For some reason, fruity tech seems to stir up crowds (Apple or Blackberry in its glory days, anyone?). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Raspberry Pi is a functional computer the size of a credit card for under £30, created by a charity – the Raspberry Pi foundation - primarily to help kids (and maybe adults) become more digitally creative and gain knowledge of programming. But what can you possibly get for that little money and what can you use it for? Join us as we find out whether you can have your (Raspberry) pie and eat it too.
Raspberry Pi: What It Is and What You Need
First, let’s go over exactly what the Raspberry Pi is. To get a bit more on the back story, have a read of our Raspberry Pi preview, but what about the actual computer? You get a mid-range ARM-based SoC on a bare board, with all the connectivity needed to hook up peripherals, a screen and wired internet, while using SD cards for permanent storage. You need to install your own operating system before this particular Pi is edible.
There are two Raspberry Pi versions, the Model A and B. The latter is the more powerful of the two, and the only one currently available. Model A halves the two USB ports to just one and removes the Ethernet controller for an even lower price point. Model B should cost $35 while A will set you back $25. For now we’re seeing the B in the UK for around £29.
Realistically, you can’t expect a particularly capable computer for this kind of money, and indeed the Raspberry Pi won’t provide the best experience for multi-tasking, intensive web-browsing, and the like. It doesn’t even support Flash or HTML 5. What you do get is the ability to run all basic desktop tasks, similar gaming to what you might get on a low-end smartphone, and the ability to play smooth HD video – all in a package that uses less electricity than most light bulbs.
So to sum up what you’ll need to make use of the Pi: a screen - monitor or TV - with digital or analogue composite connection and matching video cable; a USB keyboard and preferably mouse too; a full-size SD card or microSD card with adapter of 2GB or more (4GB is recommended); and a microUSB power adapter, like the ones you get for smartphones - or a powered USB port with microUSB cable.
There is no on/off button for the Pi, so you may want to get a switched power supply or socket adapter. Display aside, buying the other bits should set you back no more than £20.
Of course, unless you buy a pre-loaded SD card, you’ll also need a computer with internet to download and install your Raspberry OS of choice onto a card. However, even if you don’t own one you can borrow a friend’s laptop – the entire process of creating the Raspberry Pi’s bootable storage only takes 30 minutes at most.
Raspberry Pi Design
There’s nothing pretty about the Pi. It’s a bare board, with no case or chassis (yet), though there are third-party ones available. However, it’s literally the size of a credit card, and no thicker than a UK power plug.
To be exact, it’s 85.60mm x 53.98mm x 17mm, though the USB ports (and SD card if you have one installed) stick out beyond the board’s edge. It also weighs less than 50g. Basically, it’s very cute, and has that geek factor going for it.
Build quality is difficult to measure on a plain board, but at least the connectors seemed soldered securely. However, with our retail-purchased Raspberry Pi there was a slight quality control issue, in that the eight-pin P2 expansion header didn’t have all its pins soldered correctly and the plastic pin frame was permanently stuck away from the board.