Raspberry Pi: The smart person's guide

Everything you need to know about the tiny, ultra-cheap computer that has taken the world by storm.

The latest version of the Raspberry Pi, which came out earlier this year
Image: Matt Richardson mrichardson23@gmail.com

The Raspberry Pi's success defied expectations. Conceived as an affordable computer for getting kids to learn how to code, its creators thought they'd sell 1,000. They've sold more than 12 million. Here's why.

Executive summary

  • What it is: A credit card-sized computer that costs as little as $5 that spawned a community of millions of home makers and programmers.
  • What it does: A lot. Despite its low-cost, the Pi can be run as no frills PC, a pocketable coding computer, a hub for homemade hardware and more.
  • Why it matters: The Pi is a great machine for stoking interest in programming among schoolchildren worldwide and helping create the next generation of developers.
  • Who it affects: Anyone with the inclination to pick up a Pi and start tinkering.
  • Who are the Raspberry Pi's competitors? Some boards beat the Pi 3 on specs, such as Odroid-C2, and others on price, but few have the Pi's breadth of software and community support.
  • When is this happening: Right now. More than 12 million Pi boards have sold since the machine's launch in 2012 and demand was reinvigorated by the release of the Raspberry Pi 3.
  • Where is this happening: All over the world, with the Pi's official forums supporting a community of more than 150,000 active users.
  • Who is making it happen: A not for profit charity on a mission to get the world interested in how computers work.
  • How to get it: Online from Premier Farnell and RS Components, if you're based in the UK, or from Allied Electronics or Newark, if you're in the US.

What is it?

A credit card-sized computer that went on to become the best-selling UK computer of all time.

Key to the Pi's success has been its price. It's not the most powerful machine in the world but for the less than $40 it offers a computer that can be used to build homebrew electronics and put together programs on a budget.

The charitable foundation behind the Pi hasn't rested on its laurels, upgrading the Pi's specs three times since launch, while keeping the price at $35. In that time, the Pi's processing power has grown tenfold, putting the Pi into the category of a machine that, in a pinch, could be used as a everyday PC. In hard specs the top-end model, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, has a 1.2 GHz quad-core, 64-bit ARM Cortex A53 processor, 1GB RAM, a 400MHz graphics processing unit capable of HD video playback, 802.11n wi-fi and Ethernet support, and four USB 2.0 ports.

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What it does

The Pi was created as an affordable machine that would help kids learn how computers work but has arguably become far more than that.

You can use the Pi as a desktop PC replacement, albeit with limitations when it comes to web browsing, though there's a myriad of possible uses for the board.

Media center, weather station, virtual assistant, smart home hub, 'high performance' clusters, virtual desktop thin client, robot brain, Lego-powered book scanner, retro games console, eye in the sky, drone guidance — you name it, someone's done it.

If none of these take your fancy then there's always the option of using the wealth of programming-oriented software bundled with the Pi's official Raspbian OS to learn about coding and hardware hacking.

The Pi has been the bedrock of some spectacular creations and has even made the trip to the International Space Station.

Setting up the Pi is slightly different, and possibly slightly more complex, than your average computer desktop, though not by much. There are easy to follow guides online, and the NOOBS (New Out-Of-Box Software) installer makes getting the computer up and running relatively easy.

Depending on what you want to do, NOOBS can install various operating systems, for example Raspbian for a desktop PC, or the software OSMC for a media center. Once in the Pi's official Raspbian OS, you have all the basics you'd expect from a desktop PC, such as a word processor, web browser and email client.

The price of the Pi is a bone of contention for some, who point out that while the board itself is $35 or less, getting a Pi up and running requires a keyboard, likely a mouse, screen, power supply and SD card. The cost of this equipment adds up to far more than that of the Pi itself, however, as the charitable foundation that make the Pi rightly point out, most households have some, if not all, of this equipment. The Pi's variety of display ports also means it can use old and new TVs, as well as monitors, as a display.

As the Pi's specs have improved, and the community have discovered new ways of tapping its hardware, so people have found new uses for the board. The Pi already runs a plethora of Linux-based operating systems but the stable of OSes it can run is expanding, most recently to work-in-progress versions of Android and Chromium OS.

Windows was another recent addition to the board. The Pi runs Windows 10 IoT Core, a cut-down version of Windows 10, not designed to run a desktop PC but instead to help hardware hackers prototype Internet of Things (IoT) appliances using the Pi.

Not only are there three different generations of Pi but there are two primary models, the Model B and the lesser specced Model A. The Model A lacks Ethernet, has less memory than the B and only has one USB port. However, it sells for the lower price of $25 and draws less power.

Generally the Pi 3 is the better choice than the Pi 2, as it's more powerful and is the same price. However, the Pi 1, while a good deal less powerful, is cheaper than the Pi 3, and also available in the more compact, less power hungry Model A configuration. That said, a Pi 3 Model A is due to be released this year.

And if you thought $35 was as cheap as a useful computer could be, then think again. The even more diminutive Pi Zero is priced at just $5. Despite costing less than a Big Mac meal, the Pi Zero can do useful work, with tech specs slightly better than those of the original Raspberry Pi Model B that launched in 2012.

