TechChange has discovered of a security subject and numerous product reliability questions being raised a couple of modular laptop made by a London edtech startup that’s meant for youngsters to study coding and electronics.
The product, known as the pi-top 3, is a Raspberry Pi-powered laptop computer with a keyboard that slides out to entry a rail for breadboarding electronics.
A pupil at a US college needed to be attended by a nurse after touching a element within the gadget which had overheated, leaving them with redness to their finger.
A spokesperson for Cornell Tech confirmed the incident to us — which they mentioned had occurred in June. We’ve withheld the title of the varsity at their request.
In an inside pi-top electronic mail concerning this incident, which we’ve additionally reviewed, it describes the scholar being left with “a very nasty finger burn”.
Cornell Tech’s spokesperson informed us it has stopped utilizing the pi-top 3 — partly in response to this incident but in addition due to wider reliability points with the gadget. They mentioned a few of their grad college students can be engaged on a challenge with the Okay-12 workforce subsequent semester with the goal of making an alternate that’s extra dependable, reasonably priced and protected.
We have additionally been informed of issues about wider reliability points with the pi-top 3 by numerous different sources.
We requested pi-top for touch upon the protection incident at Cornell Tech and for particulars of the way it responded. The firm offered us with an announcement by which it claims: “pi–top incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe.”
“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” it went on. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”
“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” pi-top added.
It shouldn’t be clear what number of pi-top 3 laptops have been offered to colleges at this stage as a result of pi-top doesn’t get away gross sales per product. Instead it offered us with a determine for the overall variety of gadgets offered because it was based in 2014 — saying this quantities to “more than 200,000 devices in 4 years which have been used by more than half a million people”.
pi-top additionally says it has offered merchandise to colleges in 70 international locations, saying “thousands” of faculties have engaged with its merchandise. (The brilliant inexperienced colour of the laptop computer is straightforward to identify in promotional pictures for college STEM packages and summer time camps.)
The London-based DIY {hardware} startup started life round 5 years in the past providing a ‘3D-print it yourself‘ laptop for makers via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform before shifting its focus to the educational market — tapping into the momentum around STEM education that’s seen a plethora of ‘learn to code’ toys unboxed in recent times.
pi-top has raised greater than $20M in VC funding up to now and now sells numerous studying gadgets and plug-in parts meant for faculties to show STEM — all of which construct on the Raspberry Pi microprocessor.
pi-top provides its personal layer of software program to the Pi in addition to {hardware} additions meant to increase the training utility (resembling a speaker for the pi-top 3 and an “inventors kit” with a number of electronics tasks, together with one which lets children construct and program a robotic).
The pi-top 3 — its third gadget — was launched in October 2017, priced between $285-$320 per laptop computer (with or without a Raspberry Pi 3).
The distinctively brilliant inexperienced laptop computer is meant to be used by college students as younger as eight years previous.
Unusual failure mode
In the interior electronic mail discussing the “Cornell failure diagnosis” — which is dated July 16 — pi-top’s head of assist and buyer success, Preya Wylie, conveys the evaluation of its VP of know-how, Wil Bennett, that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard”.
She goes on to specify that the quick would have been brought on by the steel SD-card removing instrument that’s bundled with the product — noting this was “reported to have been somewhere underneath the protoboard at the time”.
“[Bennett] has recreated the same conditions on his bench in China and has seen the pi-top enter similar failure modes, with an electrical short and subsequent overheating,” she writes.
An further complication mentioned within the electronic mail is that the element is designed to remain on always so that the pi-top can reply to the ability button being pressed when the unit is off. Wylie writes that this implies, if shorted, the element stays “very hot” even when the pi-top has been shut down and unplugged — as warmth is generated by the pi-top persevering with to attract energy from the battery.
Only as soon as the battery has totally depleted will the element be capable of calm down.
In the e-mail — which was despatched to pi-top’s founder and CEO Jesse Lozano and COO Paul Callaghan — she goes on to incorporate a listing of 4 “initial recommendations to ensure this does not happen again”, together with that the corporate ought to inform academics to take away the SD-card removing instrument from all pi-top 3 laptops and to take away the SD card themselves reasonably than letting college students do it; in addition to advising academics/customers to show the gadget off if they believe one thing has bought misplaced beneath the protoboard.
