Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months or so, you’ll almost certainly have heard of the Raspberry Pi. If not, here’s the low-down. The Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer aimed at the hobbyist and educational markets. It comes in two flavours, the Model A and Model B, which are subtle references to the BBC Micro computers of the 1980s and 90s. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future only the Model B – the higher specification model – is scheduled for production. Lurking within the guts of this credit-card sized wonder is 256mb of RAM, and a 700MHz ARM chip that is easily capable of being pushed to 800MHz. For audio and video there are RCA video and 3.5mm audio out, as well as an HDMI port. Resolutions covered range from VGA all the way up to 1080p (and beyond!), with almost all PAL and NTSC video standards covered. Connectivity is a doddle, as a 10/100 Ethernet socket is included on the board. WiFi is also possible; although ARM devices are notoriously finicky about which USB adapters they will work with. I/O is covered too – two USB ports are provided, and are extensible with a hub, and GPIO (general-purpose input/output) pins are provided for connections in and out to various devices, more about which will be covered shortly.
While unfortunately the hardware of the Raspberry Pi is almost unchangeable (short of the size of the SD card used), this is more than made up by the choice of operating systems. In true hacking fashion, several operating systems have sprung up, each doing different things. Here are a selection:
1) Raspbian “Wheezy”
Raspbian is based on the Debian kernel, and is the recommended start point for beginners to the Raspberry Pi. It boots to a command prompt by default, but pre-installed is LXDE – a lightweight X11 manager. Other tools included include the Midori web browser, and all the development tools you’d expect on a Linux system, including Python and Java compilers. Of course, since it’s a Debian installation, new software is a doddle to install using the package manager. Within minutes I had set up VLC and was playing 1080p video with no problems.
2) Arch Linux ARM
Arch Linux is extremely popular with the modders and tweakers of the Raspberry Pi community. Its no-frills approach centres on “simplicity and full control for the end-user”. By default, no X11 server is included – it is up to the user to decide which (if any) they would like. Obviously, this distribution is not recommended for those with little to no Linux knowledge.
On the other end of the scale, RaspBMC is totally different to either of the distributions mentioned above. When you use this distribution to boot the Raspberry Pi, it becomes a fully-fledged home media centre, with the ability to play films, music and even YouTube videos. RaspBMC is based on the very popular XBMC, a cross-platform media centre that is used by countless people worldwide.
One of the main reasons that the Raspberry Pi came about was to teach children in schools about electronics and programming. As such the GPIO pins can be used to interact with code and give sensor readings to programs. Unfortunately, in Raspbian at least, the Python modules for interacting with the GPIO pins are not included by default. Instructions for installing them are given here. A popular way to interface the Raspberry Pi is a simple ribbon cable and a prototyping board, which will let you try out many different combinations before settling on something more permanent. One of the peripherals that has generated the most buzz lately is a camera module featured here which would pave the way to features such as image recognition for navigation, or more multimedia capabilities.
As with most things, however, there are a few drawbacks, but what else did you expect from a machine costing £25/$35? The biggest caveat for me was initially the lack of hardware MPEG-2 decoding, which meant my whole library of movies would have to be transcoded to h.264 for smooth playback on the device. However, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has now released licenses for roughly £2.50 for MPEG-2 and £1.50 for VC-1. The other gripe that some may have is the lack of expandable RAM, as it is all contained within the CPU. Such users may find the VIA APC or cubieboard a little more suitable for their use, however, for pure value for money and form factor, the Raspberry Pi is hard to beat.
Edit (1/11/12) – As of October 15th, the Raspberry Pi now ships with 512MB RAM, making it an even more attractive proposition for its price point.