If you know one thing about the Raspberry Pi PC, it's most likely the fact that it's almost comically inexpensive -- $35, to be exact. And what do you get for such a modest sum? In terms of in-the-box hardware, not much. Essentially a motherboard with a CPU soldered onto it, the Pi requires that you provide your own operating system, your own local storage media, even your own power supply.
The point of such a product is primarily education. According to their Web site, the designers of the Raspberry Pi wanted to create an affordable computer that encourages students to break away from the technical hand-holding that comes with off-the-shelf PCs. Chances are you might learn something from building a system yourself. Given that it's a Linux-based computer, you might even write your own software for it.
Tech enthusiasts have also latched onto the Raspberry Pi for its potential as a hobbyist platform. You can find instructions online for turning the Raspberry Pi into a media-streaming device. Others have shown it playing Quake 3, or used it as a robotic platform or in home-automation projects.
The Pi has those capabilities and others in part because of its surprisingly powerful embedded silicon. The core CPU/GPU/system memory comes from a single Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-a-chip (SoC). The SoC includes a 700MHz ARM processing core that gives the Pi the same processing power as an iPhone 3G. A separate, dual-core video processor supports 1080p HD video encoding and decoding. And 256MB of DDR2 system memory rounds out the package.
Along with the SoC, the Pi has an assortment of hardware ports. This Model B version includes a 10/100 Ethernet port as well as a pair of USB 2.0 jacks. For video output you get a full-size HDMI port, as well as a composite video output. Aside from HDMI audio output, you also get a single 3.5mm analog output.
Appropriately for its smartphone-class CPU, the Pi draws power via a Micro-USB port. It will work with a powered USB port, as well as with any standard Micro-USB power adapter.
You need to bring your own storage device to the Pi. It can support USB or network-connected storage, but you need to boot it up via an SD card in the slot on the unit's underside.
To boot the Pi you'll need an operating system, and specifically Linux. The Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends Debian, but it will work with any Linux distribution that will run on the ARM CPU platform (as opposed to full-fledged x86-based PC CPUs). You can download Debian and a few others from the Pi Web site. You can find more distribution suggestions on this Pi discussion board.
Part of the fun of Pi ownership so far seems to be discovering what others have done with the system, and then trying it out for yourself. In addition to the discussion board linked above, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has its own forum with hundreds of posts covering support issues, projects to try, and general user chatter. You can also type "Raspberry Pi" into your search engine of choice and you'll uncover a vibrant community of hobbyists and hackers.
In my brief time using our purchased Pi review unit, I powered it up with a smartphone's Micro-USB charger, and connected a mouse, a keyboard, and a 27-inch LCD with no trouble. The unit booted into Debian per the instructions on the Raspberry Pi site, and I browsed around online and played around with the system settings.
I certainly didn't expect much from the Pi's performance. The system is usable, but click any operating-system icon and it will take a few noticeable seconds for the command to register. It navigated to every Web site I tried, but the Pi doesn't support Adobe's Flash Player software, cutting off YouTube and other rich-media sites. Of course, it's not overly fair to complain about any of these limitations given the Pi's $35 price tag.
Over the next few days I want to try the Pi in a few different scenarios. I'd like to try its video- and audio-streaming capabilities. I'm interested to see if I can also get Quake 3 working. I also want to see what it's like to use the Pi in a basic DIY project; suggestions for that are welcome.