Everyone is interested in creating the most powerful custom-built supercomputer, but it’s time to look smaller. Size isn’t everything. There is a reasonably-priced computer on the market that can fit inside just about anyone’s pockets. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity founded in Britain focused on teaching children programming and Computer Science, and they created the Raspberry Pi. I’m not talking about the ones your mother used to make you! The Raspberry Pi is a miniature computer that comes in 3 main versions.
- The Pi Zero
- Model A
- Model B
It’s easy to overlook the Raspberry Pi as it isn’t the most powerful computer, however, in my opinion, it is the most versatile. It is a computer so small that it fits quite nicely in the palm of your hand. It just goes to show how far we have come with computers!
But what can you do with a Raspberry Pi?
I’ve given you a quick introduction to these miniature computers, but what can you really do with a computer that small? If they are not the most powerful computers or the best, what can they actually be used for? The real answer to that question is quite surprising, but I’ll give you the quick, cliché answer… they are only limited by your imagination. These are just some examples of things you can do.
- Simple Computer / Laptop
- Mobile Phone
- Virtual Assistant (like a Google Home or Echo Dot)
- Personal Web Server
- RFID Card Reader
- DSLR Camera
- Audio Synthesizer
- Arcade Cabinet / Game Emulator
I could go on, but this is simply just a list of some things people have actually created from a Raspberry Pi (except for the supercomputer, where it took an array of these devices). The Raspberry Pi Foundation has recently celebrated their 6th anniversary of selling them. When you have a Pi doing a certain task that you no longer need, you can simply take it apart and start again from scratch. Just remember to keep all of your external devices and plugins to reuse in your next project!
When starting off with a Raspberry Pi, there are a few things you will need to get. No matter the kind of project you are undertaking, you’ll need the following items.
- Raspberry Pi (Obviously)
- Keyboard & mouse
- Monitor with connecting cable (HDMI works fine, Mini-HDMI for Zero)
- Case (Admittedly optional but highly recommended)
- Power Source (Micro USB, like older (and some newer!) Android phones)
- SD Card
When it comes to buying a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, you don’t need to get anything fancy or top of the line. You can use any old USB-based keyboard and mouse lying around. I’ve also used my TV screen as a monitor before. When buying a Pi, the model you get isn’t all that important. If you wanted to spend more money, you could get a newer model. Newer models are smaller and faster, but, that being said, I have the older B+ and I’ve never had any issues. The B+ was released in 2014 and is part of the 1st generation of Raspberry Pis. There are 3 main generations with sub-generations of each, but I won’t go into too much detail here.
Buying your Pi
If you wish to purchase a Raspberry Pi, you can get one straight from Amazon. However, I would recommend buying them directly from licensed resellers, who purchase the Pis straight from the company. You can then choose where you are buying from and if you are purchasing personally or as a business.
When buying from the resellers, you can choose Ireland as one of the places to deliver to. Prices for delivery are then calculated and displayed in Euro. There are start-up kits on Amazon that combine the Raspberry Pi with a case, power supply, and an SD card, as well as other packs that will also include input devices like sensors and keyboards. However, you don’t need to buy every single accessory for the Pi straight away. I personally prefer to purchase what I need as I go.
There is also a forum created by the company on their website, with a sub-forum for buying and selling second-hand Pis. The issue with buying from the forum is very few of the people are selling just the board itself. Instead, many of them come already as part of a completed project and in my opinion, this takes away from the fun of making your project yourself. Most of the Raspberry Pis are priced between €20 and €40, with a case for your Pi being around €10. This makes the Raspberry Pi a very cheap computer that can still be used to complete a lot of tasks. You can also combine it with an Arduino board to create robots, 3D printers and a whole lot more!
The list of things you can do never ends.
When first using your Raspberry Pi, you will need to install an operating system (OS) such as Raspbian. Don’t panic when you start to see complicated words like “operating system”! You use operating systems every day. Popular operating systems include Windows, MacOS, and the various different distributions of Linux. Linux comes in many distributions (distros for short), each one having their own advantages and disadvantages. The single most popular Linux distribution is Ubuntu. Android is another OS based on Linux, something a lot of people don’t know! Everyone knows about Android. What’s more, different phone manufacturers (known as OEMs) use their own modified versions of Android. Samsung names their Android user interface “TouchWiz Grace UX”, while Xiaomi simply names theirs “MIUI”.
We don’t need to go into that much detail though, really.
Installing the Operating System
First things first, we need to set up the operating system for our Raspberry Pi. Some suppliers will provide an SD card with the OS already downloaded, but I’ll show you how to install the OS in case you don’t have it pre-installed. You can click here to go to the download page where you can download the OS for free. There are many operating systems we can use, but we are going to keep it simple for the moment and stick to the default operating system the company distributes officially. This is called Raspbian (which is based on Debian, a Unix-like operating system) and can be installed either by yourself or by using NOOBS. I am going to use NOOBS as it is a step-by-step installer for Raspbian.
When you go to the download page for your Raspberry Pi, click on NOOBS and download it. It will download as a .zip file. You are also going to need to format your SD card. This will erase all data from your SD card leaving it entirely empty and ready to use. You do this by inserting your SD card into your computer, right clicking on it in your file explorer, and choosing “Format”. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to copy everything over to your SD card.
This is where the .zip file we downloaded earlier comes in. All you need to do is extract the file onto your SD card. Once the transfer is complete, you can put your card into your Raspberry Pi and you’re ready to use your Pi. To extract it, simply right click the file and choose “Extract to…” and select your SD card.
We have covered a lot of the basics of Raspberry Pis already! There is just so much behind the Raspberry Pi that I simply cannot cover it in one article. Therefore, I’m going to continue writing about these devices in later articles and bring you along my journey. Next time, we are going to plug our Raspberry Pi into a monitor and start using the Pi in its basic, simplest form. We are then going to start creating things with the Pi and hopefully do something special with it! If you want to learn more about Raspberry Pis in the meantime, visit the company’s website here where they have their own blogs and 2 magazines dedicated to their miniature computers.