A diminutive single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi evokes memories of the 1980s, when home computers were largely meant for learning to program, rather than for the consumption of ready-made content.
This is just about as ‘bare bones’ as computing can be, demanding a bring-your-own approach to input, output, and storage… but it’s astonishingly cheap.
Pi reminds me a lot of the Sinclair Spectrum. It’s infinitely superior in terms of its computing power (unsurprisingly, given the intervening decades) and build quality, but in some ways it’s very similar to the humble ‘Speccy’ that so may of us were scratching our heads over in 1982. For one thing, it’s incomplete: straight out of the box it does nothing – and although you’re getting a bargain, it’s a stripped-down system and will likely see you buying accessories in the weeks that follow. Early Raspberry Pis came with just one or two USB ports, so once your mouse and keyboard are in place, you’re stuck. I found myself having to disconnect the keyboard in order to drag files off a USB drive with the mouse… so obviously you find yourself buying a USB hub pretty quickly, and then you find that the Pi can’t support the power demands of all the ancillaries, so make that a powered hub… and then you’ll want a wifi dongle, and… and…
Pretty soon, the alleged $35 computer is weighing in at well over $100: a price point at which it’s a bit less attractive. Just like my old Spectrum that needed an interface to connect with a disk drive, and another to connect with a joystick, or a decent printer… start down this path and your piggy bank is in for a battering.
If you already have a mass of computer accessories around the house, you can get a Raspberry Pi up and running for not much money. No power supply is included with the Pi, but its creators claim that most folks already have one kicking around in a drawer, in the form of a phone charger. (If your old mobile had a micro USB connector, that is: people with iPhones will need to visit eBay.)
If I was less keen on experimenting for the sake of it, I might have noted that I have three or four ‘retired’ computers around the house of a specification at least equal to the early ‘Pi’ models. In other words, I didn’t need a low-cost computer. The last thing I need is another computer, really… but I visit developing countries for the purposes of delivering education, so I’m interested in practical, affordable hardware.
The greenest computer choice is probably one that you already own. After a long useful life, a failed USB port and an ailing trackpad meant that this laptop was beyond economic repair, but even in retirement it was far more capable than the first Pi that I bought.
People who donate computer hardware they’ve finished with are doing a good thing, no doubt, but have you ever stopped to think about what a difficult proposition it must be to manage a classroom full of donated computers? IT support staff are likely to have a mixture of different hardware, and are forced to choose between having the computers plod along as they attempt to run an up-to-date operating system, or leaving them vulnerable to viruses… while also coping with hardware that’s already had a hard life and is likely to have acquired a few foibles of its own. Add in the fact that few developing countries have a capability to recycle e-waste and these schemes look a bit less attractive. The “$35 computer” may be a better bet.
My experience with the original Raspberry Pi (model B) was largely positive, although I never did anything productive with it. Dr Joe and I were impressed to get OpenProject up and running on the diminutive Pi, because that was a piece of software that we were regularly using on one of our Masters programmes in Zambia and Malawi. Imagine how useful it would be if instead of giving each new student a flash drive with assorted reading materials, we were able to give them a “$35 computer”, with all the programs they’re going to use over the next 18 months preinstalled, plus documents, bookmarks and so on… even if it inevitably becomes a $100 computer by the time you’ve added the peripherals that are needed to make it function, that’s not half bad.
The 700 MHz single-core CPU of the original Pi didn’t really have enough oomph to run OpenProject. Web browsing and word processing were similarly sluggish: just not as snappy as we’ve all become used to. Once you’ve had an Intel Core i5 or better, it’s hard to go back to waiting for things to happen.
In the early days of the Raspberry Pi, cases were overpriced, clunky things that were typically made by 3D printing. I made my own out of plywood instead… but by the time the Model 2 came along, decent polycarbonate cases were available.
I abandoned all thoughts of using the original Pi as a ‘proper computer’, and most users appear to have done the same. The Pi found its niche in hardware projects: the low cost of the unit makes it ideal for hardware hacking, since it doesn’t really matter if you manage to destroy one, and its ridiculously low power requirements made it ideal for oddball applications that see it providing the brains of amateur-built robots, or being sent up in weather balloons, etc. Some enthusiasts have racked dozens of Raspberry Pis together to make a kind of ersatz supercomputer… but as with the robots and balloons, one of the reasons it works so well is because it doesn’t really involve interfacing with a human being. Superb low-power performance is meaningless if you have to hook the Pi up to a monitor, and low cost is similarly elusive if we have to source a keyboard, mouse, etc. for every unit.
So: a great little gadget to tinker with and learn about computer hardware itself, but not a ‘full computer’ in terms of what most people actually need to do with a computer, day-to-day. Your cast-off smartphone is a more ‘complete’ computing device in some ways, since it has things like a battery, a screen, a camera and a means of data entry – all of which need to be procured if they are to be used with a Pi.
Things changed somewhat when the Raspberry Pi Foundation brought out the Raspberry Pi 2, with a quad core processor that operated at a more respectable 900 MHz – making it about six times as capable as the original. They also provided four USB ports, which reduced desktop clutter nicely. With the Mark 2, though, I found myself caught in a bizarre chicken-and-egg situation where I wanted to get it working with our wireless network, but after purchasing a wifi dongle I found that I needed to download additional software. (And if there’s one thing you can’t do until you’re on the network, it’s download software…)
Four lovely USB ports: the original Model A had just one…
Such a wrinkle would be trivial if I had a tame guru that I could persuade to solve my IT problems for me, but our IT staff have enough trouble keeping Microsoft Windows lurching along, without getting distracted by questions about non-standard hardware and software. For your Pi’s operating system you’re probably going to be using the Unix-like operating system Debian, which has the advantage of being free, but which has a few rough edges as you might expect. There will be nerd-enthusiasts out there who find it incomprehensible that I should have trouble setting up the wifi, but I’ve bought almost nothing but Macs since 1991, and despite continuing to write software I seldom feel the need to ‘pop the hood’ and tinker with my computer’s operating system.
