Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Raspberry Pi - $25 Linux PC for Students

The inexpensive personal computer used as a tool for education is something we once had, and many machines like this started the computing lives of geeks who lived in the 1970s and 1980s. The Commodore 64, TRS-80 and to a lesser extent, Apple's earliest computers took a hobby interest in computing and deveoped it for people who would later use computers their entire lives. Network administrators, computer programmers and many game designers grew up with these sorts of machines and they are indirectly responsible, in part, for the breakthroughs in computers over the last two-plus decades. Now that we have computers everywhere, however, the cheap hobbyist machine that can be used to teach programming and tinkering for students and geeks who want to learn more by doing just isn't around anymore. Most computers in homes cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars, and for fear of ruining the family PC, experimentation is frequently discouraged. This is a problem, and the designers behind the Raspberry Pi project have a solution: the $25 PC.



While it is true that most laptops and desktop models can only come so far down in price, there are computers in many other devices that rival their desktop cousins from only a few years ago in terms of performance. Mobile phones and tablet computers have taken miniaturized components and packed quite a bit of processing power into a small space, and the SD memory cards and flash drives made today have storage capacity larger than full sized hard drives did only six or seven years ago. The Raspberry Pi was built with these sorts of components in mind, using a small mainboard with several dataports out for USB, HDMI and audio, and open source Linux builds as an operating system on flash memory. The goal is to have a reasonably fast and powerful basic computer that can handle media, programming and internet that can be manufactured at a price low enough to be sold at the same price as a standard textbook.

The original prototypes for the project were a little larger than the average flash drive, but the features that the developers wanted to include couldn't fit comfortably in that configuration. The charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation, headquartered in the UK, moved development to a board slightly larger than a credit card. The CPU will run at 700Mhz, with 128MB of SDRAM, HD-Quality video with both HDMI and Composite output for connection to either a monitor or a television set, with about 1W power requirements allowing for power through an adapter or about 4 AA size batteries. Peripherals can be attached using a simple USB hub, and the overall package is impressive given the price of the components and size of the completely functional computer. The hardware will ship with all open-source software, the Debian GNU/Linux distro, Iceweasel, kOffice and Python, and storage will be upgradable based on the size SD/MMC/SDIO memory cards purchased to be used as a hard drive.



Once units are ready to ship, there will also be a second model with more RAM and built-in ethernet for wired networking for about $10 more. The prototypes have been shown to audiences running Quake 3 at 1080p and full-HD video for other media, and the finished product promises CD-quality audio as well. With all these basics in place, this is not intended to replace a main PC, or to run any Windows software (or even WINE for emulation,) but this computer isn't for gaming or for a household's daily use. This is a small, cheap and functional PC that can be used to teach computing in places where budgetary restrictions have made educational computers a pipe-dream. Worldwide access to a machine designed for experimentation and learning could very well bring up a whole new generation of brilliant developers and programmers for tomorrow's advances in computer technology.


The speed for basic operations and media on this little PC is really something.

This is exciting for me, as I've always been fascinated by the idea of Linux as an OS, but as a gamer I can't ever really sever ties to Windows as an Operating System. I love the idea of tinkering and getting into the nuts and bolts of computers, but I wouldn't dare mess with too many things under the hood of my main PC. I've already "bricked" several devices, and I remember the panic and frustration that can come with having to rebuild the machine I use daily (which is also why I stopped building my own Pcs, hardware conflicts are no fun.) After the initial rush of orders from people curious about the project, if they can continue to manufacture enough of these mini-computers to keep up with demand, I may well pick one up to mess around with. By design, the price of these things encourages the "get one and play with it a little" sort of thinking, and answers my reservations about really getting into Linux. I've heard that putting together a Linux PC is a little like getting a car from IKEA, you have a bunch of parts and instructions on how to put it all together, but there's a lot of effort in figuring out how to assemble it so it all works. At 25 bucks, a lot more people would give it a shot, which is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation is counting on.
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1 comments:

anarchist said...

Hi,

Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

I've recently put out an ebook of my writing, called 'The New Death and others'. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story 'The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune' and HP Lovecraft's 'Under the Pyramids'.

I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me (news@apolitical.info) or reply to this thread.

You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/92126

I'll also link to your review from my blog.

Yours,
James.

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