Low-Cost Computing: What Can the $35 Raspberry Pi PC Do for You?

By Brad Chacos, dealnews contributor

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 Pi

The 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 PC

As 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 Storage

Speaking 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.

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Thanks for the great info! I've been on the lookout for a 'pint sized' pc to start programming on, but haven't decided which machine to get. This article gave me some good pointers: http://www.technected.com/...to-program-on-the-fly but is Raspberry Pi really the best one to start with? Obviously $35 is not that big of an investment, but would be interested to hear everyone else's opinions.
Every hobby is a waste of time and money!  Watching TV is a waste of time and money (you had to buy it didn't you?).  Professorial (or college sports) - more time wasters and big money if you you go the game.  Me typing this is a waste of .....  Reading the crap I am writing is a waste of time and money (electricity).

How about your car, home or even computer choice?  Did you really NEED one that size or would smaller work?  Then it is a waste of money.

We ALL justify what we do in our own messed up brains.  Enjoy your own waste of time (hobby) as long as your not harassing other people  (like writing negative comments on the internet).  Notice how my harassing is written is a positive way.  

Enjoy your day - if you want to.  (I don't want to tell you what to do.)
I disagree since your negative comments lack substance.  What you mean to say is ... its a waste of time/money if you dont have a clue what this thing really is and/or  you dont have the desire to tinker with things and say 'I did it'!   THings like this are for those people who are never satisfied with just turning on their PC and it works.  Some of us want to knwo why? We want to see more ideas. These type of ideas are what propel young kids/adults into thinking.  This Thinking at minimum leads to goals and careers for those people.  A lot of young people do not have a clue about what they want to do yet some of us are simply waiting for the right 'thing' to come into our life. For some its accounting, some its mechanics, others its making something work that doesnt.   The only thing that is a waste of time, generally speaking, is when you have a shallow or negative view of something and express it so shallowly.  This thing isnt a waste of time, as you state so generally.  For most people, yes it is, but the people reading the article, no its not. It may not be what they want, and for them, they already know 'its a waste of their time'.  For those that are intrigued by it and see a value in it and/or a challenge, its a Great Use of Time!  I will become more knowledgeable about another sector of IT hardware, codecs, operating systems, programming, etc.   
I wish people would be more less self centered.. thats the bottom line.
Why does anyone make homemade pie? It's for cooking geeks with too much time who like to bake things "because they can".  For just $8-10 you can just get a pie from the store which is already made.  It's silly to assume that we all have flour, eggs, and lard!  And if we already DO have them, then they are already used for other daily dishes.  Why would I want to make my own Pi...er...pie?
 In my opinion yes its waste of time, If you buy all stuff you need to do project is more expensive then ready-made stuff.
I firmly believe that Rasberry Pi is a waste of time and money unless you are a geek with too much time who likes to do things "because they can", and not because they need to. For just $80-100 you can get a used netbook, which can do a lot more, has monitor, keyboard and mouse built in and more usb ports. It is silly to assume that we all have all required peripherals already. And if we already DO have them, then they are used with our main PC!!! Why would I want to unplug my monitor, mouse and kb from my main PC and use them with the Rasberry Pi?
I received mine after a 2 month wait.  When one of the distributors gets them in their stock buy quick!  They'll only lasts a couple of hours.  Using the Debian image.  I am setting it up as a web server and whatever else it will handle.  Instructions on different web sites don't match up with what I had to do so after some trial and error I got it working, HDMI out 1080p with small external hard drive.  Not plug and play but that's part of the mission of this little gem.  They also assume you have all of the peripherals available to keep the cost down.  I had to re-purpose a LCD TV with composite video and HDMI to get a console screen.  You will have to have composite video for initial console, change the config.txt file to get output on HDMI port.

Someone told me that there's an Android build available.  If so that would be interesting to try next.