The Story of the HatDrive! - World’s First PCIe Board for the Pi 5

The Story of the HatDrive! - World’s First PCIe Board for the Pi 5

This journey began in early October 2023 with the launch of the Raspberry Pi 5—the first Pi model to expose a PCI Express connector through a 16-pin connector. This situation was unique as there were no official accessories available at launch, and the specifications for the connector (footprint, pinout) and the FFC cable were not yet public. Recognizing this opportunity, we founded Pineberry, a company specializing exclusively in Pi 5 add-on boards.

Engineering the First Market-Ready Boards

The breakthrough came when Jeff Geerling featured a prototype evaluation board from Raspberry Pi with a PCIe slot in his Pi 5 review.

A still from Jeff's video (Raspberry Pi 5: EVERYTHING you need to know) provided enough information for Mirek, co-founder and CTO, to reverse-engineer the connector pinout. Jeff's insights also highlighted the necessity for our own impedance-controlled ribbon cable to enable Gen 3 speeds. Though our initial prototypes performed flawlessly under perfect conditions, comprehensive testing was crucial before we could confidently release our products.

Some devices, like the Coral Edge TPU, require our custom cables. Initially, without access to a Pi 5 for testing, we designed various cable lengths. The first batch of short cables for the HatDrive! Top was problematic—they were too short.

On October 25, 2023, we obtained our first Pi 5 and immediately began testing our sample boards. Success was immediate, including booting from NVMe, though this required a bootloader update due to early firmware issues in the first Pi 5 batches.


From Prototypes to Production


By the next day, we had sent samples to reviewers and were preparing for a December launch. However, plans accelerated when Jeff released a video on NVMe in mid-November (FINALLY! NVMe SSDs on the Raspberry Pi). We quickly set up our store, opened for preorders, and the HatDrive! went viral. We managed to finalize our production arrangements in time, despite the high stress and tight deadlines.

(First snapshot of our website on launch day - 15.11.2023)


Production was challenging. Elon Musk once remarked, "Production is hard, prototypes are easy," and we experienced this firsthand. We rejected the first batch of PCB panels due to quality issues and had to switch vendors just two weeks before the scheduled PCB assembly. There were countless issues with the quality of the silkscreen and the solder mask that were unacceptable.

We were had a very detailed technology card and it ended up saving the entire project. This meticulous attention to detail allowed us to recoup costs quickly.

Despite these challenges, we shipped over 3,000 packages by December 21, with the remainder sent in early January. On our busiest day, we packed over 600 packages!

Constant improvements and looking ahead

Our product designs have undergone several revisions. Fortunately, our initial reverse-engineering efforts were consistent with the official HAT+/PIP specifications released by Raspberry Pi in December. Since then, the only significant hardware update to the HatDrive! has been the addition of power management support, introduced in later firmware updates.

(difference between 1st and 2nd HatDrive! Top revision)

The last few months have been transformative for our small team, but we’re not stopping here. Our lineup is expanding, and we’re excited about the possibilities. We are especially happy about the recent launch of HatBRICK! Commander - it enables versatile combinations of PCIe peripherals, catering to both enthusiasts and industrial users. Applications like this used to require a custom carrier board and the R&D process for them is expensive.

(HatBRICK! Commander combined with our HatNET! 2.5G and a SATA board from Radxa, "The ULTIMATE Raspberry Pi 5 NAS" by Jeff Geerling)

We are immensely grateful to our first customers for their patience with preorders and to our families for their support during challenging times. Starting a hardware company is very tough, there were moments where we thought we wouldn't survive.

We also extend our thanks to the press, particularly Jeff Geerling, André Costa, Les Pounder, Bret Weber, Christopher Barnatt and others who covered our initial launch, for helping us reach a wider audience. Lastly, we appreciate the Raspberry Pi team for setting a stellar example and enabling companies like ours to enhance the ecosystem.

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