Another suggestion listed within the electronic mail is the potential for making a “simple plastic cover to go over the hub” to stop the chance of customers’ fingers coming into contact with sizzling parts.
A ultimate suggestion is a small modification to the board to chop off one of many pins to “greatly reduce the chance of this happening again”.

We requested pi-top to substantiate what steps it has taken to mitigate the chance of pi–high 3 parts overheating and posing a security danger through the identical kind of shorting failure skilled by Cornell Tech — and to substantiate whether or not it has knowledgeable present customers of the chance from this failure mode.
An inside pi-top gross sales doc that we’ve additionally reviewed discusses a ‘back to school’ gross sales marketing campaign — detailing a plan to make use of reductions to “dissolve as much pi-top [3] stock as we can over the next 8 weeks”.
This doc says US faculties can be focused from mid August; UK faculties/educators from early September; and International Schools Groups from early September. It additionally features a technique to go direct to US Private and Charter Schools — on account of “shorter decision making timelines and less seasonal budgets”.
It’s not clear if the doc pre-dates the Cornell incident.
In response to our questions, pi-top informed us it’s now writing to pi-top 3 prospects, suggesting it’s appearing on among the preliminary suggestions set out in Wylie’s July 16 electronic mail after we raised issues.
In an announcement the corporate mentioned: “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it.  We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely.”
In parallel, now we have heard further issues concerning the wider reliability of the pi-top 3 product — along with the shorting incident skilled by Cornell.
One supply, who recognized themselves as a former pi-top worker, informed us that numerous faculties have skilled reliability points with the gadget. One of the colleges named, East Penn School District within the US, confirmed it had skilled issues with the mannequin — telling us it needed to return a complete order of 40 of the pi-top 3 laptops after experiencing “a large volume of issues”.
“We had initially purchased 40 pi-tops for middle level computers classes,” assistant superintendent Laura Witman informed us. “I met one of the owners, Jesse, at a STEM conference. Conceptually the devices had promise, but functionally we experienced a large volume of issues. The company tried to remedy the situation and in the end refunded our monies. I would say it was learning experience for both our district and the company, but I appreciate how they handled things in the end.”
Witman didn’t recall any issues with pi-top 3 parts overheating.
A US-based STEM summer time camp supplier that we additionally contacted to substantiate whether or not it had skilled points with the pi-top 3 — a tool which options prominently in promotional supplies for its program — declined to remark. A spokesman for iD Tech’s program informed us he was not allowed to speak concerning the matter.
A separate supply aware of the pi-top 3 additionally informed us the product has suffered from software program reliability points, together with crashes and utilizing numerous processor energy, in addition to {hardware} issues associated to its battery dropping energy rapidly and/or not charging. This supply, who was talking on situation of anonymity, mentioned they weren’t conscious of any points associated to overheating.
Asked to reply to wider issues concerning the pi-top 3’s reliability, pi-top despatched us this assertion:
pi–high is a rising and dynamic firm creating DIY computing instruments which we imagine can change the world for the higher. In the previous 4 and a half years now we have shipped lots of of 1000’s of merchandise throughout our complete product vary, and pi–high {hardware} and software program have grow to be trusted belongings to academics and college students in school rooms from America to Zimbabwe. pi–high merchandise are laborious at work even in difficult environments such because the UN’s Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.
At the guts of our merchandise is the concept younger makers can get inside our computer systems, find out how they work and construct new and invaluable abilities for the longer term. Part of what makes pi–high particular, and why children who’ve by no means seen inside a pc earlier than assume it’s superior, is that you need to construct it your self straight out of the field after which design, code and make digital methods with it. We name this studying.
The nature of DIY computing and electronics implies that, very sometimes, issues can fail. If they do, pi–high’s modular nature means they are often simply changed. If prospects encounter any points with any of our merchandise our wonderful buyer assist workforce are all the time prepared to assist.
