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Raspberry Pi - Low Cost Computing is almost Here

Cheaper than some computer books!

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Raspberry PI Board

A large number of developers are holding their collective breath waiting for the first Raspberry Pi boards to go on sale which should happen within a few days of the end of February 2012, assuming nothing goes wrong. However there are only 10,000 boards to start with so expect them to sell out in hours.

The RPi (aka RasPi) came up on my radar back in September 2010 but these things take time to finish development, testing etc. Anyway they've been teasing the world with videos of its capability and releasing pictures of boards, connectors etc.

What Do I get?

For your $25 (Model A- 128 MB Ram, one USB port no Ethernet) or $35 (Model B with $256 MB of Ram, two USB ports and a 100 MBit ethernet) you get one built and working Raspberry PI board. It does not include a case, leads, power supply (4 x AA batteries will do) or SD Cards so you will have to buy these. I'd guess maybe another $25 for those. Generic mice and keyboards are however compatible.

The CPU is an ARM11 running at 700 MHZ but the GPU is very powerful, and capable of BluRay display quality. As the community Wiki puts it: "It has the graphics capabilities of an XBOX 1 with processing performance like a 300 Mhz Pentium II but much, much swankier graphics".

Calling the two models A and B is a reminder of the BBC Micro which was also launched as Model A and Model B back in 1982. The reason that the boards are so cheap is because the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity and their designers have ruthlessly kept costs down to a minimum. For instance there is no onboard real-time clock because that would have cost more and used valuable board space. One can be added externally via the I2C interface.

Why is this Important?

The 1982-1984 era when home computers like the Timex Spectrum, the BBC Micro, CBM-64 etc came out is regarded as one of the significant eras in bringing personal computing to the masses. One statistic from the time said that at the start of 1983 there were something like 9,000 "one man and his dog" programming outfits creating games in the UK alone. A year later there was also me in that field.

The ARM chip is made by a company (ARM Holdings) that was a subsidiary of Acorn Computers who produced the original BBC Microcomputers.

In the UK, it's been long recognised that computing in schools currently offers little more than teaching how to use Microsoft Office. Having low cost computers available may suit well a new curriculum that wants to teach more involved subjects such as programming.

David Braben who programmed Elite in the 1980s and who got started with the BBC Micro is involved in the project. He wants to see RasPi encourage a new generation of game programmers. Python will be the main educational language but there will be BBC Basic as well as many other programming languages (including C, via GCC). G++ has also been tested along with others listed on this page.

The initial Operating System will be a version of Fedora Linux but Ubuntu and Debian should also be available. The limiting factor is of course that it's running on an ARM CPU.

Now we'll all be able to create a portable ATM hacking device like John Connor used at the start of the Terminator 2 film! Seriously, I expect the games I've created for the Programming games in C series should port relatively easily to the RasPi.

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