pi-top - DIY Kit Failed to Impress or Function

The pi-top is a DIY lap-top kit that is meant to be used with a card-computer, such as a Raspberry-Pi.  Once assembled, you should have a function lap-top boasting a 13.3" HD display and the boasting rights of "I built this."

The kit consists largely of a 3D-printed case which comes in three major components:  the laptop top, the base chassis, and the base-top.  The laptop top contains the monitor - I was mildly disappointed that the monitor came pre-installed as I had planned to also install a web-cam into the case prior to installing the monitor.  The base-top contains the keyboard and mouse-pad, also pre-installed.   The base-chassis contains the shielded battery along with admonishments to treat the batter with caution.

The other main component is the "hub", a PCB which handles the interfacing for the laptop components (battery, monitor, and power) to your computer.  The kit also comes with an 8Gb SanDisk micro-SD card and card reader, and a power supply, the necessary cables, a bag of screws and two allen-wrenches, and a booklet instruction-manual.

I also purchased a Raspberry-Pi 3, from Adafruit, along with the pi-top.  Total on the invoice came to just under $320 for both components, shipping and handling.   Shipping was prompt and the unit arrived intact albeit slightly dented on a corner.

I opened and pulled all the materials out of the box and checked them off against the component list with the documentation.  Wait... where're the cables?

The pi-top is packed in a large box, layered with custom-cut foam trays that hold the various pieces of the kit.  In one of the foam layers I found a cut-out section that had been taped down.  Pulling back the tape revealed the missing cables.  There's nothing in the instruction manual to indicate where the cables were hidden, however.  A slight oversight that could end-up generating calls to support.

Assembly was fairly quick and easy.  As I was putting the laptop together, there were a couple of issues I experienced.  In the case-top, there's a connector wire that attaches to the hub.  The connector as some sort of tape that wraps around the connector top (where the wire feeds in) that's really flimsy.   During assembly, one end pulled away from the connector and made me question the subsequent reliability of the video.

Inserting the hub also requires inserting the tab-based connector into the battery connection and then using one the supplied nuts to tighten the hub to the battery.  Pay attention to this step as it may come-back later to haunt you.

It took me about 30 minutes to fully assembly the pi-top and plug it in.  I first booted off the pi-top OS card that came with the unit before switching to a Raspbian card.

The Fails

Fails started manifesting as soon as I turned on the unit.  The right side of the screen displayed black-scan lines randomly, flashing for a few milliseconds, up and down the height of the display, starting at the exact center of the screen and going all the way to the right.

Granted, the desk-top background for the pi-top OS is pretty vile and I thought that perhaps rendering the image might be causing the bad scan lines.  Through trial-and-error, I noticed that the scan line glitch frequency increased in severity when I used darker backgrounds.

OK... so lighter backgrounds until I can get it sussed out.  

Next I checked the battery monitor and found... no battery.  None, as reported by the OS.  To test, I unplugged the power-supply and the unit immediately turned off.   I attempted to toggle the power on but got nothing.

There's a very long (over 10 pages as of today) forum thread about the battery issue that was started six freaking months ago by users.  There's an admin post which provides a "solution" involving running a shell script "about 20 times" to, I guess, jolt the battery awake.  How Republican.  One user reported running the script in an endless loop for over two-and-a-half hours before the script reported a success.  And then the battery still didn't work.

I filed two support tickets, one for the screen and the other for the battery, browsed the forum a little longer and then went over to my email inbox to check for the "Thanks, we've received your support request and...".


Ok - maybe pi-top doesn't have automated support email bots.

A day goes by.  No response.  Forum reports accumulate.

Another day goes by.  Forum reports (battery) continue to accumulate.  No response from pi-top.

Another day goes by.  I email pi-top support directly, copy adafruit (who had previously told me that the vendor assured them that they (pi-top) would handle direct-support.  In my email I referenced the adafruit forum thread, and their own forum thread, as well as links to two cases I'd opened.

They created a new ticket off the email but, as of today, five days later, I've yet to hear anything back from them.

I've tried all the recommended work-arounds, and fixed but have had zero luck.  Today, since I've still not heard a single word from pi-top, I disassembled the unit and re-packaged it.  I'll contact Adafruit for an RMA tomorrow.

I'm deeply disappointed in any company that provides a DIY product with zero support.  The entire point of tacking a DIY project to to learn-by-doing.  The sparse manual, the lack of response from the company either directly or indirectly, simply tells me that further time investment in getting the issues (I never progressed to the screen issue!) resolved will be pointless.  

If pi-top, the company, doesn't care about it's product quality enough to provide a minimal response to it's customers, then why should I care about their product?  (YSK that contacting them via Twitter was also a black-hole of non-response.)

I'm glad they've got such a strong success with their products - they seem to be doing well.  However, someone needs to buy a clue with respect to customer service and support.  Word-of-mouth can be quite detrimental to a young company regardless of how cool their product line-up may be.  I'd be willing to pay a little bit more for this product if the company used better components.  (Such as a decent battery, and component end-connectors.)

In short, the current advice is to stay far, far away from this, and their other products, until such time they get the QA and customer-support in-place and functional.