Raspberry Pi. Does the ultra-affordable Linux computer live up to its promise?

Raspberry Pi
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on July 3, 2012
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Raspberry Pi

Some months ago, the Raspberry Pi Foundation was born – with the aim of creating a $25 PC aimed at education and hobbyists. After some minor technical issues, and a whole lot more demand than the foundation had anticipated, the Raspberry Pi computers are now being sent out to those fortunate enough to have pre-ordered earlier this year.

The Hardware

Initially only the Model B variant is available, this has a couple of additions over the Model A – Notably 2 USB ports rather than 1, plus an Ethernet port. There’s also an extra $10 cost, so $35 for the Model B.

So here are the specs of this $35 PC…

  • ARM11 CPU @700MHz
  • Videocore 4 GPU (OpenGL ES 2.0 & HD video playback)
  • 256MB RAM
  • 2x USB ports
  • SDHC card reader
  • Wired LAN (WiFi can be added via USB)
  • HDMI & composite video-out

So, how are they able to sell this computer for $35?…

It’s important to not what you don’t get:

  • A power supply (It will power up from most Micro USB phone chargers)
  • Storage (No hard drive, no on-board flash. You’ll need an SD card to download Linux onto)
  • A Case (That’s right, there’s no casing supplied, just a circuit board)

You’ll also need to supply your own keyboard, mouse, HDMI and Ethernet cables.

Raspberry Pi Desktop

The Software

As there’s no on-board storage, the first stop for any new Raspberry Pi owner will be www.raspberrypi.org, to download the Debian Linux OS onto an SD card. Once that’s done, and you’ve grabbed the necessary cables and accessories you’ll be ready to power on. (Assuming you’re comfortable using the Pi without a case, otherwise, get creative and build yourself a case first).

The Pi takes a couple of minutes to boot (a little longer the first time), and when it’s done you’re presented with a text-based login screen, once you’ve logged in you’ll be at the command prompt, where you can type ‘startx’ to enter the graphical desktop environment.

Once at the desktop there’s a bunch of pre-installed software to explore, including a Python IDE for developers, some essential utilities such as a file manager, archive utility, music player, and image viewer, plus some other educational software. There’s also a web browser. As a web-enabled computer this device is quite capable, and at $35 you’d struggle to find a cheaper device that could get you online for light web browsing or emailing.

After playing with the pre-installed apps for a while, I wanted to install some additional software. There’s no app store here – installing software requires launching the Terminal and installing software via the command line. A single command apt-get install icedove installed the Icedove email client (an unbranded version of Mozilla Thunderbird).

If you’re completely unfamiliar with Linux or Unix commands then you may need to do a little research before you’re able to get the most out of your Pi, but I don’t think it was ever intended that this be a consumer–friendly device. I’m not a Linux guru by any means, but with a little research I was able to make some basic changes – for example, setting the Pi to login and load the desktop environment automatically on boot – which involved editing a couple of configuration files.

Verdict

It’s not a high-powered gaming device, and it can feel a little sluggish at times, especially when launching software. It’s not a rival to other small computers such as Apple’s Mac mini, it’s in a pretty unique market of its own. But after a few hours with the Raspberry Pi, I’m… impressed. Impressed with how small it is, impressed that it is fan-less so runs completely silent, impressed that a desktop PC experience can be powered from a 5v Mini USB cable, but most of all, impressed that I got this for such a tiny cost, about £29 including delivery …and that included a free T-Shirt too.

Link: www.raspberrypi.org

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