Raspberry Pi: Everything you need to know about the micro PC

Andy tells you everything you need to know about the Raspberry Pi, a computer capable of playing 1,080p video that costs only £16.

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Think a new computer will cost you at least a few hundred quid? Think again. The Raspberry Pi is a computer powerful enough to handle Full HD video -- but it's about the size of a credit card and will set you back only £16.

The online developer community is abuzz over the release of this little chap, which is scheduled for later this month. Its aim is to provide a cheap platform for learning programming and electronic tinkering, hopefully to encourage a new generation of students into taking up computer science.

What is it?

Although it's about the size of a deck of cards, the Raspberry Pi is in fact a fully fledged computer, capable of handling many tasks you'd expect of your regular desktop PC. Rather than being stuffed with demanding Intel Core series processors and various humming fans though, the Pi is based around a 700MHz ARM chip of the sort you'd normally find in a smart phone.

By cutting down the bells and whistles you find on most computers, the Pi costs a mere £16, but still has enough power under the hood to play back 1,080p video -- that's Blu-ray quality.

It's got HDMI out and USB ports, so you can hook it up to a monitor, whack in a keyboard and immediately go about forgetting how little it costs.

It's running on Linux's Fedora software, which means it's open for people to tinker with in ways that operating systems like Windows aren't, and is also much less demanding of the processor.

What's it designed for?

Its primary goal in life is to teach kids how to program computers. Rather than have maybe a handful of expensive computers strictly for word-processing and looking at Wikipedia, schools could afford numerous Pis, which would make it much more feasible to teach kids programming and games coding, without the fear of having thousands of pounds of gear going up in smoke.

What else can it do?

The Pi doesn't just have to be an educational tool. If you've got an ounce or two of technological know-how, you can bend your dirt-cheap new PC to any number of tasks.

Although hugely underpowered compared to most computers -- and even many smart phones -- it's still capable of playing back high-definition content. The HDMI output means you can hook it up to your massive TV, plug in a cheap external hard drive full of your favourite movies and you've got yourself a simple and extremely cheap media centre.

Of course, the point of the Pi is to be totally open for all the modifications the world's tech brains can dream up. Some of the ideas that are being thrown around in the Pi's forums are to use the Pi as a controller for a camera to do timelapse photography, to capture information and video from a weather balloon or to fit into a car's dashboard to function as a media hub and even GPS unit.

It has its limitations, of course -- after all, it's only about as powerful as a low-end smart phone and has a maximum of 256MB of unremovable RAM, so don't expect it to edit your video or play Old Republic. As far as added hardware is concerned though, that's pretty much dependant on what you crazy tech fans can come up with. Want a touchscreen on it? Fine. Want it to endlessly loop Nyan cat? You're weird, but sure.

One of the ideas I personally find exciting and terrifying in equal measure is to use the Pi as a brain for a robot. Comments from users in the forums suggest the Pi could be easily hooked up to various sensors, motor controllers and other bits and bobs to create -- I hope -- some kind of walking, talking fembot, so I don't have to date my iPhone any more.

Why has it been made?

The Pi's creator, Eben Upton, noticed a distinct drop in applicants for computer science courses at university and thought one of the reasons was that the computers and games consoles kids are used to using today are far too expensive and difficult to tinker with.

Unlike the days of the BBC and Commodore machines, today's computers are expensive and often locked down by the manufacturer to prohibit modifications. Consoles too are nigh on impossible to mess about with, unless you're a games developer with a multi-million pound budget.

Upton hopes the Pi will be put in schools to encourage the development of more hobbyist programmers, thereby creating a stronger breed of computer scientists in the future.

Not only that, but the Pi may also find homes in developing countries, especially in schools looking for low-budget teaching aids. The Raspberry Pi project is a charitable organisation, and is not looking to make any profit from the micro PC, so it's possible other charities working with these countries could help distribute the computers to where they're needed.

When can you get it?

Two models will be available; the A model, costing $25 (£16), offers 128MB of RAM, one USB port and no Ethernet port. The B model will cost $35 (£22) and offers 256MB of RAM, two USB ports and an Ethernet port. Model B is due to go on sale at the end of February, in an initial run of 10,000, with no date yet announced for A.

It doesn't come with a power lead, keyboard monitor or any of the usual gubbins, so you'll have to get those yourself. You'll also need to buy an SD card on which you'll install the operating system for the computer to boot from.

The Pi comes as a complete unit, so there's no playing about with soldering irons at home. It doesn't come with a case in the first edition though, so you'll need to craft something to keep those circuits safe. A later edition for schools will have a case and plenty of educational documentation.

If a micro PC for under twenty quid appeals, keep your eyes peeled on the Raspberry Pi store for when it launches later this month. For more information, hit the FAQ page.

I'll be getting my sweaty palms on the Pi as soon as possible, so stay tuned for more from about the tiny chap soon. In the meantime, head on over to Raspberri Pi's website -- I suggest you visit the forums and get some inspiration on what fun you can have with your soldering iron. Let me know how you get on in the comments, or on the Facebook page.

Update: Re-published to highlight the video version at the top

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About the author

Andrew is a senior editor at CNET and has always been fascinated by tech. When not getting up close and personal with the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

 

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