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First Steps with the Raspberry Pi: Introduction

First Steps with the Raspberry Pi

Introduction / Hardware

The Raspberry Pi received an extraordinary amount of pre-launch coverage. It truly went viral with major news corporations such as the BBC giving extensive coverage. Not without reason, it is groundbreaking to have a small capable computer retailing at less than the price of a new console game. There have been a number of ventures that have tried to produce a cheap computer such as a laptop and a tablet but which never materialised at these price points. Nothing comes close to the Raspberry Pi in terms of affordability, which is even more important in the current economic climate. Producing a PC capable of running Linux, Quake III-quality games, and 1080p video is worthy of praise.

There are two editions of the Raspberry Pi, the Model B which we have, and the Model A which is identical except that it loses the ethernet port and one of the USB slots. The labels Model A and Model B are in deference to the BBC Micros of the early 1980s, computers also with an emphasis on education. Both models pack everything a system needs into a single-board.

The first thing to surprise you about the Raspberry Pi is the size. It is slightly larger than a credit card, but with ports and sockets jutting out of each side. Even after using the machine for some time, the size still stays imprinted on one's mind. The next thing to strike you is the rawness of the machine. Without a case, users are exposed to the bare printed circuit board. A few words of caution. Users should avoid handling the Raspberry Pi while it is powered up, and only handle the edges to minimise the risk of electrostatic discharge damage.

Raspberry Pi
(view large image)

The Raspberry Pi's creators, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, want to spark children's interest in computer programming and encourage students to apply for computing degrees. While the BBC Micros had particularly durable cases which were able to cope with heavy handling from school children, no such protection is available from the developer board. Consequently, the Foundation's lofty goal will have to wait until cases are released.

The Raspberry Pi has more in common with smartphones and set top boxes than it does with desktop machines. At the heart of the Pi is the BCM2835 System on a Chip which powers some smartphones and streaming players such as the Roku 2 HD player. With the large volume of chips in production costs can be kept to a minimum.

We ordered the The Raspberry Pi from Farnell UK back on 4 March 2012 but given the unprecedented demand, the last minute hold ups including compliance testing, the ethernet jack issue caused by the manufacturing house using plain jacks, it took a couple of months before we had our hands on a Model B unit. For the princely sum of 29.46 (inclusive of postage), we were supplied with a jiffy bag containing:

- Raspberry Pi developer board
- T-Shirt - XL size (editor: too many pork pies being the likely reason)
- Compliance and safety sheet
- Despatch note

The Hanes 100% cotton T-shirt was included as a nice gesture from Farnell for people who placed an early order.

Obviously, the Raspberry Pi board, in itself, is not sufficient to get you up and running. It is, after all, just a bare board. After a quick rekkie around the office, we gathered up spare SD and SDHC cards, HDMI cable, ethernet cable, USB keyboard, USB mouse, 5V phone charger, and a monitor. After plugging in the leads and having loaded the Raspbian distribution to a 16GB SDHC card, we were set to rumble.

Raspberry Pi
(view large image)

Specifications (Model B) at a glance

Broadcom BCM2835 SoC (700MHz)
256MB (shared with GPU)
SD / MMC/ SDIO card slot to boot and for storage. No built-in hard disk or solid state drive.
Dual-core VideoCore IV GPU
HDMI and Composite video out
Audio: HDMI, 3.5mm audio port
2 onboard USB2 slots (which share a single USB 2 connection), SD card slot, 10/100 Ethernet
Size: 86 x 54 x 17 (width, depth, height)
Power: 2W (idle), 3W (peak)
Weight: 45g

The SoC provides OpenGL ES 2.0, hardware-accelerated OpenVG and 1080p HD video. As you can see from the above specification, the Raspberry Pi does not have onboard wireless capabilities, but it is possible to use a USB-connected wifi dongle, although only some devices are supported. Neither does the Raspberry Pi have a real time clock. Given that the machine will typically be connected to the internet, this is not an inconvenience and provides a cost saving. Further, if a real time clock is really needed, a third-party battery backed up real time clock module for the Raspberry Pi should be available very soon.

It is easy to overclock both the CPU, RAM, and GPU of the Raspberry Pi by editing a single text file (/boot/config.txt), although this activity voids the warranty. Some users have reported speed increases of about 20%, without apparently affecting the stability of the machine.

Let's now take a look at the various distributions available to use.

Next Page: Distributions

Read ahead

1. Introduction
2. Distributions
3. Benchmarks
4. Software
5. Things to Do with the Raspberry Pi
6. Summary

Last Updated Sunday, June 03 2012 @ 07:39 PM EDT

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