Raspberry Pi First Impressions

The Raspberry Pi, for those of you who don’t know, is a very basic computer, on a circuit board just a little bigger than a credit card. It was designed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation as a device that would allow anyone to get into computing. Whilst the early devices are aimed at devs and early adopters like myself, the aim is to get as many of these into the hands of schoolchildren as possible, and get them interested in programming from a young age.

Specifications

It has simple hardware – a 700MHz BCM2835 ARMv6 system-on-a-chip made by Broadcom combines the CPU and a 250MHz GPU core onto a single die about the size of a 5 pence coin, with a 256MB Hynix 400MHz RAM chip sitting on top. Around the edges are some connectivity options – on the Model B these include 2 USB2.0 ports, Ethernet 10/100, HDMI, Composite video and a 3.5mm audio jack. Dotted around the board are various IO connectors and pins for cameras, flat panel displays and numerous other devices – you can use it like an Arduino if you want to. The simpler (and cheaper) Model A variant will be released in the coming months and will feature a single USB2.0 port, and no Ethernet. So far, nothing special. The real gem of the Pi though, is its price: £29. This is a fully featured computer, easily capable of basic web browsing, word processing and simple programming tasks. For £29.

The Hardware

So, my Raspberry Pi arrived yesterday. Not many people have theirs yet – mine was one of the first few batches and according to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, there are currently around 85,000 in the hands of developers, early adopters and general geeks.

My pair of Raspberry Pi's
Oh…hello.

Two of these are in my hands – not by design, for some reason RS Components shipped me two, but I’ve contacted them to see if they want the other one back. If not, I’m sure there are some very interesting projects to complete with 2 Pis.

Here are a couple of shots of the hardware board itself. I’ve included a pen for scale so you can see for yourself just how tiny this thing really is.

The scale of the Raspberry Pi
The board itself measures just 85mmx53mm
The underside of the Raspberry Pi
The electronics in this are by no means simplistic. Additionally, you’ll need at least a 4GB Class 4 SD Card to load your chosen Linux distro as the operating system. I’ve stuck with the standard Debian build for my first run.
A closeup of the Broadcom SoC and Hynix memory chip.
This chip, smaller than a 5 pence coin, is actually a 256MB RAM chip layered on top of the Broadcom SoC. It requires no cooling and is therefore totally silent in operation.

First Impressions

The initial set up of the Raspberry Pi was easy and quick. Flash your distro of choice onto an SD card, connect all your leads and then you’re off! Login, type the startx command to launch the window manager. This is a Windows-like UI, with a start menu-esque launcher at the bottom left, and the standard Linux dual desktops and clock etc.

Bundled apps are basic but comprehensive, including a basic web browser, notepad application, a small selection of programming tools and standard Linux tools like Terminal.

I’ve not yet been able to test the web browser because I’ve not yet connected my Pi to the internet. I have a totally wireless network and I can’t plug my Pi into the router because of where it is situated – I’ll need to wait to get a Wi-Fi dongle.

General app performance is good – there is no lag between pressing keys on the keyboard and text appearing on screen for example, which can be one of the most frustrating aspects of a slow computer. Applications do load slowly, but no more so than would be expected on the hardware. I’ve been a bit spoiled with this recently – my main machine is a quad core, SSD based beast that does everything pretty much instantly so more sedate and non geeky people wouldn’t have a problem with the speed of the Pi.

While I’ve still got to look at the majority of the programming tools included in the default Debian distribution, one in particular caught my eye. Scratch, the block based, drag and drop programming editor is included, and for me, the price of the Pi was worth it to have a dedicated, palm sized PC running Scratch. I learnt to program using Scratch, and I think it’s fantastic. Simple apps, games, anything you can think of can be quickly and graphically created using its simple menus and blocks and even little kids can easily program their own games. On the Pi, it runs flawlessly and fast with virtually no lag, in contrast to some of the other apps and the launcher. Even if you don’t have a Pi, I recommend you check out Scratch, and for more advanced usage, it’s big brother, BYOB.

Potential

While the Pi can be sluggish at times – that’s to be expected and I’ve not been using it for long enough to make a judgement. The main draw of the Pi is it’s price and it’s potential. Everyone can have a computer now. £29 is practically a pocket money computer, and this is something that is sorely needed to get more, younger children interested in computing and programming. The potential of the Pi is limitless. Plug in a USB hub and you have a NAS that can connect as many drives as you have ports into a single array. Make your own cloud. Use it for development, or just play about with Scratch. Having looked at the architecture of the Broadcom chip used – ARMv6 – I can see that it’s possible for Android to be ported to this device, another cool use. I can’t imagine this being too difficult a task – several very popular Android phones use ARMv6 as their instruction set, such as the ZTE Blade (Orange San Francisco) and the HTC Wildfire, so maybe in the near future we could see a port. But it doesn’t have to stop there, it’s cheap enough to buy 2 or 3, and then just think what you could do…