The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream
I never managed to get my first Raspberry Pi to make a sound under Debian. I didn’t particularly care, and I knew it wasn’t a hardware fault because if I ran a different operating system that turned it into a cheap media player then the sound worked nicely. No doubt a Pi nerd would laugh and tell me that all I needed to do was to open a hidden file called “hash dot underscore 23296” and change the 307th line to read “Expecto Petronem!” (with or without quotation marks not made clear) and all would be well.
That’s fine. Except… really? Apple (who are backsliding a bit nowadays but who were once the guiding light in producing computers for “the rest of us”) have spoiled me in the last quarter century. In the good old days Apple refused to accept that the problem was stupid users, and instead identified such problems as stupid software.
Inevitably, you get what you pay for. A computer with a price tag that goes firmly into four digits earns you the right to expect that things like sound or wifi will just work, with no arcane setup necessary.
I remember being amused when one Raspberry Pi enthusiast web page, supposedly giving clear instructions for wifi setup finished with “If this still hasn’t sorted out your wifi access, ask an adult.”
I’m 45. I have a PhD that involved a lot of computer programming. I’m no technophobe, but I’m damned if I can tell you how to get a Raspberry Pi working properly. I mean, really properly.
There are people who can do this kind of thing, of course: and good luck to them… Kudos to them, even, but there aren’t all that many of them, and (based on what I’ve seen of the output of the community) they aren’t generally very good at communicating, nor at designing user interfaces.
Getting Raspberry Pis working in a well-funded school in England where there’s a suitably skilled and enthusiastic teacher who’s prepared to put in the time to set up a school club in, say, robotics is one thing: getting them working (and keeping them working) in a school in Kenya that doesn’t have a water supply, never mind mains power… that’s the real test. And not just getting them working in a single school, but everywhere. That would be awesome.
But is that possible? Am I just being unrealistic? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, how is it that there are organisations that can design computer chips that are more complex than the road network of the entire planet… but nobody has managed to deliver a computer that can actually be enjoyed by people everywhere on Earth?
The experiment begins again: I note that the Pi is now in its third incarnation, which sees the CPU improved to a 1.2 GHz, 64-bit processor… and wifi and bluetooth are now built in as standard, which ought to put an end to wifi woes of the kind I had with its predecessor. So I guess it’s time to spend another $35. (Actually £34.30 at Amazon: Raspberry Pis never quite seem to quite arrive at the quoted price point.)
I can use all the old bits and pieces that I collected for my earlier Pis: the low-power keyboard and mouse, the phone charger power supply, the old flat screen monitor, the microSD card that serves in place of a hard disk… it really won’t cost me any more than £34.30. But is that a bargain? My old Apple laptop – the retired one – cost around £1400, but I used it for ten or more hours a day, almost every day for five years.
What’s the carbon footprint for a computer? DEFRA’s Conversion Factors say office machinery including computers, in 2009 (when my old Mac was bought), worked out at 0.53 kg CO2e per pound spent. By that crude measure (no doubt disputed by Apple, who claim their products are greener than most) there’s 742 kg of greenhouse gases… but for a machine that had such a long life, the carbon embodied in its manufacture works out at a mere 40 g per hour of use, and any additional use of the ailing machine is free. If we ignore all the oddments like keyboard, mouse, screen and power supply on the grounds that users have spare ones knocking about, a new £34 Raspberry Pi weighs in at… call it 15 kg CO2e… and if I evaluate it for a grand total of perhaps 24 hours before I consign it to a drawer like its predecessors, it’s actually far less ‘green’ (625 g per hour of use) than the much more expensive Apple laptop.
But of course, I’m probably doing it wrong. Stupid user.
Pi Revisited: August 2018
Following my early disappointments with the Raspberry Pi, I persevered… if not right away. More recent versions of the installer with the slightly insulting acronym, NOOBS (“New Out-of-Box Software”), improved usability a great deal, to the point where a beginner can now get a Raspberry Pi to do useful things. You will still find “how-to” web pages to be simultaneously incredibly patronising while also omitting key instructions, but I’ve discovered that the solution lies in watching users’ YouTube videos instead, where you generally get to see every step that is performed.
Nowadays my Raspberry Pis quietly run BOINC all day long: donating their rather modest computing power to scientific computing applications that depend upon public support. Each Pi does this in a ‘headless’ configuration, with no peripherals attached and no GUI running: I can connect to them via SSH from a regular computer if I need to.
My original Raspberry Pi is feeble, but I decided “the more the merrier” so I have let it join in. (All these computers are powered through a single USB-based charger anyway.) The Raspberry Pi 2 is a trooper, endlessly chewing on computing tasks with never an error or a gripe. The Pi 3 proved to be a delicate flower, it’s 300Mhz speed bump largely squandered because it always hangs after a few hours if I leave it running BOINC on all four processor cores. It runs very hot, too: the first Pi that forced me to buy a cooling fan. The model 3+ which came out in March of 2018 is a much better machine, running reliably and with less heat, working hard (for a Pi) on all four cores.
Most recently I also added a Pi Zero W, intrigued by its 65mm x 30mm form factor. At a speed of 0.4 gigaFLOPS it’s never going to set records, but if I’m not mistaken my $10 computer is calculating at a rate equivalent to half of a Cray X-MP… the best supercomputer that money (fifteen million dollars) could buy in the early 1980’s, when my pocket money budget limited my own choice to that of a Sinclair ZX-81.