Pi, it has one micro USB port and a headphone jack. The keyboard fits into a slot on the case and is removable, allowing you to access the sensors and buttons underneath.

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There are two ways to interact with the CrowPi2 software. The default is a simple kiosk mode that lets you perform experiments and learn about the laptop’s various features. You can close this kiosk mode to access the operating system itself and even open a terminal so you can code using more traditional editors like Vim and Emacs.

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My eight-year-old immediately clicked the Minecraft button in Kiosk mode and then played some games in Scratch. My older son looked at the laptop and went back to his gaming PC. He knows nerfed hardware when he sees it.

Frustrated, I asked the kids to run through a few tutorials, which they begrudgingly did.

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Illustration for article titled It Wont Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Based on my testing, I found that this laptop is for older kids. While it’s nice to imagine a precocious eight-year-old coding and hacking Arduino using this thing, it’s definitely aimed at a pre-teen to High School demographic. While Scratch, the grade school programming language, is front and center in the Kiosk mode, most of the more complex features are aimed at older kids who can program Python or in Arduino’s own scripting language.

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For example, the kit comes with cardboard cutouts that contain RFID chips. When you move these cutouts to the RFID reader, you can automatically build houses and TNT boxes in Minecraft. The whole thing would be a great project for your youngest Minecrafters but it’s not a solo project for anyone under twelve.

Once you begin exploring the whole package, however, you discover a wealth of sensors and controls.

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The kit features 22 components on a nicely-laid out board. It has tilt sensors, ultrasonic distance sensors, an even a few LCD and LED readouts. You can program an included RFID dongle wirelessly and it even supports AI-based camera APIs for facial recognition. The board works seamlessly with the Raspberry Pi, which means you can access these controls from almost any part of the operating sytem.

A very cool state LED readout shows you what pins are active on your Raspberry Pi and you can even control higher-voltage systems with a switching relay. In all, it’s a surprisingly powerful package.

Thankfully the system includes a number of tutorials that let you walk through simple to complex coding examples step-by-step. As a test, I asked my eight-year-old and fourteen-year-old to make the LCD screen do something without my help. In a few minutes they ran through a tutorial and made the machine say “You really smell like a farts.” Mission accomplished.

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Illustration for article titled It Wont Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

But that’s not all! Because this runs a Raspberry Pi you can easily load video game emulators, robotics controllers, and even mine bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. And because it doubles as a real laptop you can use LibreOffice, a free MS Office clone, and visit web pages as you would on any other laptop. The Raspberry Pi is surprisingly powerful and the whole system works surprisingly well.

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That word - surprisingly - is key. In all the years I’ve built DIY Raspberry Pi powered-hardware, I’ve always been disappointed in the quality and the utility. Elecrow, in the case of the CrowPi2, offers both.

Illustration for article titled It Wont Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo
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But who exactly is this laptop for? At $450 with built-in Raspberry Pi, you’re definitely getting into cheaper laptop pricing. Further, all of the features this system includes are available as separate components from sites like Adafruit. Finally, as a STEAM system for kids this thing is worryingly complex and potentially fragile. You won’t be sticking this into a book bag and dragging it to school.

That said, if you want to teach your kids advanced electronics and let them try Linux, I haven’t seen anything better. While you can easily get a Raspberry Pi, keyboard, and mouse, having all these things in one package is a superior proposition. Elecrow did a good job with the case and the accessories, essentially taking the best of the Shenzhen electronics markets and putting them together, shanzai-style, into a working product.

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Illustration for article titled It Wont Replace a Laptop, But the CrowPi2 Is a Powerful Learning Tool
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

The system is very specifically for a kid between the ages of ten and fifteen who shows some interest in deep coding. I imagine anyone who tries this thing will eventually move onto more complex systems and probably assemble their own breadboard based electronics, but this is definitely a nice introduction.

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I rarely recommend STEAM toys because the creators seem to neither understand technology or the needs of young students. Elecrow, quite surprisingly, has done both and I really enjoyed the features, the usability, and the educational software included in this clever, compact learning computer.

README

  • CrowPi2 is a clever little laptop for kids
  • Powerful Raspberry Pi computer with lots of features
  • A 22-in-1 electronics kit built-in
  • Plays Doom
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John Biggs is a writer from Ohio who lives in Brooklyn. He likes books, boardgames, watches, and his dog. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

ImALeafOnTheWind
ImALeafOnTheWind

Apparently you can get an Asian fab to produce an inexpensive “laptop” that consists of a modest battery, screen, keyboard, touchpad in that classic clamshell case for $200 (and they still make a profit). There have been a few crowd-funded projects like this recently, where you can order that with the expectation that the “guts” can be some other device like this rPi.

I am awaiting delivery of a “lapdock” that essentially allows you to plug in a phone or tablet as the engine to run all your apps, so it extends your mobile device like a mobile docking station that’s in a more portable/single-piece laptop body.

The most viable of these are the Samsung devices, as if it’s supported properly, you instantly get the DeX pseudo-desktop UI on the screen when you attach it to use like a regular laptop. Since iOS has gotten rudimentary mouse support, there are units that will work with your iPad/iPhone to use as a laptop as well - although still limited by iOS if you care about file management.