What Is the Best Raspberry Pi for Emulation?

There are a lot of different Raspberry Pi models out there. A. Lot. So many so, it’s easy to get lost and bogged down in numbers. Thankfully, to answer what is the best Raspberry Pi for emulation, the process is fairly straightforward, and only really comes down to the choice of two models.

Feel free to fist pump. Yes, it’s that easy.

A Brief History of Raspberry Pi Models

Before we break down our choices, it’s worth taking a look at some of the major boards out there to understand just how far Raspberry Pi has come in terms of power and what the pocket-sized device is capable of.

Granted the Raspberry Pi isn’t going to rival the likes of the Aya Neo Air, but then it doesn’t need to either. So long as it can do what most need it to, that’s all that matters.

Raspberry Pi Model B – February 2012

The first Raspberry released back in 2012 and utilised ARM11 processing technology. Praised for its affordability and credit-card-sized board, the Raspberry Pi offered computing at a low price point.

Raspberry Pi 2 – February 2015

With a revised board, the Raspberry Pi 2 boasts a 900 MHz, 32-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor backed by 1GB of RAM. A later revision to this board boosted its power further, featuring a 900 MHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 processor. This upgrade put the Pi 2 almost on par with the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, albeit with a fixed clocking of 900 MHz in place.

Raspberry Pi Zero – November 2015

Retailing for just $5, what the Rasberry Pi Zero lacks in raw power, it makes up for in cost. While the 1 GHz single-core CPU and 512 MB of RAM isn’t the best option for emulation, if you’re after a cheap PC system for work, the Pi Zero has its place.

Raspberry Pi Zero W – February 2017

Still keeping things small, the Raspberry Pi Zero W throws in 802.11 wireless LAN, Bluetooth 4.1, Bluetooth Low Energy along with a 1GHz, single-core CPU and 512MB RAM.

The inclusion of stable Bluetooth opens up this device to a selection of different retro gaming options – specifically the option to use Bluetooth controllers, which is a must for anyone looking to turn a Raspberry Pi into a retro gaming device.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B – February 2016

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is where things get real for those who love to tinker. Sporting a 2GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 processor, 1GB of RAM, as well as 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB boot capabilities, this was the Raspberry Pi of choice for emulation for a time. While the 1GB of RAM was limiting, the extra processing power opened up the path for the full-speed emulation of certain older systems.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+2018

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B was a success, but could it be even more powerful? In short, you bet it can.

Moving to the faster 1.4 GHz processor, the Raspberry Pi Model B+ also comes equipped with a three-times faster gigabit Ethernet, and gives users the option to boot over USB as well as the standard memory card boot method. More options, more power, more emulation.

RetroPie Front End

Pictured: RetroPie Front-end in action

Raspberry Pi 4 Model B – June 2019

To put it simply, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B is a powerhouse. If it’s pure power you’re after, start here.

At just a few years old, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B offers up a powerful 1.5 GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A72 processor, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, and can come equipped with a different amount of RAM depending on your budget – 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB.

The Raspberry Pi 4 also saw improvements in the power department, namely offering up a way to make it reduce how much power it consumes compared with other micro PCs.

Whether it’s Sonic, Mario, or retro Star Wars games, all those older systems will run like a dream on the Pi 4.

Raspberry Pi 400 – November 2020

The Raspberry Pi 400 takes the Pi 4 and turns it into a full plug-and-play Linux PC.

Encased in a keyboard, the Pi 400 is designed for people who want a working PC but don’t want to fuss around working out what accessories they also need to get it up and running.

It’s also worth noting the Pi 400 makes use of an upgraded switched-mode power supply, which in turn allows it to be overclocked at 1.8 GHz, making it around 20 percent faster than the original Pi 4. It also comes equipped with a fixed 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM.

Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 – October 2020

What is the biggest issue with the Raspberry Pi 4? While that board offers up a metric tonne of power, its chunkier design means case options were limiting. Casing the board isn’t an issue, but converting the Pi 4 into a portable gaming system became difficult. Enter the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4.

The Compute Module 4 offers up the power of the Pi 4 with the form factor of the original Pi.

On this board you’ll find the Broadcom BCM2711 quad-core Cortex-A72 64-bit processor at 1.5GHz with LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM depending on what you want it for – 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB.

There is a trade-off, however, in that you lose what makes the Pi 4 so chunky. The Compute Model 4 lacks USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi options, though you can pick up a fully-certified radio module to add in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality or go ahead and grab a Compute Module 4 IO Board.

Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W – 28 October 2021

What happens when you combine the power of the Rasberry Pi 3 with the form factor of the Pi Zero? That’s where the Pi Zero 2 W sits. On this board you’ll find a 1GHz quad-core 64-bit Arm Cortex-A53 CPU backed by 512MB of SDRAM alongside 2.4GHz 802.11 wireless LAN, Bluetooth 4.2, an onboard antenna, as well as a mini HDMI and micro USB port.

What Is the Best Raspberry Pi for Emulation?

Raspberry Pi Model 4 B

So, now we know what each Raspberry Pi is capable of, we need to think in terms of power and portability. Technically, any Raspberry Pi can run emulators, but power is going to decide what emulators it can run.

There’s also a load of variables in play, but we’re going to keep it simple. The Raspberry Pi 3, for example, is a great emulation machine, but given its age and price, there’s very little reason to recommend it over the Raspberry Pi 4.

With that in mind, we’ll be focusing on two Raspberry Pi models for emulation: The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B and the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4. 

