The best Raspberry Pi accessories and alternatives for 2021
Looking for the perfect gift for the maker or tinkerer in your life? These ideas go great with robotics, sensing, IoT computing and more.
I doubt everyone will agree with me, but I think the Raspberry Pi is one of the most important computing devices in recent years. These pocket-sized, open-source and dirt-cheap computers have made tinkering and prototyping new products easier than ever before, opening the world of computing to people everywhere.
Adults and children alike can benefit from tinkering with a Raspberry Pi—there are countless things to learn, tons of hardware with exciting features to add to your Pi and a list of projects only limited by one’s imagination.
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Imagination and reality are very separate beasts, and sometimes getting started with a new Raspberry Pi can be daunting, as can coming up with new Pi projects for more advanced users. This list is designed to help remedy that. In it you’ll find new possible products and Pi add-ons that can help you get started as well as move on to more advanced stuff.
Your Raspberry Pi needs a screen
I ordered my first Raspberry Pi without a screen, thinking that I’d be content to just remote in to view my desktop or send commands. Once I started building dashboards and programming sensors to collect data I realized I wanted to see what my Pi was doing without needing a separate computer, so I needed a display.
You have options when it comes to screens for Raspberry Pi, and I’d recommend two essential elements for a good Raspberry Pi display: Touch capability and hardware buttons. The buttons can be programmed to do anything you want, like launch a certain app, display an on-screen keyboard or anything else you may need it to do that you’re able to write code for.
Your Raspberry Pi also needs a case
The Raspberry Pi is sold without any housing, so if you plan for your unit to be anywhere but in a safe, static-free environment it’s important to protect it. There are a lot of cases to choose from, and some may not fit your project, particularly if you plan to attach external components.
Options include a case specifically for the 7″ touchscreen featured above, ones for older Pi models and an official one for the Pi 4. Other cases, like ones that allow access to the GPIO and POE pins, can be found as well.
Robotics projects will require a servo hat
Hats, or Hardware Attached on Top, are add-on boards that attach to a Raspberry Pi via its 40-pin general purpose input-output (GPIO) port. They come in a variety of flavors to suit specific purposes, and in this case the hat in question is for controlling servos, something that a regular Raspberry Pi struggles with.
If you’re planning to do a robotics project, or anything else related to motion control, you’ll need one of these 16-channel PWM/Servo hats, as well as a 5V power supply, which isn’t included.
Specially-designed projects require good prototyping
Adafruit sells another hat that is an absolute necessity for anyone planning to experiment with building their own circuits, bits or boards: A permanent prototyping board that attaches directly to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO port.
The perma-proto hat has to be soldered directly to your Pi’s GPIO, so be sure you’re prepared for that added bit of work. Once attached, you can continue to solder to your heart’s content and build fantastic things. Here’s a tip: If you want one, you can save a few bucks by keeping an eye on Adafruit’s freebie offers, where they’ll often throw in one of these (that’s how I got mine) once you buy a certain amount of stuff, which is very easy to do.
Get some STEMMA stuff
I got into tinkering with Raspberry Pis because I love physical computing, especially environmental sensors. I’ve purchased a bunch: A GPS sensor, gas sensor, magnetometer, UV sensor and more, and I made sure all of them came with a certain type of connector that makes building simple projects and conducting experiments a snap: STEMMA QT ports.
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STEMMA, and it’s tinier STEMMA QT counterpart, is a whole category of plug-and-play devices that uses grove-compatible connectors, and has built-in voltage regulators to prevent accidents or damage to your hardware. I highly recommend STEMMA sensors and components for Raspberry Pi tinkerers, especially those who are new to programming and circuitry. They eliminate the need to solder, thus saving time for the more exciting process of writing code and getting your sensors to work.
Go wireless with Bluetooth
One of the drawbacks of having a Raspberry Pi unit is controlling it: You either have to find a way to attach external hardware, include a small touch display or remote in. Any of those options can be inconvenient at the best of times, which is why adding Bluetooth capabilities to your Pi project can be so beneficial.
Adafruit’s Bluefruit low energy module is what you need if you want Bluetooth on your Pi, and it comes with some neat features, like an iOS and Android app from Adafruit that makes interfacing with the BLE module a snap. Other functionality is possible as well, like using the BLE to turn a Pi into a heart rate monitor.
The Seeed Wio terminal: A perfect not-Pi
The miniscule Seeed Wio terminal is a tiny little screen with a built-in Arduino, as well as a joystick, three programmable buttons, two multi-function Grove ports and a 40-pin GPIO port for attaching it to a Raspberry Pi, or Wio modules like the 650 mAh battery.
While not a Raspberry Pi, I’ve read reviews that describe it as “the last microcontroller you’ll ever own,” and with good reason: It supports Circuit Python, so you don’t even need to know how to code for an Arduino to use it. I’ll comfortably say the exact same thing: It’s the only microcontroller I’ll every buy.
I own one, and the battery pack, and it now acts as my primary device for my STEMMA sensors and other experiments I run that require a small, standalone device that can easily take my code and run it without issue. One thing to note, though: The Wio doesn’t support an operating system like a Raspberry Pi. It will simply run the Arduino or Circuit Python code you drop on it, meaning it’s not a full-fledged computer. If you’re looking for a piece of hardware that will simply run a Python script or log data from sensors, this lite guy is perfect.
Get yourself some spare wires
If you’re going to be playing around with a Raspberry Pi or one of its relatives like the Seeed Wio, and any peripherals, you’re going to need some extra wires. The more you buy the fewer you’ll need when you’re in the middle of a project, so don’t hesitate to buy in bulk.
A pack like this 120-count of one-pin breadboard wires will do the trick; you can even separate individual wires and splice them onto Grove connectors or other attachment points if needed (I’ve done it). This pack also comes in three varieties for all your needs: Male-male, male-female, and female-female.
You need batteries if that Raspberry Pi is going to move
Some Pi projects are simple: You assemble the hardware, deploy the code, test, set up and forget. In other cases that’s not possible: You may need a Pi that can be remotely deployed or that is portable. For that you’ll need a battery.
Lots of different battery power supplies are available for the Raspberry Pi, and something good about them: They’re cheap. With price not a big issue, why not go for a 6,600 mAh battery that’ll last for a good long while? Your project, however remote it may be, will thank you.
You need a Raspberry Pi recipe book
Baking a good Pi(e) isn’t really possible without a solid cookbook, which is where O’Reilly’s Raspberry Pi Cookbook by Simon Monk comes in. It’s more than 400 pages of tips, tutorials, projects and fundamentals that are great for a Pi beginner all the way up to an expert in need of a handy reference book.
The Pi Cookbook also comes with a sizable section on coding with Python that starts with the basics, making it a real one-stop reference shop for Raspberry Pi enthusiasts.