Introduction to the raspberry pi

In 2009 the Raspberry Pi Foundation was founded by Eben Upton who along with a group of teachers and academics from Cambridge University set about trying to produce a micro-computer that would stimulate learning electronics and programming skills in children. Though now manufactured in Wales, the first batch of 10,000 was created in China in 2012, by 2013 they had already pushed past 1,000,000 product sales. 

What's made the Rasberry Pi especially successful is its adoption among the developer community beyond it's intended audience. The simplicity and size of the product (about the width and height of a credit card), has opened up a world of opportunities for developers to use their programming skills on physical devices. A quick search on Google will reveal everything from arcade games and voice controlled robots through to a self-opening door activated by a dog bark. The options are endless. 

What's a Raspberry Pi?

The short answer is, a very small computer. Essentially it's a no-thrills circuit board offering all the core ports you would expect on a normal computer (USB, HDMI, Ethernet...). Everything is scaled down, so for example the hard drive is replaced with an SD card slot.

What makes the Pi different is the size and cost (around £30 for the latest model). With a computer the size of the credit card, it's easy to build into a portable project. So what do you get for your money? Here's the specs for the latest model at time of writing:

  • 700Mhz ARM11 CPU
  • 512 Mb RAM
  • HDMI Output
  • Composite Video output
  • 3.5mm Audio Out
  • 2 x USB 2.0 Ports
  • 10/100 Ethernet Port
  • Supports XBMC
  • Broadcom VideoCore VI capable of full 1080p HD
  • Boots from SD Card

The image below illustrates the layout and ports available on the same model:

Raspberry Pi

Source: RasberryPi.Org

Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi

Choose your bundle

You can buy standalone Rasberry Pi Model B from amazon for £29.99, but it might be worth having a think about what you're going to use the pi for first as you're likely going to need a few extras. What are you going to need to plug in to the USB ports? Do you need to access wifi? 

Note that it is possible to remote desktop onto the RPi, so technically you could get away without needing a mouse, keyboard or monitor once you've configured it.  It's also worth noting that model B comes with an HDMI port, therefore you may need an adapter if using an older monitor, you can get HDMI to classic VGA cables on amazon.

If you're looking for a more comprehensive starter pack, Maplin do a pretty good package, though check you need everything they're offering or you'll end up overpaying. One of the benefits of the bundle is that it will come with an SD card that has the Rasbian operating system pre-steup. Talking of operating systems...

The Operating System

Based on the Debian flavour of Linux, Raspbian is currently the leading operating system for the Rasberry Pi. Rasbian is completely free and open-source, you can obtain an image for it to load onto your SD card. Here's some quick instructions for loading it onto an SD card (do this on your main computer):

  • Download some software that will let you put an image file onto a disk, two common options are Win32DiskManager  or Fedora ARM Installer
  • Download the Rasbian raw image
  • Extract the downloaded zip file
  • Open your chosen software and connect your SD card to your computer
  • Select the SD card and browse to the extracted image file
  • Click to install / write
  • Once complete, eject the SD card and connect it to your Rasberry Pi, you're good to go!

On first boot you'll be presented with some configuration options, like autobooting into LXDE,  this a graphical user interface which windows users will be more familiar with.

Uses for the Raspberry Pi

And there you have it, you're now up and running with mini-computer! The only question now is what you want to do with it, here's some interesting implementations to get you thinking:

Driving a Roomba with a Wii controller.

Next Post > How to remote desktop on to your Rasberry Pi


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A step by step guide of how to remote desktop onto a Raspberry Pi using Xming and RDP.

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