Low-Cost Computing: What Can the $35 Raspberry Pi PC Do for You?
An air of confusion is permeating some of the excitement surrounding the credit card-sized, $35 Raspberry Pi mini-PC. This Linux-based computer (in the traditional sense) connects your TV and keyboard and can handle spreadsheets, word-processing, video games, HD video, and more. But what else is the fruity-named PC capable of? Will it only work for those with computer science degrees? Well, if you want your Pi to brew coffee or help you control Lego robots with your mind, you'll definitely need to get elbow-deep into code editing. But the consumer-friendly priced Raspberry Pi is also chock full of easy programs that the (Slightly Above) Average Joe or Jane can tap into with a minimum of legwork and only a small amount of coding and command line knowledge.
The Cost of a Raspberry PiThe Raspberry Pi, as a bare-bones board that plugs into a TV and keyboard is a cool $35. It's got 256Mb RAM, two USB ports and an Ethernet port, and is just bigger than a cigarette box. But it can't do anything computery without power and some peripherals. In order for the Pi to work as a PC, users will have to bring a Class 4 4GB SD card (loaded with an operating system), their own keyboard, mouse, and a monitor to the party, in addition to a set of USB and Ethernet cords to connect the PC to the Internet and various other devices.
To boot up, the Raspberry Pi draws energy via a micro-USB connection. An old micro-USB phone charging cable with an AC adapter laying around will work great; they're about $5 otherwise. It's also smart to invest in a case (it's just slightly larger than an Altoids tin, for you DIY folks) to keep your Raspberry Pi dust-free. It may seem like the costs associated with running a Raspberry Pi will add up, but a fully decked-out machine will only set you back about $60, assuming you've already got a keyboard, mouse, and monitor/TV handy.
Basic Computing Tasks
Before we delve into the niche slices of Raspberry Pi, it's worth noting that the PC is perfectly capable of handling everyday computing tasks well enough, making it a great low-cost solution for accessing the Internet. That said, the Raspberry Pi won't break any benchmark testing scores or even load YouTube videos — there's no Adobe Flash support. However, the basic Linux operating system allows users to surf the Web and check email just fine; its user interface is very friendly to boot. Likewise, the hardware has enough oomph to watch H.264- or MPEG-4-encoded videos or edit basic documents and spreadsheets, though early users say it takes several seconds to open apps and files. eLinux's Raspberry Pi wiki is a great resource for learning how to get started.
The Pi as a Media Center PCAs a media center things start to get interesting. The Broadcom processor powering the Pi can play both music and 1080p HD video, while HDMI (not VGA) and RCA ports handle outbound audio/video signals — making the Raspberry Pi an intriguing multimedia device. As mentioned, the PC supports H.264- and MPEG-4 encoded video by default, while low-cost MPEG-2 and VC1 video licenses are available directly from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
A Raspberry Pi-focused variation of the popular XBMC media center app has appeared in the form of the Raspbmc Linux distribution, bringing along DLNA compatibility, an attractive interface, automatic updating, full remote control, and Apple AirPlay support. It's fairly straightforward to setup, though digging into some of the more advanced features might take some homework. Once Raspbmc is set up, all you need to do is connect the Pi to your network or an external hard drive and settle down with some popcorn.
The Pi as Cheap Network StorageSpeaking of external hard drives, plug a sizeable one into the Raspberry Pi's USB, then connect the Pi to a network, and voila!, you've got a large, cheap network file server available to share files with a number of other devices, including Windows and Linux PCs, Macs, and Android phones ... or you can set up another Pi as your media PC.
But setting up a media center is a bit more complicated than just surfing the web. Mounting a USB disk and setting up the Samba file server software requires tinkering with configuration files and adding lines of code. Fortunately, the folks at eLinux explain how to do each with simple, step-by-step instructions.
If that whets your whistle and you're feeling adventurous, Instructables can walk you through setting up a Raspberry Pi as a basic web server. It's not quite for beginners, though.
Learn How to Program
We all secretly want the Pi to brew our coffee, but for the beginner programmer, there's a lot to learn. But that's the whole reason the Raspberry Pi Foundation created the pint-sized PC! The Pi was built with Python, a beginner-friendly programming language designed to help wannabe programmers of all ages get into the coding game. Then, with the command line and basic coding principles mastered, the sky's the limit. Watch out Starbucks!
What Can Pi Do for You?
We're excited to see more from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, including cases, mods, and more. But in the meantime, do you think consumers even want a Raspberry Pi? Or are they just for DIY computer guys or gals? If you're a Pi owner, what do you hope to make with your mini PC and what have you done with it so far? Sound off in the comments below.