Gone are the days when computers used to be bulky, expensive & difficult to operate. As technology progressed, the machines became smaller, smarter & cheaper – So cheap that you can get a Raspberry Pi for as little as $5! No, I am not talking about the “Pie” that you can eat – it’s literally a handy programmable electronic board which you can connect to external accessories like a monitor, keyboard etc. to transition it to a full-fledged computer. While it has a few competitors in the field now, it is still one of the most popular choices out there. It has turned into somewhat of a computing phenomenon turning into World’s third best-selling general-purpose computer. The British-made tiny electronic board has developed a massive ecosystem which can help anyone learn about computers – it has been integrated into laptops, tablets, and robots & has also run experiments on the International Space station. Let’s do a Q&A to know more about this nifty machine.
What is Raspberry Pi?
Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized electronic board which functions like a computer once the relevant accessories are attached to it. The original inspiration came from the 1981 BBC Micro – series of microcomputers launched by the BBC under the auspices of Computer Literacy Project. Unlike its inspiration which ran on BASIC, Raspberry Pi is powered by Linux operating system booting into Python programming language – also becoming the reason for the name Pi. Although it is not as fast as modern-day desktop or Laptop, it is a really cheap alternative to these mainstream machines with the capabilities of executing a multitude of educational & scientific projects at the pre-university level. All this for just $35. Great tool for the school going kids specially the ones who can’t afford those flashy & expensive machines. The motivation for the fruit named computer came from companies like Apple, Apricot Computers, and Acorn. The Raspberry boasts open hardware except the SoC (System on a Chip), which runs many of the main components (CPU, graphics, memory etc.) of the system. Most of the educations projects by Raspberry Pi are also open source & accessible to all.
Who’s the team behind Raspberry Pi?
The idea was the brainchild of Eben Upton, who was the Director of studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK. The idea struck him after he the saw the enrollment numbers drop drastically for people planning to study Computer Science. He decided to create something that would incite the interest of the young generation. The first Prototype that Upton created in 2006 was too simple a machine with limited capabilities so he didn’t take the design further until 2008 when he met University of Cambridge Professor
Alan Mycroft, Electronics Engineer Pete Lomas & others to hammer out a cost-effective machine for kids. Lomas is the founder of electronic design consultancy Norcott Technologies and eventually went on to design the printed circuit board (PCB) layout for the first Pi. The project is currently being managed by UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation – a not for profit charity with a mission to advance computer education with Upton as its founder. The original problem of dwindling interest of the students in Computer Science has been well-taken care with the tripling of students applying for enrollment at Cambridge.
When was it launched & what are its different versions?
Although the idea was conceived way back in 2006 but the first workable version was launched on February 29, 2012. The inventors had to scale down on the features of this prototype to keep the price in check but subsequent upgrades have improved the functionality significantly while keeping the same price tag. The original board had two USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, HDMI 1.3 on a board, 26 GPIO pin header, with a 700MHz single-core processor and VideoCore IV GPU capable of hardware-accelerated 1080p video playback. The founders underestimated the appeal of the device at the time of launching ordering just 10,000 for the first batch but quickly realized the mass appeal Raspberry Pi generated. The manufacturing & distribution soon had to be licensed to third parties to streamline the process & meet the demand as well. The momentum hasn’t slowed down since the shipping of the first generation of Raspberry Pi’s (Pi 1). With three generations of Pi boards released since the launch in 2012, each newer version has offered a massive upgrade over its predecessor. Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ is the high-end of the Pi boards supporting the following features:
- Broadcom BCM2837B0, Cortex-A53 (ARMv8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.4GHz
- 1GB LPDDR2 SDRAM
- 2.4GHz and 5GHz IEEE 802.11.b/g/n/ac wireless LAN, Bluetooth 4.2, BLE
- Gigabit Ethernet over USB 2.0 (maximum throughput 300 Mbps)
- Extended 40-pin GPIO header
- Full-size HDMI
- 4 USB 2.0 ports
- CSI camera port for connecting a Raspberry Pi camera
- DSI display port for connecting a Raspberry Pi touchscreen display
- 4-pole stereo output and composite video port
- Micro SD port for loading your operating system and storing data
- 5V/2.5A DC power input
- Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) support (requires separate PoE HAT)
And if you feel $35 is too much of a price tag for a device like this, try Pi Zero for just $5 albeit with lesser features than the top model, but still better than the original version launched in 2012. For details on all the models visit their Products page.
What are the uses of Raspberry Pi?
It is a great learning tool specially for kids who want to get a grip on the computers. You can create your own programs from the tools provided with the built-in operating system Raspbian (Linux optimized version) which works with a PC or a MAC. The OS comes with drag & drop functionality to write & debug programs in Python and Java. Another popular choice is Pidora – both of these work well, it’s just a matter of personal choice & which one of them resembles with your current desktop or Laptop environment. If you are still not sure you can use NOOBS (New Out Of Box Software). With this installer, it will give you the choice of multiple environments which you can try before installing the one you like. If you need to try a different OS, just hold the SHIFT key at BOOT to return to the setup menu & start over. Other Linux-based Operating System’s like OpenELEC and RaspBMC are also available while non-Linux based RISC OS also runs on Pi. Building on its earlier success with Amateur programmers, Wannabe hackers & School going children, Pi has taken a leap towards businesses to run industrial appliances, automation of factory processes and DevOps monitoring. To achieve this, the company built a Raspberry Pi compute module – the processor & memory of the Pi is put together on memory sized module which can then be attached to a custom appliance. Earlier version of this module was released in 2017.
Who are Raspberry Pi’s competitors?
Like any other pioneering invention, Raspberry Pi was followed by a string of competitors. Some of the notable ones include Asus Tinkerboard, Odroid-C2 and Orange Pi. While some beat Pi on specs & others on price, in turn sacrificing one thing or the other. Yet more like Arduinos touted as competitor sometimes is actually a micro controller board designed to execute specific programming tasks rather than being an “All in one” solution like Pi. All said & done Raspberry Pi is the pioneer in the industry with a huge community following of more than 235,000 who support & help each other with educational projects & troubleshooting. Not to mention the charity foundation is funding the cause of furthering computer education – teaching more than 150,000 children/week & more than 8.5 million people via the foundation’s online projects. in 2017 alone. On top of all this the software used in the system & the availability of a range of tools made it a favorite among others. Still not convinced if Raspberry is the one for you – Check out this comparison at Top 12 Raspberry Pi alternatives (Best of 2018).
Where can you buy Raspberry Pi?
The board is sold in a many countries & you can order it directly from the foundations website. Alternatively, UK residents can order from Premier Farnell and RS Components, while US customers can order from Allied Electronics or Newark. And while some critics argue, you end up paying a much higher price when you connect accessories like keyboards, monitors etc. to the the simple electronic board, it still comes out to be cheaper than a boxed computer. Of course, it all depends on what kind of a machine you want to end up with after the conversion. There are cheaper accessories available from third-party vendors out there which are pretty cost-effective & work with the Pi’s.
Raspberry Pi has come a long way from its inception selling more than 22 million Pi boards across the Globe in 2018. With three generations of the Raspberry Pi released, bigger & better things are in store. A team of six people has blossomed into an international organization which has offices in U.S & U.K, with a subsidiary organization, Raspberry Pi Trading which handles engineering and trading activities. The next upgrade is going to be a the biggest one yet, allowing faster & much more efficient processing. Pi 4 is expected to be released in the 2020-21 window. The good thing is that the foundation didn’t sit on its laurels & aimed to build a vibrant ecosystem & a supportive community which in turn spurred growth for bigger & better products in the future.