I’ve been having great fun tinkering with the Raspberry Pi the last couple of weeks.
For those who haven’t heard of this little computer (and there can’t be many who haven’t as it has had so much press lately) it is a tiny (smaller than an iPhone) PC powered by an ARM CPU and Videocore 4 GPU system on a chip (SoC) and you can get one for about £30.
It’s an impressive little thing that already has a dedicated fan base and community growing around it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is the charity responsible for it’s design and creation with the intention that it becomes an educational tool to try and regenerate an interest in computer programming in children.
This is a commendable cause. When I was at school all those years ago they actually taught BASIC programming as standard in what was then called “Computer Studies”. I am from the era of the BBC Micro computer and that is what I used to get my GCSE in computer studies! From what I hear, these days all kids are taught is how to make spreadsheets and word processing. Yes, these are great skills to learn but if kids aren’t exposed to programming languages anymore and their home computers (or most likely they have games consoles) aren’t geared to programming out of the box how are they going to be exposed to it? Well hopefully the “Pi” will be the answer. With it being so affordable it removes at least one stumbling block in creating the next generation’s software developers.
So what can you do with it at the moment? Well pretty much anything you can do on standard computers. The Pi primarily runs on a version of Linux, built for the ARM processor. These CPUs are predominantly used on mobile devices because of their low power consumption making them ideal for battery powered devices. Your Android or iPhone runs on an ARM processor. Linux is the de facto choice of operating system as it is Open Source, fully customisable and so portable to just about anything.
At the time of writing there are a few Raspberry Pi Linux distributions available to try. They are all a “work in progress” but are being developed and improved on almost a daily basis. I’ve tried most of them so far and having used Linux on desktop PCs and laptops for years I enjoy the tinkering that sometimes is involved.
The Raspberry Pi makes a remarkably capable “media centre” device too. It’s GPU is capable of playing back Blu-Ray quality video as libraries are available for Linux distributions to access it directly for hardware acceleration. So far there are two dedicated Linux distributions for the Pi that specialise in multimedia playback and they use the fantastic XBMC open source media centre software. OpenELEC, whose Pi distribution is based on the existing standalone Linux “distro’s” for x86 PCs and Raspbmc, a new distribution built from the ground up for the Pi. I have tried both and both work really well.
From my testing the initial OpenELEC build struggled with the XBMC menu and other CPU intensive actions but the GPU performed fantastic on video playback of HD material, streaming HDTV from my DVBLink server and other content.
Although some have had problems booting Raspbmc from certain SD cards (this issue seems to be fixed now in later builds) I never had such a problem and I found the performance of Raspbmc superior to that of OpenELEC as it didn’t have the same issue of slow down when accessing XBMC’s menus. I also got plugins to work without any issue. I installed the BBC iPlayer and TV Catchup plugins and both streamed HD quality video fantastically.
Of course, there are fully featured Linux distributions available for the Pi giving you a home computer with all the software packages you’d expect, from office suites to graphics software, with the ability to download extra packages you require via their respective software centres, all for free. The “official” Linux distribution being recommended by the Foundation is Debian “Squeeze” as this is the most user friendly version for novices but there are others if you are feeling adventurous. So far I’ve tried Debian “Squeeze”, Raspbian (a version of Debian “Wheezy” built from the ground up for the Pi), Gentoo and Arch.
If you have an interest in tinkering with computer technology I couldn’t recommend the Raspberry Pi enough. You’ll have hours of fun playing with this little computer. You may struggle to get one at the moment as the demand has been so high but keep trying, it’s worth it!
I will certainly continue to tinker with the Pi and I can’t wait to see what the community has in store for this little device.
You can find more specific information on the Raspberry Pi website and forums.