Raspberry Pi – The $35 computer that’s going to change the world
June 4, 2012
Okay, it’s finally time for me to make a Raspberry Pi page. I’ll write a more proper article soon, but now that I have an unboxing video, I need to give it a proper home on my website, and start becoming known as a real Raspberry Pi experience resource. Despite these thing’s awesome graphics capabilities, my plan is to turn them into a headless Raspberry Pi personal cloud blade server farm. They are not shaped great for being treated as blades, but I suppose that’s all in the custom case-work. I can totally imagine the pi-plate connectors being used to lock a row of these things into place.
You may think "big deal". It's under-powered and not Windows compatible, or a Mac. But what you're missing is that Raspberry Pi marks the passing of traditional computers into the realm of ubiquitous disposable appliances—much to the benefit of children and developing nations. The thought process goes like this: modern computers do everything possible to protect that $2000 price point that has prevailed for 30 years. Only recently, netbooks and the iPad have driven prices down to the $500 range for something decent. But we are 30+ years into the home computer revolution, and shouldn't we be at a point where actual computers that you can do interesting things with should be handed out like textbooks in school? In fact, they should be cheaper than actual text books by now. Oh wait a second... Yes, yes they are. Thank you Raspberry Pi Foundation for finally setting things straight with a $35 full-featured computer that everybody can get their hands on. And an honorary thank you to the OLPC foundation for a good college try.
You need a micro B USB cable connected to a minimum of a 700mA (milli-amps) 5V power supply. Sounds intimidating? It's not! This is an unbelievably standard power arrangement for the Raspberry Pi organization to have chosen, and typical of their "open" decisions whenever possible. Got an iPhone or iPad charger? You've got the power supply part covered. All you need now is a micro B USB connector on the end—it's the smaller, flatter tiny USB connector—not the taller notched looking one. You may have it from a digital camera or other device. A lot of cellphones like Motorola's use this connector, but typically only provide 500mA. There's no harm in trying it. Also, it's safe to go to a higher mA supply. I use a 1500mA Sony that I foolishly bought for $20 before realizing my iPhone power supplies would have done the trick.
You can run the Raspberry Pi headless, just as you can with nearly any modern computer, making it a logical choice for a very cheap micro server. The trick with the Raspberry Pi is that it does in fact have a high performance VideoCore graphics processing unit (GPU), which theoretically could get turned off, to make RPI's already incredibly efficient ~2 watt power-draw even lower, but it would have to be disabled in software. Also theoretically, you could re-purpose the GPU for other non-graphics uses. In either case, yes, the Raspberry Pi can be run headles, though all the standard requirements apply... you need to have an SSH-server running, like OpenSSH or dropbear, have proper network access to the device like getting SSH in through any firewalls, and of course know the IP or NAT of the RPI server.
What? Are you kidding? Someone actually searched on that and clicked-through to my site. I'm already in a top search rank for this, so I don't really have to write this for the audience. But come on, people! A full-fledged computer with media-center / game console capabilities for $35, and that includes networking. The point is that computers like that are fast approaching disposable, that has socially transforming implications. The computer itself is cheaper than the textbook about computing! It could be the cornerstone of a modernized education curriculum for an entire country... exactly what it was designed to be and do.
Hey, if you're just trying to learn Linux, then one alternative to the Raspberry Pi is to just download Levinux and run Linux server on your desktop with a double-click from your Mac, Windows or Linux desktop with no install! What's cheaper than $35? Free!
Not at the price-point of $35, there isn't. There are plenty of "little computers" that fall into the category of plug computers—my favorite being the SheevaPlug, of which I own five for development and micro-server purposes. There's also the GuruPlug and TodinoPlug, and I'm sure a whole host of others. But these are in the $100 range and intended to run as "headless" servers, leaving out the most difficult, and might I add, sexiest bit for consumers: high-resolution, high performance graphic output. This is what lets the Raspberry Pi work as a media center or game console. It can play back 1080p video, which is BluRay quality—and at $35, THAT'S what makes the Raspi unique right now.
The closest piece of hardware to do anything like this at the price is AppleTV, which is 3 times the price, and a closed-system, requiring hacking to do anything interesting. The CuBox comes in next at 5x the price. Raspberry Pi is the first, and currently, only one of its kind—in this low-cost to the point of being disposable category of media center-capable PCs, and perhaps more significant than the Commodore 64 (C64) or One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).
For the sake of full coverage, and per the Mashable article, a few other boards worth mentioning are another embedded 1080p-capable The Panda Board, a radically different USB PC cotton candy, the Arduino ARM competitor Beagle Board, and the extremely raw and component-like Gumstix. None are real competitors to Raspberry Pi, as either not full-fleged computers, or coming in at 4x the price-tag. Raspberry Pi is also a charity organization, so I suppose that helps keep the price low. But expect real competitors to break out over the next couple of years. This is another computer revolution in the making.
And another one just appeared that looks a lot like Cotton Candy, the Aliexpress Rikomagic.
The primary difference between the SheevaPlug and the Raspberry Pi, aside from the obvious $65 more for the SheevaPlug, is the Raspberry Pi's graphics. SheevaPlug is designed to be a headless system, with no VGA, DVI, HDMI ports or otherwise. The only way to see what's going on with a SheevaPlug is to connect in over a serial or network connection, which does not make it a good choice for running a "desktop", such as Ubuntu, or any of the other popular Linux desktop distributions. This goes for Media Servers such as XBMC, which are turning out to be popular applications for Raspberry Pi, as it is capable of 1080p BluRay-quality playback. Besides graphics, the SheevaPlug uses a faster 1.2 GHz ARM 9E, while the Raspberry Pi uses a seemingly slower 700 MHz ARM 11, but don't be fooled by the numbers. Yes, Raspberry Pi chose to go with the seemingly less powerful and older ARM 11 versus the newer Cortex A8 or Cortex A9 pushed out as a response to Intel Atom processors, but the subtleties of that decision are for another article. Plus of course, the SheevaPlug has a plastic case already.
The short answer is yes, but it may be slightly less reliable and more difficult to administrate, as you will have to host it out of your home. But you will learn a lot in the process, and save about $10/mo on tier-1 Rackspace hosting. It's perfect for running small websites.
This question is rising in popularity. I originally documented it so that I could make interchangable boot environments for the SheevaPlug, but now that the Raspberry Pi is positioned to become 1000x more popular, this question is probably for you. First of all, you need to use a machine that has enough storage to hold the image... or else, you need TWO sd slots. So that pretty much rules out using the Raspberry Pi or SheevaPlug to do the copy. You preferrably need to do the work on a Linux box with enough hard drive space and an SD card reader, because it has all the necessary tools, including dd, which is a raw media copy command built into Linux. The rest of the answer of how to copy an SD card is here.