Reasons for the Choices

Packing in a powerful processor and enough RAM to emulate the harder systems are the only two factors we really need to consider. With the Pi 4 Model B, we’ve got a 1.5 GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A72 processor and either 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB of RAM.

Conversely, with the Compute Model 4, we’re also working with the quad-core Cortex-A72 at 1.5GHz alongside either 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB of RAM.

In short, we’re talking very similar specs but two distinct boards depending on what you want it for.

Raspberry Pi 4 Model B

If you’re building a home console that’s only going to be played hooked up to a TV, then the Raspberry PI 4 Model B is the best to go with. Not only will this device offer USB support for controllers, it’ll also be Internet-ready. The only real downside here is the Pi 4 Model B isn’t very transferrable. That said, this is the easier route for those not overly familiar with Linux systems who want something they can understand with minimal instructions.

Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4

We know the Compute Model 4 matches the Pi 4 in terms of what’s possible. So what makes it worth considering as an alternative?

Even though the Compute Module 4 lacks input sockets (USB, Ethernet, wi-fi, Bluetooth), the slimmer design means it’s easier to fit inside different types of cases. If, for example, you wanted to create a Game Boy capable of playing SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive games, fitting a Pi 4 Model B inside a RetroFlag case is going to be near impossible. And if you do pick up a handheld-style case for the Pi 4 Model B, it’s going to be massive. With the Compute Module 4, the thinness means the board won’t ruin the case’s aesthetic.

Plus if you are opting for something like a RetroFlag GPi Case 2, you won’t need Bluetooth communication as the case includes all the buttons you need, negating the need for wireless controllers.

Two Things to Consider

Raspberry Pi 4 Compute and IO Board

Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 and the IO Board

Now we’ve got the easy stuff out the way, it’s time to break down the jargon and get into the important stuff.

If you plan on using the Compute Module 4 on a TV at any point, you’ll need the corresponding Compute Module 4 IO Board to plug it into. On its own, the Compute Module 4 doesn’t do anything and needs something to plug into.

If you’re picking up a RetroFlag GPi Case 2, you don’t need the extra IO Board as the case will include what’s needed for it to work. That isn’t always the case with other cases, though, so be sure to read the product’s instructions to fully grasp what it is and isn’t you’re buying.

I’d also add that when it comes to selecting RAM, 8GB is overkill. Emulation is a battle between the CPU and RAM – when one becomes stronger than the other, the other limits what the former can do. For that reason, 8GB isn’t really needed for emulation with these boards. Sure, more is always better, but a 4GB board is more than enough for what we need.

What Systems Can the Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 Emulate?

With similar specs, what works for one should work for the other. Of course, emulator compatibility isn’t guaranteed across the board, and different emulators will yield different results.

In terms of what’s possible, both the Raspberry Pi 4 and the Compute Module 4 can run up to SNES without any issues. N64, PS1, and Dreamcast can be played on both Rasberry Pi models, but again, some games will perform better than others.

Personally, I’ve had the most success with RetroPie, but it is worth trying out the different operating systems and seeing which suits you best. RetroPie, for me, feels the most stable and yields the best emulation overall.

Systems a Retro Raspberry Pi Can Emulate

  • NES
  • SNES
  • Master System
  • Genesis/Mega Drive
  • N64
  • Dreamcast
  • PS1
  • MAME

In Conclusion

Choice Selection

As I say, it all comes down to what you want the Raspberry Pi for. If you’re planning on leaving it hooked up to a TV or monitor and nothing else, the Rasberry Pi 4 is the easiest to set up and requires the least hassle to understand what it is.

If, however, you want to use it on your TV and/or in a handheld, the Raspberry Compute Module 4 is the way to go. Just keep in mind, you will need an extra board for TV usage, and in handheld form, the cost is going to end up higher than just the Pi 4 and a generic case.

In Short

Q: I want to play retro games on my TV

A: Buy a Rasberry Pi 4 Model B

Q: I want to build a handheld console that could one day work on a TV

A: Buy the Rasberry Pi Compute Module 4

What Do You Need to Buy?

Depending on which route you go will change what you need to grab. I know, it’s complex, but you’re nearly done.

If you go the Rasberry Pi 4 Model B route you need the following:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 with at least 4GB of RAM
  • Micro SD Card (32GB recommended)
  • Raspberry Pi 4 Case
  • Micro-HDMI Cable
  • USB-C Raspberry Pi Power Supply
  • Fan/Heatsink (optional)

And if you go with Rasberry Pi Compute Model 4, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 with at least 4GB of RAM
  • RetroFlag GPi Case 2 (Recommended for ease)
  • Micro SD Card (32GB recommended)
  • Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 IO Board (if using on a TV)
  • Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 Case (if using on a TV)
  • Micro-HDMI Cable (if using on a TV)
  • USB-C Raspberry Pi Power Supply (if using on a TV)
  • Fan/Heatsink (optional / if using on a TV)

And that’s it. Hopefully now you’ve got a better idea of what it is you’re doing and what it is you need. Also remember, there are plenty of guides online for getting up and running should you run into any issues. Any issues you have, someone else will have solved, thankfully.

Wesley Copeland
Wesley Copeland

Wesley Copeland is a gaming, tech, and toys journalist with over 10 years of experience writing online. Originally starting in video games before specializing in tech and toys, you can find his bylines at IGN, VG24/7, Kotaku, Tech Radar, Games Radar, PC Gamer, Heavy, and many more. He's also highly passionate about how tech can be used to better our day-to-day lives.