I never really understood the attraction of the Raspberry Pi when I first heard about it. I mean, how successful can a little ARM-based computer that’s fully programmable be that next big thing that every geek wants? Over time though, I’ve seen some rather cool stuff done with the Pi and I think it’s time it earned its place in the Fantasy Friday column.

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The Raspberry Pi is a small, credit card-sized computer that was designed and contructed by the Raspberry company, headed by a group of geeks from the University of Cambrige. Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft became concerned about the failure rates of students in the Computer Science classes at the university. Scores of students were failing because they didn’t have a good grasp on programming or working with hardware code. Students applying for the course in the 90s had flied through because they didn’t have Facebook or Google and neither did they have a singular viewpoint on how computer should work.

Stone Age PC

Upton and his colleagues figured that there were a number of issues at play that caused the student’s failures. The colonisation of the curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages in Publisher; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on were all factors considered in how different the students in the class of 2006 were compared to Eben and his colleagues who graduated in 1999.

To that end, they created a small PC. In 2008, Eben and his group joined up with two others, Pete Lomas (MD Hardware design at Norcott Tech) and David Braben (co-author of the videogame Elite) who formed the Raspberry company. They pooled resources together to mass-produce miniature computers based on available ARM technology.

Raspberry Pi

It runs a Broadcom BCM2835 ARM11 processor at clock speeds of 700MHz, with some software hacks able to make it run stably at 1GHz. The original version only came out with 256MB of DDR2 RAM, later upgraded to 512MB. It uses a SD card to hold the OS partition and has HDMI and RCA video ports. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack, two USB 2.0 ports and various header pins for attaching other devices, like a camera or a diagnostic display. It originally only had very trimmed down Linux OSes available, like Arch Linux or Puppy Linux. Debian was also popular, but needed the overclock hack to make it run smoother. Its also going to sport Android pretty soon as an official version is in the works by the Raspberry dev team.

As of today, they’re fabricating and custom-making four thousand of these things a month. Just what do people do with it? Eben Upton managed to run Quake 3 on it.

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Other people have made programs to control LED lighting cubes to make great light shows on your desk:

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If that wasn’t enough, some people use it to automate their homes:

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OpenELEC, a really nice Linux base for XMBC media servers, has a special version for it and there’s hardware video encoding and transcoding. It even has spares to enable operation using a infrared remote:

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And some people are particularly insane. I reported on October 12th last year that Professor Simon Cox, a lecturer at the University of Southhampton in the UK, had managed to network and integrate no less than 64 Raspberry Pi machines into one, addressable and workable supercomputer.

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Its nothing supremely powerful and I doubt it would even manage to make one Bitcoin in its lifetime, but it is powered from just one 13 Amp wall plug. It cost just $2500 for all the parts and includes sixty-four 16GB SD cards for a total of 1TB addressable storage space. It’s not powering Skynet, but it’s still really cool. It can even calculate Pi to a very, very long number that I won’t try type here.

All over the world, students and bloggers are pouring their notes in on what they’re doing with the low-cost computer and how they’re using it. One school in Binshua, Cameroon, has their entire IT system running of these incredible machines. The fact that it cost them less than their original estimate for desktop computers and that the Pis are mounted using VESA mounts on the back of the monitor is just icing on the cake.

There are competitors to the Pi that are better or poorer for similar jobs. There’s the Arduino, another popular small computer that’s making waves in the Linux world. Then there’s the Via Nano. There’s even a bunch of mini-PCs powered by Android the size of a flash drive, with HDMI ports, wireless antennae and even miniSD ports for storage. Its a market that has taken the computing world out of its comfort zone and it’s the beginning of the next processor war – ARM versus x86. These processors are so cheap to make and do so many things well enough that it boggles the mind why anyone with a super-low budget wouldn’t consider it.

Raspberry Pi perspex case

But the Pi is still the king. The Raspberry companies doesn’t plan on making new versions that are any more expensive for the moment, but cheap quad-core ARM designs are on their way. Nvidia’s Tegra 2 may even be made to be cheaply accessible for emerging markets, given its good performance in Android and it’s ability to play many games available on the Google Play Store. The Pi started it all though and everyone seems to want a little piece of it.

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