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First Steps with the Raspberry Pi: Software


The Raspberry Pi Foundation proclaims that the Raspberry Pi is a "capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video." This quote taken in isolation might suggest that the Raspberry Pi is a desktop replacement in all respects. Whilst that is not a reasonable assumption to make, the Pi still has a lot to offer as a desktop if you recognise its limitations.

To assess whether the Raspberry Pi has the resources to be an effective desktop replacement, rather than as a developer board, we took one of the unofficial Raspbian images which runs the resource friendly LXDE desktop environment and installed it onto a 16GB SD card. By default, Raspbian boots into a console and takes around 35 seconds to get to a login prompt, which reflects the number of services and daemons that are started up. Exercising the trusty 'startx' command to start an X server and the desktop environment takes a further 12 seconds.

Raspberry Pi
(view large image)

Web browsing using Midori was fairly reasonable even in the absence of accelerated X drivers. Unfortunately there is no support for Flash on ARM, so we were unable to watch media segments on websites. In any case, the GPU does not support flash video. There is also no support for HTML5 presently.

Further, the absence of hardware accelerated drivers means that scrolling on complex pages is slow, and a bit jerky. However, once hardware accelerated drivers are available, we would expect this issue to disappear given the specifications of the GPU. Plugging in a Raspberry Pi to your TV will then offer the real functionality of a smart TV.

Loading another fairly simple program, Filezilla, took about 13 seconds. Filezilla is an excellent FTP client which supports FTP, SFTP, and FTPS (FTP over SSL/TLS). On the Raspberry Pi, screen redraws were pretty slow, making the software feel a little sluggish when navigating especially when compared to my day-to-day desktop machines. Nevertheless, the software is still usable on the Pi.

Raspberry Pi - Filezilla in action
(view large image)
Raspberry Pi - Filezilla in action
(view large image)

The Gnumeric spreadsheet is part of the GNOME desktop environment: a project to create a free, user friendly desktop environment. Given the Foundation's reference to spreadsheets, we wanted to see how a fairly lightweight spreadsheet would perform on the Pi.

Firstly, Gnumeric was a little more sprightly starting up compared with Midori and Filezilla. Again, the software was hampered by slow graphical performance, but overall the experience was perfectly adequate.

Gnumeric is fairly frugal with memory, especially compared with LibreOffice Calc, the spreadsheet component of the LibreOffice software package. With a fairly small spreadsheet loaded, Gnumeric consumes only about 12MB of memory.

Raspberry Pi
(view large image)

Loading a more CPU-intensive application, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), did expose the limitations of the Raspberry Pi's CPU. The latest version of the application (2.8.0) took 82 seconds to start up. Creating a new image, using the airbrush tool, image editing, applying scripts and plugins all seriously taxed the CPU for significant periods; with the CPU monitor in the task bar being constantly maxed out.

Another useful application that also pushed the Pi's CPU is Shutter, our favorite screen capture utility. This feature-rich application took 28 seconds to start.

In general, the Raspberry Pi is pretty reasonable at running many desktop applications. Whilst some heavyweight applications are almost out of bounds, in many cases there are lightweight alternatives available.

Raspberry Pi
(view large image)

Next Page: Things to Do with the Raspberry Pi

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 @ 07:35 PM EDT

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