David Behrens tests out the Raspberry Pi.
YEARS ago, when no-one knew for sure what home computers were actually for, they used to come with instructions on how to write your own software. Hardly anyone bothered, but it was nice to know you could if you needed to. It has taken until now for the wheel to turn full circle, with the launch of a £22 PC (yes, £22) that does nothing until you program it yourself.
In the tradition of naming technology after fruit (Apple, Orange, Blackberry) it’s called the Raspberry Pi, and its appearance has generated almost as much excitement in certain circles as that of the new iPad. It’s about the size of a credit card and comes with nothing in the way of accessories – not even a plastic box to encase the circuit board – but that’s all part of the do-it-yourself appeal.
It has been developed not by a Silicon Valley corporation but by volunteers in Britain and their intended market is schoolchildren and their teachers, in whom they hope to foster an interest in computer programming.
That’s a worthy ambition because although we have no shortage here of youngsters who like computers, we have relatively few who know what do do with them other than play games and watch YouTube.
In fact, Eben Upton, the Cambridge engineer who founded the charity behind the scheme, did so because of the woeful calibre of candidates he was seeing for degree courses. To this end, users have to figure out for themselves how to work the Raspberry Pi. As a minimum, this will involve plugging in a mouse and keyboard and connecting a TV so you can see what you’re doing.
Instead of Windows (which would have quadrupled the asking price) you get a version of the free Linux operating system and an adolescent-friendly programming interface on which to get started. If you have children of between 10 and 15 in your home, the Raspberry Pi is an ideal way to keep them occupied. The devices have only just started to roll off the production line, but there are already enough young boffins using them to have populated a mini online community – and for once, its content is suitable for all the family... even if only teenagers can understand it.
The Raspberry Pi is on sale online from the websites of either RS Components or Premier Farnell.