Big idea in small package [Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)]
(Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) They say big things sometimes come in small packages. When it comes to microcomputing, they aren't kidding. Today we'll sample Raspberry Pi, a bite-size computer with powerful potential.
Raspberry Pi is a product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a British charitable group founded in 2009. The organization's main goal, to quote the group's website, is to "promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing." To that end, the foundation has designed the Raspberry Pi as a single-board computer, about the size of a credit card, retailing for a mere $35. The idea is to make an affordable, self-contained PC available to millions of school kids around the world.
The product comes in two versions, Model A and Model B, retailed priced at $25 and $35, respectively. Other than an extra USB 2.0 port and Ethernet connection on Model B, the two versions are identical, so we'll focus on the latter. Here's what $35 gets you: a credit-card-size circuit board with a 700 MHz ARM CPU, Broadcom VideoCore IV graphics processor, two USB 2.0 ports, audio output, HDMI video output, 10/100 Ethernet adapter, 512MB RAM and a SD card slot for storage. The unit is powered by a 3.5-watt micro USB adapter, not included. All that in a device that can fit in your shirt pocket. Amazing.
One of the first things a new Raspberry Pi owner needs to do -- other than purchase a power cord and SD card -- is decide on an operating system. Windows is far too bulky, so you'll have to go with a much leaner version of Linux. New OS ports are constantly becoming available, but at this time, supported Linux flavors include: Android 4.0, Debian Squeeze, Firefox OS, Google Chrome, WebOS and Raspberry Pi Fedora. Other non-Linux operating systems include AmigaOS, BeOS, RISC and Plan 9 from Bell Labs.
The foundation's website provides a wealth of information on its progress, as well as links and instructions for downloading and installing one of the above open-source operating systems on your SD card, which the device uses to boot and store program files. Aim for at least 32GB, but the bigger, the better. Other hardware items you'll need to get Raspberry Pi up and running include an HDMI- compatible monitor -- or a standard VGA monitor with an HDMI adapter -- a USB keyboard and mouse. Because you're limited to only two USB ports, the best solution is to connect a multi-port USB port to connect additional devices, like an external hard drive.
When I say this thing is bare bones, I mean it -- all you get is the main circuit board, naked to the world. If it's to be used as part of a larger machine, that's probably fine, but most people will want a case. A quick search of Amazon turns up several custom cases, from clear to colored, designed specifically to hold the Pi and provide access to its various ports. The most expensive case I found was $15, so like everything else about this device, it's not a huge investment.
Like most computers, big or small, Raspberry Pi is expandable. For $60, you can purchase the PiFace, an expansion board that adds two relays, four switches, eight additional input and output ports, and eight LED indicators. It attaches to the top of the main unit and is easily programmed using open-source programming languages such as Python, Scratch and C, with which to control lights, cameras, motors, switches, and so on. Hey, build your own robot!
Visit www.raspberrypi.org to read more about this ingenious device, as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation's hopes and dreams for bringing computer literacy on a global scale. It's ambitious, innovative and absolutely necessary.
Scott A. May is a local computer consultant and Deskside Support technician at IBM. Reach him at email@example.com.
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