The Pi Zero's price, tiny size and low power consumption means it has obvious limitations compared to its bigger siblings. It only has one USB On The Go port and the original Pi Zero lacks network connectivity. However, the recently released, $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W supports 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The Pi Zero is less suited to being used as a PC and more to being packed into a standalone IoT device or automated appliance, such as a weather station, where space is at a premium or minimal power draw is needed. If you want to hook the Zero up to homemade circuit boards and other DIY hardware, however, you'll have to solder the pins onto the board's unpopulated GPIO header.

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Why it matters

The Pi is a great machine for learning about how to get to grips with computers, and is available at a price that makes it hugely accessible.

The machine's official Raspbian OS is loaded with tools for learning how to program, from the drag-and-drop coding offered by Scratch to various aids for writing and debugging the programming language Python. Work continues to improve how the OS performs and looks, with the new Pixel desktop recently being released for Raspbian. But as the abundance of Pi-powered electronics suggests, the board will let you dabble in more than just software.

If you want to break out the soldering iron and start learning about breadboards that have nothing to do with a fresh loaves, then the Pi's also got you covered.

For hardware hacking, the Pi is equipped with 26 general purpose input/output pins, electrical channels that allow the board to communicate with other computers or electronics and are the key to the Pi's use in some of the more ambitious hardware projects involving robots and drones. Getting started with hardware is relatively easy, thanks to the abundance of starter kits that bundle the boards and other electronics you need.

Today, the Pi is much more than just a cheap, tiny board running Linux, thanks to an ecosystem of products — some official, some unofficial — that extend what the board can do, from cameras to add-on boards that combine the Pi with the Arduino prototyping platform.

Various third parties have built new Pi-powered creations aimed at furthering the foundation's mission of educating a new generation about computing — whether it's the Pi-Top, a build it yourself Pi-powered laptop with a neon green case, or the kid-friendly computer kit Kano.

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Who it affects

The board has proven to be a firm favorite not only with the community of amateur hackers who leapt on the Pi after its release, but also many schoolchildren worldwide.

More recently, the Pi has transcended its roots as a hobbyist darling and is beginning to be used by businesses to drive appliances and prototype electronics, as well as for industrial control, such as factory automation and DevOps monitoring.

To complement its use by business, the foundation released the Raspberry Pi compute module, which packs the processor and memory of the Pi onto a slim board the size of a memory module. The idea of the compute board is to make it easier to bolt together a custom appliance using a Pi, as the compute module can be plugged into a base board with all of the necessary peripheral circuitry. A version of the compute module based on the Raspberry Pi 3 was released early in 2017.

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Who are the Raspberry Pi's competitors?

While the Pi wasn't the first single board computer, its success helped spawn a host of competitors.

These challengers typically replicate the board's design but either at a higher spec, such as the Asus Tinkerboard or Odroid-C2, or at a lower price, such as the Orange Pi.

Boards like the Odroid-C2 expose the fact the Pi doesn't necessarily offer the best bang for your buck in this ultra-low price range. However, the flipside is that most of these Raspberry Pi rivals don't enjoy the range of good quality software and strong community support that has grown up around the Pi since it launched five years ago. Buying a Pi also has the advantage of supporting the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity committed to furthering computer science education.

There are also boards that are sometimes pitched as competitors to the Pi, but which instead complement the Pi's strengths. Examples include Arduinos, which are microcontroller boards suited to simple repetitive tasks, rather than the general-purpose computing tasks the Pi can handle.

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When is this happening?

Now and for the foreseeable future. More than 12 million Pi boards have sold since the machine's launch in 2012, with little sign of demand letting up.

The recent release of the Raspberry Pi 3 seems to have fuelled the already impressive sales, the Pi's new form factors are appealing to new markets and the foundation and the community of users seem committed to the Pi for the long haul.

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Where is this happening?

Across the globe. What made the Pi a massive success and continues to make it a great choice for learning about machines today, is the strength of its community worldwide. The Pi is sold in many countries and the Raspberry Pi forums have more 150,000 members who share tips and help each other out with projects and troubleshooting.

The Pi not only has an official website full of mods and hacks for people to get started, but there is also an official magazine that publishes news and new projects.

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Who is making it happen?

A UK-based, not for profit charity called the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The foundation's mission is to advance computer science education, and on that front its flagship machine has certainly made an impact.

Not only is the Pi used in schools, its availability has also coincided with an almost tripling in the number of people applying to study computer science at Cambridge. This bubbling up of interest is a major victory for the foundation's founder and board co-creator Eben Upton. The Pi was partly born out of a desire to address the dwindling trickle of candidates applying to study computer science at Cambridge in the mid-2000s. Upton described the shrinking intake for one of the best computer science courses in the country as an 'Oh shit' moment that led him to begin designing the board.

The success of the Pi has allowed the foundation to employ about 60 staff focused on creating teaching resources and running outreach projects with schools and at shows.

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How to get it?

The Pi is available online from various retailers. In the UK, primarily through Premier Farnell or RS Components, or in the US, from Allied Electronics and Newark.

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About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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