What is it?
It’s a full-fledged computer on a board that is about the size of a credit card.
In the case of the Raspberry Pi 2, here are the very impressive specs:
- Quad-core ARM CPU running @ 900MHz (overclock-able)
- 1GB RAM
- HDMI video
- 10/100 Ethernet
- 4 x USB 2.0 ports
- MicroSD card for storage (up to 64GB?)
- Cost: $35 – http://www.element14.com/community/community/raspberry-pi/raspberrypi2
What does it run?
It runs versions of Linux and Android mainly. The most popular operating system is “Raspbian Wheezy” – which is pretty user-friendly. For those familiar with Linux, this is very nice variant of Debian Linux very straight-forward and “relatively” easy to use.
However, later this year (supposedly), Microsoft is releasing a version of Windows 10 that will run on Raspberry Pi too.
That’s very significant, because most people are familiar with Microsoft Windows. One of the biggest positive things for me is that we could eventually use all of the things which we are familiar with: like Visual Studio, Phidgets, etc – to make useful machines. If you run Linux, you must write programs in Python, etc. But wait, how bad is that? How difficult is Python? We’ll cover that in a minute.
So for now especially, you WILL have to tinker with it – but that is the point. You explore, you learn, you work with a computing environment that is unfamiliar.
The huge, huge upside though is that there is an enormous market and supportive community around the Raspberry PI. This means any question you will have – from the most-basic, to very-advanced – chances are you’ll find the answer in minutes. If not, you’ll find tons of people engaged on forums where you can ask your questions.
What can a kid do with a Pi?
The sky is the limit, really. Here are some examples though:
- Hook it to a TV and use the “Windows”-like environment to explore:
- Learn and use Scratch, which is installed by default
- Learn and use the Python development tools, which are installed by default. Python is probably the simplest “real” programming language to learn.
- Use it as a computer – there is an “App Store” of apps and games available, and web browsers – like Google Chrome
- Use it as a learning platform for programming, robotics, and computing:
- Learn how to install a web server and set up a web site
- Use the General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) pins on the board to hook up sensors, controllers, motors, and relays. Most of these parts are a few dollars to $10 dollars maybe.
By the way, if one learns Raspbian, this is a Debian Linux-based operating system. A good chunk of the planet’s computer servers run some variant of Linux. So, as you get skilled in Raspberry Pi, you’ve incidentally learned a remarkable job skill too: Linux!
Learn Python with a PiGlow:
One idea that I really like is this idea of a PiGlow. It’s a board you can buy for $7 which plugs into the GPIO ports of the Pi. It has 18 VERY bright LED’s of different colors.
“I don’t get it. What do you do with it?”, you say. Well, that’s sort of the point, you can do whatever you want with it. There are programs to have the LED’s light up or pulse to a specific pattern, for example.
One idea I liked is having these LED’s light up based on CPU usage on the Pi. Where do you even begin with that? You get one of these in mail, you plug it into the Pi and boot up – and it doesn’t do anything. You have to program it to do something!
Luckily, if you are not aware, programming in the modern era is more more akin to assembling Lego blocks than it is worrying about 1’s and 0’s. So, the code to do that looks like this (source: https://github.com/benleb/PyGlow/blob/master/examples/cpu.py):
So, as a non-Python programming, can you take a wild guess at what this program does? It uses this PyGlow module, then loops every .2 of a second – it gets the CPU percent. If it’s less than the certain values, it turns on various LED’s. In fact, I wrote a whole blog post about how to work with this PyGlow and get this exact example working:
Getting a PiGlow to work with a Raspberry Pi 2
You should check that out as a good example of the kind of tediousness that would typically be required for setting up the Pi, and completing a Pi project.
CALL TO ACTION: Consider getting a Pi / get a Pi for your child
Again, to be VERY clear, for the most part you don’t get a Raspberry Pi as a finished product, to use. The Raspberry Pi is really ideal as a tool for exploring, learning, and even prototyping projects and products. With the General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) ports, you can connect power relays, sensors, controllers, etc to it too. So, you can use the Pi for interacting with the real world via these sensors, relays, and motor controllers. This is a full-fledged computer – just waiting to be programmed!
You CAN use a Pi as your main computer, or hook it to your TV, but if you are just looking for something to host your web browser, then there are other options. So, if you are up for a fun challenge, why not get a Pi? Here are couple of ways you could go:
As a living room computer (you can often get much of this in “packages” too, but many are overpriced):
Price Item $35 Raspberry Pi $8 “Class 10” 16GB MicroSD card $– Network cable ($12.99/5-pack if you don’t have any extra laying around the house) $9 Wi-Fi/USB module (not easy to setup, but a good project to take-on) $12 USB power cable $7 HDMI cable $17 Bluetooth keyboard/mouse (these are great!!) $88 TOTAL
As a headless “server” (running on the network, but not plugged into a monitor/keyboard; you connect over the network):
Price Item $35 Raspberry Pi $8 “Class 10” 16GB MicroSD card $– Network cable ($12.99/5-pack if you don’t have any extra laying around the house) $9 Wi-Fi/USB module (not easy to setup, but a good project to take-on) $12 USB power cable $64 TOTAL
and then if you want to buy a PiGlow, those are $7 on Amazon. For a child, this is useful because this is an inexpensive, extensible platform with an enormous community of support. In google type “raspberry pi” and anything you can imagine and you’ll find page after page of DIY-types sharing information on how they worked on their Pi project.
For example, type in “raspberry pi weather station” and there are 165,000 results. You could hook temperature, humidity, compass, GPS, and anemometer sensors to the Pi, then create a web site on the Pi itself which gives you a nice front-end for accessing all of that data in real time. Build a housing for it and mount it to the outside of your house. You’ve got a fully-operational weather station you built yourself! Those sensors by the way are typically $2 to maybe $10 – but a couple (like GPS) costing upwards of ~$17.
If this was some expensive product, that would be one thing – but the Pi costs $35! I can think of no better toy/tool that has as much value – which only costs $35
For a hand’s-on way to learn hardware and software in a fun, engaging way – with a huge community of support, there is no better technology at the moment.