Although it is just slightly over a year since the Raspberry Pi low-cost single-board computer first made its public debut (when an alpha version of the board was shown running the Quake 3 game and playing full HD video), five thousand news articles and 30 million Google results later, tens of thousands of Raspberry Pis have been shipped around the globe. It’s not alone: the MK802 (which we will be reviewing shortly), CuBox and Cotton Candy are part of a wave of mini computers that are putting low-cost computing into family living rooms and student dorms.
The Arduino single-board microcontroller has found widespread application over the past few years across a range of domains from smart clothes to interactive play. Similarly, the more powerful Raspberry Pi is being used for ideas such as a photo souvenir printer and a touchscreen for seniors and late adopters. At Technology Voice, we’ve been testing out Model B of the Raspberry Pi, received this week from Allied Electronics. At $35, you get a basic computing system that just requires a USB keyboard/mouse, HDMI screen, power lead and an SD card pre-loaded with the operating system before you’re up and running.
We started by downloading the Raspbian operating system (a version of the popular Debian Linux OS, optimised for the RasPi) and flashing it onto a standard SD card, then plugged in a Mac keyboard and mouse, a full-size HDMI lead, ethernet cable, and a micro-USB cable for powering the board from our TV (you can also use a DC adaptor if you have it). Our TV complained a little about the USB power requirements but we soon saw a familiar Linux boot-up screen. The first thing you are shown is a configuration menu to do things like expand the operating system’s ‘root’ partition to the full size of your SD card, change the keyboard type (it had my aluminium Apple one listed), set the locale and time zone, etc. You can choose to boot straight into desktop mode after startup to bypass any login prompt.
Raspbian comes with a lightweight desktop featuring a small selection of apps: a browser, Unix terminal, Scratch interface (a programming system geared towards kids and educational use), and a Python program editor with some Python-based games. For those who have tried one of the other mini computers like the MK802, this may seem pretty barebones, but there are some other more fully-featured Linux distributions for the RasPi. There is also some good news in that a port of Android Ice Cream Sandwich is being made available as an alternative operating system for the RasPi, bringing with it easy access to a range of Android apps produced for mobiles and tablets.
We tried out the default web browser Midori and it speedily loaded the Google home page; our more graphics-laden Technology Voice page was somewhat slower. To test out how the RasPi performed under load, we fired up a range of applications including the browser, a Python game, a terminal, file manager and some system settings. The system RAM was quickly used up and the CPU maxed out at times, but the RasPi was still pretty usable.
There have been a bunch of ideas on the best uses for the Raspberry Pi, but a personal proposal is to port the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea here as a “One Raspberry Pi Per Child”. Having spent the afternoon with my six-year old playing around with Scratch for the first time, I am convinced there are great opportunities for the RasPi as an educational tool, either at home or in a school setting. Apparently a country in the Middle East feels the same way, proposing to give a Raspberry Pi to every schoolgirl in the country. As well as Scratch, there are a range of applications that could be made available or ported to the RasPi, including Chris Ball et al.’s WikiBrowse for the OLPC (in turn based on code released by Patrick Collison), Kojo and ToonTalk.
Based on the last census’ population figures for Ireland, we can estimate that there are perhaps 555,000 children aged between 6 and 14 in Ireland. It would cost 15 million euro to buy a personal Raspberry Pi Model B for every one of our children. It’s a large sum, but not an impossible one. Not everyone has a HDMI-ready TV or keyboard/mouse to hand, but these could be shared in schools and homes. So how about it? ORasPiPC anyone?