Open Source

Raspberry Pi review

The Raspberry Pi is one of the most eagerly-awaited computers of 2012. With more than 350,000 people on the Raspberry Pi waiting list, it's an enthusiasts' machine with mainstream appeal.

The computer provides exceptional value. It's a $40 computer with a range of intuitive programming tools and the capability of an average PC - browsing the web, running office software or playing HD video. The Pi is also suited to projects as diverse as controlling robots and building an in-car computer.

But in its present form novice computer users - weaned on the simplicity of Windows PCs, smartphones and iPads - may struggle to get to grips with the Raspberry Pi.

The difficulties that some noobs may experience stem from the nature of its operating system. Several Linux distributions are recommended for use with the Pi - Debian Squeeze, Arch Linux ARM, Fedora 14 and QtonPi - with Debian Squeeze suggested for first-time Linux users.

The Pi that was shipped to TechRepublic had Debian Squeeze with the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, which provides a GUI based on windows and a start menu that will be familiar to most PC users.

However, lifelong Windows users are in for a surprise. Using the Pi means getting comfortable with typing commands, as the command-line interface of LX Terminal is essential for carrying out everyday tasks, from changing screen resolution to installing programs.

After a week of using the Pi, I'm more familiar with Debian and its commands, and none of these tweaks is particularly tricky. But I do worry that some people may lack the patience to learn how to control the OS - especially as the device is being sold as a machine for encouraging children to learn to code. If kids run into enough of these barriers just trying to use the machine, isn't there a danger that they'll lose interest?

The counter argument is that anyone interested in learning how to code will probably enjoy getting to grips with the Pi's OS. After all, one of the reasons for making the Pi was to give users control over a machine in a way that isn't possible with today's glossy, abstracted PC interfaces.

Also, the Pi has just come out and technically skilled early adopters are already tweaking the system and its software to make it far more intuitive for future users.

This gallery walks through the Debian OS and software running on a model B Pi, starting with the boot screen, seen here.

The Debian Squeeze system I used booted in just over 30 seconds to the LDXE desktop, and it had no problems recognising the mouse, keyboard or a variety of screens - connected via both HDMI and composite.

The first batch of Raspberry Pi computers ship as a bare board - although later boards will come in a case. For a closer look at the Pi's hardware and what peripherals you'll need to get it up and running, check out TechRepublic's Raspberry Pi unboxing gallery.

By Nick Heath

Nick Heath is a computer science student and was formerly a journalist at TechRepublic and ZDNet.