The incredibly cheap and incredibly small, credit-card-sized computer is finally here. But was it worth the wait?
When the Raspberry Pi computer went on sale in February, demand was such that the initial batch sold out almost immediately, and many thousands of others who placed orders are still waiting while production struggles to catch up. Designed to encourage children to learn computer programming, this tiny computer has also caught the imagination of hobbyists, and it faces the weight of their expectations.
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To the uninitiated it might be hard to see what all the fuss is about, particularly given that the RasPi, as it’s affectionately known, looks less like a computer and more like something that fell out of one. It’s a basic machine that comprises little more than a green circuit board, and which has less processing power than some smartphones. That’s the point, however; the creators have deliberately kept its price and features to a minimum.
The flipside of this simplicity is that owning a RasPi has a steep learning curve, which starts from the moment it arrives. Before you can even power it up you’ll need extra components, including a power supply, HDMI video cable and a 4GB SD card.
If you don’t have them, it’s best to buy them in a bundle when ordering the computer as this should avoid the need to prepare the SD card with a suitable operating system – a step that requires a PC with an SD card slot. Many users are likely to also need a powered USB hub, as the RasPi’s two USB slots will be needed for a keyboard and mouse. No case is available yet.
The Raspberry Pi can’t run Windows. Instead it loads Debian, a version of the command-line Linux family of operating systems. It’s quite an unfriendly environment for newcomers, but fortunately typing ‘StartX’ loads the X Window System on top, providing a familiar, mouse-controlled environment, with easy-to-use menus.
X Windows contains useful software, such as a basic web browser, but it’s possible to add more, including the Linux versions of the Gimp image-editing program and the Open Office suite. It’s early days for the RasPi, however, and at the moment this kind of everyday computing is rather slow and frustrating. Software updates should help speed it up.
All this would miss the point of the Raspberry Pi, though – it’s intended to help people understand technology and create their own software rather than use other people’s. It comes pre-installed with several coding tools and there is a growing, enthusiastic community to offer support. The RasPi isn’t a pain-free experience but it’s a great programming platform.
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If you fancy a challenge, the RasPi provides it – from the moment you unpack it
Incredibly cheap; Surprisingly powerful; Great for hobbyists
Requires patience and the will to learn; Cases not yet available
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