A tiny computer the size of a business card
IF any gadget has excited us this year, it is the $35 Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer the size of a business card that’s powerful enough to stream HD video.
ince the Raspberry arrived in the office, it has been a source of wonder, bewilderment and excitement to passersby.
It’s not that the Pi needs media reviews to be noticed. When orders opened on leap day, February 29 this year, Pis were selling like hot cakes. They were at one stage being pre-ordered at the rate of 700 per second. By mid-last month, distributors RS Components and Element14 between them had received more than 350,000 pre-orders and it is understood 10,000 Pis had been shipped, so there’s a huge backlog.
Before ordering even began, a handful of Pi boards were auctioned on eBay in January for enthusiasts, with one $35 board selling for $1586.
The UK-developed Pi is the brainchild of Eben Upton, Technical Director, Broadcom, and formerly of IBM and Intel, and David Braben, the programmer who wrote Elite, a space-trading computer game. It is their mission that British kids have an affordable device capable of teaching them computer science and the guts of what happens inside a computer, but the rest of the world is cashing in.
It is also an attempt at countering concern about emerging generations of children who are just consumers of apps on PCs, phones and tablet computers, and who are hooked on social networking and gaming, with no knowledge of computing. It is a return to the 1960s and early 1970s in Australia where students learnt computer programming using the Minitran and Miditran languages using punch cards they perforated with paper clips.
Hardware-wise, the Pi has a 700 Megahertz ARM 11 chip with 256MB of onboard memory. Its secret is its “system on a chip”. It combines the processor, graphics processor, digital signal processor and memory in one tiny Piece of hardware.
The Pi manages a phenomenal number of connections for its size. Our Model B Pi has an Ethernet port, full-sized HDMI and RCA video connectors, 2 USB ports nominally for a keyboard and mouse, a digital stereo socket for a headset or powered speakers, a MicroUSB port for a power-connector, and a slot underneath for a full-sized SD card. There’s a GPiO connector on top for driving LED lights, but the power output would need to be tiny.
For $25, you can buy the cheaper Model A which has one USB port instead of two, and no Ethernet internet connector, but we don’t see the point of Model A unless this $10 saving is absolutely necessary or you’re using the Pi for a specialised purpose, where the internet is not needed.
If you haven’t a spare HDMI cable, headset, keyboard, mouse or display, you will be up for extra money to make the necessary connections to the Pi. I scrounged most of these from our offices and used an Apple 5 volt phone charger with a standard micro USB cable for the power supply. Input current needs to be at least 700 milliamps, so the 1 ampere iPhone charger was ideal.
Be careful to check the phone charger as some are more than 5 volts, even new iPad ones. Fried Raspberry Pi is not my favourite dish. We did, however, add a powered USB hub, so we could connect not only a keyboard and mouse, but flash drives with video and music files we wanted to stream.
The SD card you attach underneath is the system’s hard-drive and contains the operating system. The Pi runs adapted strains of Linux, rather than Microsoft Windows or Apple’s iOS. The Raspberry Pi Foundation through its distributors will eventually sell these SD cards with the operating system installed, so you’ll insert the SD card, power up the Pi, and be away. But in these pioneering days it is a do-it-yourself job.
For early adapters out there, we’ll include online some links to help you create the SD card operating system, but it’s straight forward enough. You download the OS, and write the image to the card using a downloadable program for this purpose.
We tested the Pi using two operating system images we created with 16GB SD cards. One was a Debian Squeeze image, the other an early Pi implementation of XBMC, which is a media centre capable of streaming video and music stored on the internet, or media on a connected drive. Linux Fedora, however, is expected to be the mainstay of the Pi.
This pioneering phase means you have to tinker with the Pi to get it going. That means using Linux console commands to set the locale/time-zone, to change the default UK keyboard to US UTF format so that characters such as @ and ” are in the right place, and re-partitioning the SD card so that it uses all 16GBs are used, rather than 1 GB for your files.
Needless to say, the Pi isn’t a system for one’s grandmother, unless she is capable of entering console commands such as “sudo dpkg-reconfigure tzdata”. I don’t know a Granny who can.
Configuring the Pi is in the realm of Geekdom, but that may change in time as online enthusiasm for software development around the Pi matches its hardware sales. It’s a matter of time.
Let’s now deal with what the Pi isn’t. It is not a $35 replacement for an office desktop computer, so for back-to-the-wall company accountants reading this and fantasising about replacing row upon row of office PCs with $35 Pis — well, it’s time to take a nice cool shower.
We did fire up the Pi’s graphic user interface and surf the net using the supplied Midori web browser, but we didn’t have Flash and with a limited 256 MB of memory (shared with the graphics processor) we weren’t wanting to run Java.
But we managed to surf the web, and even open Gmail, although only using the basic HTML view. Other Google functions such as Google Drive didn’t load. There doesn’t seem a ready-made offering of cloud applications you can run with the Pi — yet. However, we did download AbiWord, a lightweight word processor, prepare documents, and email them using our Gmail in the browser. No doubt with time there’ll be a distro that offers capable basic office applications, but not now.
Office work though is probably the least imaginative thing you can do with the Pi, and our second SD card with the XBMC media centre loaded, showed why.
Despite XMBC being an early alpha-implementation, we were able to watch MP4 and AVI video and listen to MP3 and M4A audio, although we did have to manually mount the USB flash drive in Linux to make it work. But the video experience was fine and there was no stuttering, as the native media player, OMXplayer, uses hardware acceleration. It does, however, play only a few codecs.
Long-term, we see the Pi as outrageously popular not only among enthusiasts but schools also. At $35 each, a classroom of 20 can be outfitted with Pis for the cost of a tablet computer, although the 20 HDMI monitors they use will cost lots more.
A few critics say that by loading virtual machine software, schools can achieve what the Pi offers on existing PC systems, and there’s no need to buy extra hardware, but it’s hard to argue against a child curating their own Raspberry Pi like a Tamagotchi.
The other big group of users will be those who adapt the Raspberry Pi to a bevy of home and maybe industrial uses. There are projects online under way to develop software so that a Pi can control a home-monitoring and energy system, operate as a computer in a car or boat, remotely control a coffee machine, act as a cheap stand-alone internet radio or bit torrent media downloader, or be the brain of a mobile robot.
Some kids and adults alike will either build these systems or make use of completed open-source code versions of them that eventually will be available online with little extra work involved. At $35 each, we all can afford a slice of Raspberry Pi.
COST: $35 (or $25 for Model A)
Getting started & configuring the keyboard/time zone
XBMC media centre distribution