At only $25, the [easyazon-link asin=”B009SQQF9C” locale=”us”]Raspberry Pi[/easyazon-link] must be the cheapest computer on the market. Sure, it doesn’t come with any accessories—or even a case—but it’s powerful enough that I’m writing this review on my own personal Raspberry Pi.
What You Get With The Raspberry Pi—And What You Don’t
Here’s exactly what you get when you order a Raspberry Pi: a single board computer with a 700 MHz CPU and 512 MB RAM. Here’s what you don’t get: a power cord, a case, a disk drive, or any other accessories.
But there is quite a bit of hardware built into the Raspberry Pi, including a Secure Digital (SD) card reader, an ethernet (wired) network card, a video card, two USB ports, and a sound card. That may sound basic compared to a typical desktop, but it’s impressive in a computer smaller than an iPhone.
Of course, to get the Raspberry Pi to work, you need to add your own hardware. Most geeks will have some of this hardware sitting around.
- A USB cord to power the computer. The Raspberry Pi doesn’t have a power switch, so you just plug in the cord and it turns on.
- An [easyazon-link asin=”B002G12OBO” locale=”us”]SD card[/easyazon-link] to work as the Raspberry Pi’s hard drive. (In my pictures you can see I used a micro-SD card and an adapter.)
- A cord to connect the Raspberry Pi to a monitor or TV. The Raspberry Pi has an HDMI output; I used [easyazon-link asin=”B001TH7T2U” locale=”us”]a $7 HDMI-to-DVI cord[/easyazon-link] to connect to an older LCD computer monitor. (Many newer monitors take HDMI input directly.) You don’t need to connect the Raspberry Pi to a monitor if you plan to only access it over the network.
- A USB keyboard and mouse. Again, these aren’t necessary if you plan to access the Raspberry Pi only over the network.
- An ethernet cord or a USB wifi device to connect to the network.
- A [easyazon-link asin=”B000Q8UAWY” locale=”us”]USB hub[/easyazon-link] if you plan to connect more than two USB devices to the Raspberry Pi.
- A case. You need something to protect the Raspberry Pi from static shocks which may fry the mainboard. Although there are fancy transparent cases available online, I made my case by cutting a few holes in the first appropriately-size carboard box I could find.
Setting Up The Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi was designed to run Linux, so you don’t have to pay anything extra for your operating system. The recommended Linux distribution is Raspbian, a custom version of Debian.
All you do is download Raspbian from the Raspberry Pi website and use a special free program to install it on the SD card you plan to put in the Raspberry Pi. Then you insert the SD card, connect all of your accessories, and finally connect the USB cord which powers the Raspberry Pi.
The Raspberry Pi boots up quickly for a device with only a 700 MHz CPU. The first time you run it, Raspbian displays a setup menu with several options that let you configure the computer for your area (locale) as well as get the most out of your hardware.
One thing I found really interesting was that the default configuration tool offers you several options for overclocking the CPU. I’ve never before seen a computer pre-configured to let user overclock the CPU. However, since I was just getting started with the Raspberry Pi, I decided not to risk destroying it and left the clock speed at its normal setting.
After you configure the Raspberry Pi, it starts up a regular-looking minimalistic Linux desktop. Anyone who has ever used a Linux live CD will be familiar with a basic Linux desktop. The only difference in this one was a collection of several basic games written in the Python programming language specifically for the Raspberry Pi.
What To Do With Your Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi was designed to let you experiment with it. At only $25, you don’t need to worry too much about keeping it safe and you can do almost anything on it you can do on a regular laptop or computer.
I decided to turn my Raspberry Pi into a desktop computer. Since the Raspberry Pi only draws a few watts of electricity, I can leave it on all day without racking up my power bill. Even better, it generates almost no heat, so it doesn’t need any fans—which means it’s absolutely silent.
I admit my project—saving power—is kind of boring, but I’ve read about many other more exciting projects and I’m thinking about getting another Raspberry Pi to try them:[easyazon-image align=”right” asin=”B009SQQF9C” locale=”us” height=”119″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51NMMLsw6XL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]
- A Raspberry Pi entirely powered by AA batteries so you can take it anywhere. (Although I’m not sure what I’d do with it.)
- A Raspberry Pi connected to your car stereo so you can download music or podcasts to your car over wifi.
- Building a Raspberry Pi into an old keyboard, so your keyboard is your computer. Add a LED display and you’ll have something similar—but much more capable than—an Alphasmart NEO.
- Building your own custom hardware to connect to the Raspberry Pi’s expansion pins. I’m not much of a hardware hacker, but those who are should find the Raspberry Pi irresistible.
I may be dating myself, but I remember when computers were large, noisy, and expensive. It blows me away to have on my desk a tiny, silent, $25 computer. I imagine that I’ll be spending more time than is wise over the next few months playing with this nifty Raspberry Pi.