A brand-new device cleverly called Raspberry Pi began making headlines long before its February 2012 release; but then the news around this tiny, cleverly named piece of hardware exploded, as all 11,000 models from the first production run sold out in the first day. So what's all the fuss about? This smaller, more accessible piece of hardware runs on an open-source Linux operating system and features a scaled-down build that allows for a very different distribution model than that of the conventional laptop. Plus, in a day where the hottest release is the latest pricey Apple product, Pi provides a lot of functionality for an unbeatably low price. Here we take a look at Pi and what it means for the PC market.
The Fundamentals of Pi
For consumers, there are two main questions about Raspberry Pi that often come up first: how much does it cost, and where does it come from? Both of these answers will astound many who have gotten used to the kinds of laptops sold by big name retailers. First, Raspberry Pi was released for a retail price of between $25 and $35 (depending on the model), making it very appealing to those who need a simpler, cheaper PC.
The answer to the second question is that the Raspberry Pi is being developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the U.K. with ties to the Cambridge University Computer Lab. While the foundation claims to have most of the development work done for this ground-breaking piece of equipment, exclusive distributors Premier Farnell and RS Components are actually selling the Pi to consumers.
A New Kind of "Kid’s Computer"
While the Raspberry Pi's design is certainly unique, there’s a lot more to the idea behind it. Much of the buzz around this computer relate to its application to a younger audience. While there have been other efforts to make computers for kids, such as One Laptop Per Child and Aakash, the Raspberry Pi is designed engage kids in using computers, not just for art and other common end-user activities, but for programming as well. As you might imagine, most people think this will be an increasingly important skill in the workforce.
But the Pi is also unique in that it doesn't feature the flashy screen designs and easy controls that characterize newer big-name operating systems and applications for the average PC. That’s not what the designers of the Raspberry Pi had in mind. Instead, this device is intended to help kids get back to the time of the Commodore and the Atari, back when the fundamental machine controls of a computer were not hidden by windows and other dressed-up interfaces. That’s what Raspberry Pi delivers to kids and other users through prominent access to back-end coding. Raspberry Pi's makers aimed to create an easy way for kids to get into coding environments and really get their feet wet with languages like Python, C and Perl, as well as KidsRuby, a programming language made for younger developers. (And seriously, how cool is that?)
A brief look at KidsRuby and how it works shows that many times, this kind of access combines a visual component as a lead-in with an actual command-line screen where kids and adults alike can learn to code. Just a little exposure to this kind of interface, which hearkens back to the old MS-DOS days when end users selected files and explored a hard drive with command lines, is enough to bring a new generation back to an ability to develop basic programming skills. That’s why the Raspberry Pi, which the foundation members hope to introduce in U.K. schools, is such a revolution in teaching tomorrow’s users more about how a computer actually works.
Not Just For Kids
Aside from its benefits for younger users, the Raspberry Pi is also very attractive to many hobbyists for all sorts of uses. Some want to explore command-line coding, while others may want to use the device for digital art or other kinds of hobbies. The Pi may look like a circuit board, but it's a fully functioning computer. That means you can use it to do just about anything. That's why its portable size – and the price it's selling for – is spurring dreams of computerizing just about anything and everything.
What's Under the Hood?
Along with the open-source operating system and the specific kinds of programs mentioned above, the Raspberry Pi's hardware also promotes its makers main goals. The Raspberry Pi is what’s called an ARM machine, a type of reduced instruction set computer. ARM technology is used in devices like cellphones and other smaller pieces of hardware that don’t need the full set of circuitry found in a standard laptop. The idea behind the ARM is that through taking away some of the advanced hardware instructions, or microcode, of more complex devices, a processing unit can operate leaner, and with faster clock rates.
In terms of its actual physical size, the Raspberry Pi's circuit board is about the size of a credit card. The device includes a USB for peripherals, and not much more. There’s also an Ethernet port for connecting to the Internet. Amazingly, there are also audio, video and HDMI connectors built into the tiny card. What’s not in the Raspberry Pi is a large amount of memory: the larger RPi machine has 256 MB of RAM at a time when many standard laptops come with a gigabyte. That said, scaled-back design lets the device work well despite these limitations.
Small Device, Big Changes
The emergence of this new kind of computer is exciting to many who like more accessible technology that shows its work and encourages users to get more familiar with how a device functions. It’s also a source of great curiosity to those who like to experiment with using smaller hardware. This Linux PC may be small, but it's sure grabbed a huge slice of the spotlight.