It is essential to say that each one digital methods generate warmth and Raspberry Pi isn’t any exception. However, at pi–high we do the perfect to mitigate due to the cutting-edge design of our {hardware}. Faults on any of our merchandise fall properly beneath accepted thresholds. Although we’re pleased with this truth, this doesn’t make us complacent and we frequently attempt to do issues higher and supply our prospects with world-class merchandise that don’t compromise on security.
Thousands of faculties world wide recognise the incredible advantages the pi–high [3], pi–high CEED, and pi–high [1] brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered gadget. Our new flagship merchandise, the pi–high [4] and our studying platform, pi–high Further, take coding training to the subsequent degree, as a programmable computing module for makers, creators and innovators all over the place. We are pleased with our merchandise and the large advantages they bring about to colleges, college students and makers world wide.
Internal restructuring
We additionally just lately broke the information that pi-top had laid off numerous employees after dropping out on a big training contract. Our sources informed us the corporate is restructuring to implement a brand new technique. pi-top confirmed 12 job cuts at that stage. Our sources recommend extra cuts are pending.
Some notable names departing pi-top’s payroll in latest weeks are its director of studying and analysis, William Rankin — previously a director of studying at Apple — who writes on LinkedIn that he joined pi-top in March 2018 to “develop a constructionist learning framework to support pi-top’s maker computing platform”. Rankin left the enterprise this month, per his LinkedIn profile.
pi-top’s chief training and product officer, Graham Brown-Martin — who joined the enterprise in September 2017, with a remit to steer “learning, product design, brand development and communication strategy” to assist development of its “global education business, community and ecosystem” — additionally exited just lately, leaving final month per his LinkedIn.
In one other change this summer time pi-top appointed a brand new government chairman of its board: Stanley Buchesky, the founding father of a US edtech seed fund who beforehand served within the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US division for training beneath secretary of state, Betsy DeVos.
Buchesky’s fund, which is named The EdTech Fund, mentioned it had made an funding in pi-top final month. The measurement of the funding has not been publicly disclosed.
Buchesky took over the chairman function from pi-top board member and investor Eric Wilkinson: A associate at its Series A investor, Hambro Perks. Wilkinson stays on the pi-top board however not as exec chairman.
The job cuts and restructuring may very well be meant to organize pi-top for a commerce sale to a different STEM gadget maker, in accordance with considered one of our sources.
Meanwhile pi-top’s newest gadget, the pi-top 4, represents one thing of a bodily restructuring of its core edtech computing proposition which appears to be like meant to increase the suggestive utility it presents academics through a number of modular use-cases — from constructing drones and wheeled robots to enabling sensor-based IoT tasks which may test science studying standards, all powered by pi-top’s encased Raspberry Pi 4.
Out of the field, the pi-top 4 is a pc in a field, not a standalone laptop computer. (Though pi-top does plan to promote a spread of equipment enabling it’s plugged in to energy a touchscreen pill or a laptop computer, and extra.)

pi-top is within the means of bringing the pi-top 4 to market after elevating nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter from greater than 500 backers. Early backers have been informed to count on it to ship in November.
While pi-top’s predecessor product is caught with the compute energy of the last-gen Raspberry Pi 3 (the pi-top 3 can’t be upgraded to the Raspberry Pi 4), the pi-top 4 could have the extra highly effective Pi 4 as its engine.
However the latter has encountered some warmth administration problems with its personal.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation just lately put out a firmware replace that’s meant to scale back the microprocessor’s working temperature after customers had complained it ran sizzling.
Asked whether or not the Foundation has any recommendation on encasing the Raspberry Pi 4, in gentle of the warmth subject, founder Eben Upton informed us: “Putting the Pi in a case will tend to cause it to idle at a higher temperature than if it is left in the open. This means there’s less temperature ‘in reserve’, so the Pi will throttle more quickly during a period of sustained high-intensity operation.”
“In general, the advice is to choose a case which is appropriate to your use case, and to update firmware frequently to benefit from improvements to idle power consumption as they come through,” he added.
TechChange’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report

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