Raspberry Pi

Today I was lucky enough to see a first hand demonstration of the new Raspberry Pi.

I first heard about the project a year ago and initially had mixed feelings about the project that was designed to ‘recreate the BBC Micro for the 21st century’. You see I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to recreate the BBC Micro, and I wasn’t sure that a computer system with virtually no operating system and that you had to program to get it to do anything would be viable given the plethora of computing devices currently available to young people.

What we have 12 months later, though, is a circuit board that is not much bigger than a credit card that can run from either mains power or 4x AA batteries. It has two USB sockets, HDMI and composite (for SCART) video out, a 3.5mm jack and an optional 10/100 ethernet port. Onboard storage is via SD card that holds the entire operating system, so if your code manages to wreck the OS you can simply wipe and restore the SD card. It’s virtually unbrickable.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation who are behind the product (and are an entirely not-for-profit venture) will offer a downloadable image that will feature a flavour of Linux (Debian was in use for the demo, but is not the only option). It will come preinstalled with Python, Scratch, BYOB, OpenOffice and… potentially anything we want. I anticipate a number of custom images being created for specific purposes.

As well as handling programming tasks, the bespoke GPU allows you to decode and view full HD (1080p) video, while only drawing 1W of power. This means that your 4x AAs will last you for 30 hours and on a big telly I can promise you that it looks amazing.

The real beauty here, though, is the price. The base model will be $25, or $35 with onboard ethernet. This equates to £25/35 with VAT and other overheads. If schools are not having to pay the VAT then we’re talking around £20 per unit. Read that again slowly – a fully functioning PC, with USB keyboard/mouse input, RAM, an OS, programming environments and an office package. For £20.

This means that I can give one to every new Computing student at less than the cost of a textbook. It also means that parents and grandparents can pick these things up as educational Christmas presents. Heck, I spend more than that per month for my mobile phone, and I can’t write a Scratch game on that or plug it into a HD TV.

While almost all of my students have home PCs, their parents are sometimes reticent to let them install software – much less start writing their own code that might make system calls or do things to the operating system. Now my students will be able to take their Pi home, hack away with it to their heart’s content, and if they manage to break it – just re-zap the SD card. Worst case scenario, we have to pay £20 for a new one.

And if you ever had to worry about your network manager refusing to let students program on your network – they no longer need access to your network!

One issue that does worry me a little is the lack of VGA output, and this is something that may well appear in the second generation of the device.

The initial release will be at the end of November and will be for the bare device. This will allow the developers, interested educators and hacktivists to start playing with the device before a more consumer-friendly version in a case is released around March time.

I’m particularly looking forward to helping create a CAS book to go with the Pi – a user manual incorporating 15 Scratch games, 15 Python programmes and 15 Ruby projects you can code straight out of the book. A bit like the electronics kits where you wire up a burglar alarm, morse code transmitter or FM radio.

So, we have interesting times ahead, and I for one am looking forward to taking my first delivery in December with much excitement.

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