What is the Raspberry Pi?

Raspberry Pi
By Jerry Hildenbrand on 11 May 2014 01:56 pm
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It's the little circuit board that has captured the hearts and minds of the makers, the tinkerers, and the hackers.

But the Raspberry Pi is more than that. It is the gateway to the Internet of things, and the tool to teach the next generation how to create it.

In 2006, some great minds at the University of Cambridge's computer lab started to notice a difference in the applicants for the schools Computer Science program. The hackers, hobbyists and electronics aficionados that made up the bulk of the students applying in the 1990s had been replaced by folks with little to no experience in the darker arts and if anything, had mostly web-programming experience. While there's nothing wrong with web-programming, the world needs nerds, too. They got together and did what they could do to tackle the problem, and the Raspberry Pi was born. Fast forward to the 2010s, and the idea has blossomed into the Raspberry Pi Foundation and a low-cost, highly-capable single board computer — the Raspberry Pi — is available to help teach computer science and electronics to both this generation of makers as well as the next.

It's working. Inexpensive hardware combined with a pool of competent engineers and programmers willing to get dirty and share both the how and the why have made the Raspberry Pi a tool that's unparalleled for students and hobbyists alike. It takes more than just making the hardware available, and the support and interest of academia, businesses, and the community make the Pi a gateway to the next step in the computing revolution. And everyone involved wants you to be a part of it.

The basics

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a small (it's the size of a credit card) single board computer that you can connect to just about any TV or monitor, add a keyboard, and have a complete and functional desktop computer. And it only costs about $35 to get started.

It has an ARM11 700MHz CPU and on-board graphics chip (the Broadcomm BCM2835) and 512MB of RAM at it's heart, as well as it's own LAN controller and all the inputs and outputs that your bigger, more expensive desktop computer has. It's no powerhouse, but it's comparable to any desktop you might have had in the mid-2000s from a company with cow patterns on the box.

With open hardware, there are plenty of Linux options for the software — including an Android port. With a little setup, you can have a working system with a full GUI that can browse the web, help do your homework, or get down and dirty with hacking, prototyping, and programming. I wrote this blog post on a Raspberry Pi. It really is a real computer.

The best part is that none of this is hard. Follow a few easy steps and you're set up and ready to go. None of the down and dirty is required to enjoy the Raspberry Pi if you don't want to go down or get dirty.

Point and click

We are going to get down and dirty in the Connectedly forums with the Pi — this is what I was born to do — but we're also going to cover all the basics to get you started. If you've an interest in the Raspberry Pi, you're going to love it.

Beyond the basics

Raspberry Pi board diagram

For some of us, building a tiny computer is not enough. Thankfully, The Pi comes complete with inputs and outputs that are readily accessible to make it connect — and interact — with the outside world. On the board you'll find JTAG headers, Ziff sockets for video input and output devices, and a powerful GPIO (General Purpose Input Oput) header. Using things like sensors, or motors or optocouplers, we can connect devices to the Pi and control them.

Welcome to the Internet of things.

Before I came to Mobile Nations, I spent most days sitting in an office/lab doing R&D work with automation equipment, machine vision systems, and robotics. I consider myself a pretty good judge of what's good and what's not-so-good when it comes to electronic peripherals. My purchasing agent might have disagreed, but I know what works best and why it works best. This is why I think everyone interested in tinkering needs a Raspberry Pi.

Let's have some fun

GPIO

There are plenty of other options to use on your workbench, and many do some things better than the Pi — curse the 3.3v inputs, give me 5v DC! But none have the level of support that the Pi does. This goes for the board itself, as well as the hundreds of "accessories" that were built to connect to the Pi, and driver support, sample code, and the general knowledge that comes with something like a camera board or motion sensor for the Pi makes things easy to do and learn. I can pour through man pages, schematics and documentation because I spent years being taught how to do it and what to look for. But I think that's a sure-fire way to turn off an enthusiastic developer who needs a little guidance. You'll not find better support for any other project board.

If you're an accomplished technician or electronics buff, you'll love the availability of "stuff" designed to use the Pi in your projects. If you're just getting started, you'll love the fact that there are plenty of people to tell you where to begin, and where to go next.

That's where we step in. And things are going to be fun. Looks for all manner of Raspberry Pi how-tos and tutorials for both the novice and expert in the Connectedly forums from staff and members just like you.

Let's do some great stuff — or blow shit up while we try.

Reader comments

What is the Raspberry Pi?

26 Comments

Great article, thanks! I graduated electrical engineering in 2002. Our final year project was like a science fair on steroids. At the time we developed a circuit board to use a universal remote to control your PC. Basic stuff for today, but pretty proud of it at the time. I can't imagine the kinds of things the students could now do with Raspberry Pi! Is there an article or video about the top 10 most innovative uses of Raspberry Pi?

Thanks for the article. I've been so busy, I had forgotten about the RaspBerry Pi. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Posted via Connectedly App

I have two of these wonderful boards. One that acts as a 1080p capable media centre (yes, although the CPU is not so powerful, the GPU is powerful enough to decode 1080p video) and one laying around for tinketing. Thanks for a great introductory article!
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Gaaah. I really want one but have no idea why. Or what I would do with it. I've looked into "cool things to do with your pi" and nothing has grabbed my attention to make me buy.

Yet.

Looking forward to that! I'm in the same boat, I like the idea of Raspberry Pi. I just don't know if it would be useful to me or how it would improve my life.

Posted via Connectedly App

Please do. I just haven't found the use that justifies the time it would take me to set it up. I know nothing a bout programming!!!

I have wanted to get one of these for ages but I don't have time for another obsession and I'm pretty sure this would become one!

Posted via Connectedly App on my Motorola XT890 RAZR i

Awesome read. I didn't know much about Raspberry Pi before this. I always assumed it was created for XBMC, since I see many things about it on their forums.

Yeah, great article. Everybody should own at least one RPi. I agree, it makes a hell of a mediaplayer when you put openelec on it. Possibilites are endless what you can do with it and at that price it is so much fun.

I'm currently between buying a RasPi or installing LinuxWii on my Nintendo Wii. I might end up with both, especially with so many projects available for RasPi.

start here: http://www.raspberrypi.org/buy/

You'll also find vendors on Amazon or fleaBay. Do make sure whoever you buy from is donating back to the Pi Foundation.

Great fun stuff. I wish I had more time to mess with mine. It is going to eventually run through my KVM switch along with my "serious" computers. For stand-alone, power comes from one of the micro-USB cell phone chargers out of my junk drawer. I added a powered USB hub for extra devices and an HDMI to DVI conversion cable to connect to an older monitor. Have not been able to get the wifi working yet, but it patches into the switch just fine. The XBMC is running on the 32-gb micro SD card that does not fit in either my Galaxy Nexus or my new Droid Maxx (going to learn to read the specs 'before' I buy gadgets someday) with an SD adapter and have other SD cards with Linux distros on them. Newark Element 14 has the Pi's and a pretty good selection of add-on hardware and there are probably other US sources too. Highly recommended for the $35 investment.

I love the Pi--it is really cool, and a great fit for tinkerers who want to play in "the internet of things." I also really love messing around with my Arduino, and I wonder if you will highlight these boards as well? While they are not full fledged computers like the Pi, they really shine in other ways (more I/O, lower power consumption) and I think they can be a valuable part of a homebrew automation solution.

I have a friend who used a Pi and created an app to let him control his garage door from his android phone. Pretty cool!