Raspberry Pi — credit-card sized Linux

Dang, that’s small.

I’d heard about these credit card-sized computers running Linux called Raspberry Pi a while ago. I wanted to try one out. A local pal (the same guy who brought you the Happy Easter Eggbot) was also interested and he graciously allowed me to combine my order with his to save on shipping. It’s a fairly small investment: about GBP 25 gets you started with hardware including: a Broadcom ARM11 700 MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD-card slot, a graphics processor, sound card, and an ethernet port — all on-board. It can do HD-video. It’s powered by a 5V micro-USB port.

There is lots of potential here for teaching yourself more about Linux/Unix, servers, programming languages, and electronics. In fact, that’s the point. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a registered charity in the U.K. attempting to raise interest in and awareness of computing through low-cost hardware.

Compare it to an old ASUS eeePC (previously the smallest 'computer' I owned) and a credit card
Compare it to an old ASUS eeePC (previously the smallest ‘computer’ I owned) and a credit card

Setup

You can provide your own SD-card (the machine’s hard disk) and put the OS on it yourself via Windows, Mac, or Linux. Or you can purchase a pre-formatted SD card to skip the base installation step. You can use an existing 5V micro-USB power supply (perhaps your phone or tablet uses the same connector?) or buy one from the Raspberry Pi distributors. You can buy housing kits and carrying cases for it (it arrived in a flimsy plastic case good enough for transport in a backpack, but certainly not suitable for protection from airliner squishing), or if you’re particularly industrious, you can make your own. The FAQ sadly admits that the form factor is just a little too big to fit into an Altoids tin (give it a couple years…).

Getting started was amazingly easy, even without a spare keyboard or monitor lying around — the base installation enables SSH by default, so you can just plug in the power and network and log in remotely and get going, if you’re cool with Debian-based command-line stuff. Other Linux distros are available too — I chose the Debian-derived one because I’m comfortable with Ubuntu, which is also Debian-derived. Do make sure to change the default password to something secure. I suggest something generated at random, but memorable, like via https://secure.cliff1976.net/pw.

So, what is it good for?

I’m thinking of several projects here. There’s always the usual fileserver, printserver, backups, and LAN webserver stuff. That’s what my Asus eeePC is doing, but the power draw (700 mA) on the Raspberry Pi is less than one third of that on the eeePC. And the 16GB SD card I put in there is four times bigger than the eeePC’s SSD. This thing is so small that it lends itself to being an additional wireless Access Point or repeater to get a stronger signal back in the far reaches of our apartment (if you connect it with a USB WLAN dongle). Or maybe do that, but plug in a USB camera too, and script the snapshots and periodic uploading to webserver and keep an eye on the apartment while we’re out of town.

For the electronics enthusiasts, the real benefit could be the GPIO pins provided on the GPU to practice low-level programming logic using high-level interpreted languages: programming LEDs in sync with Christmas music comes to mind first, but so much more is possible. Mr. Eggbot is thinking of combining his Raspberry Pi with a temperature sensor and some old kitchen appliances to create his own onsen egg machine. I can’t imagine it’d be much of a stretch for him to go from that to a DIY-sous vide setup. Raspberry Pi defines Python as its default supported programming language for educational purposes. I know essentially nothing about Python, but I’d like to learn. This will help.

Look what another guy did with Python and his Raspberry Pi for his dog!

I’m pretty excited about the application possibilities here.

4 thoughts on “Raspberry Pi — credit-card sized Linux”

  1. shoreacres

    OK. Here’s the deal. I don’t understand any of this – or, rather, I understand just enough to know I know someone who’ll appreciate it. So, I linked it on his webpage.The dog’s cute, I’ll say that. And I do know about open source and Linux, so I’m not a complete doofus. But I’ll stick to trying your recipes for food, not electronic gizmos. ;-)

  2. Scott Hanson

    I thought the standard case for the Pi was to build your own out of Legos. :-) Actually this week’s c’t has a page on it, with a picture of the Lego case. http://www.heise.de/ct/hotline/FAQ-Raspberry-Pi-1839872.html

    1. TravelingServiceMan

      That would be a good case, but I have this CNC machine and a stack of 3mm acrylic in the basement and was going to stand on the shoulders of giants and make a copy of one of builttospec’s cases from Thingiverse. Then I can engrave a nice logo in the top and it should glow nicely and be one more thing to keep Cliff awake at night ;-).

  3. Steven

    I’ve seen Rasberry Pi machines in person, it’s a fascinating project field for someone who wants to be projecty. I am intellectually interested in them, but I wouldn’t ever do anything with it myself- I spend so much time working on computers at work that I really don’t want to do so at home too.

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