The Raspberry Pi has reignited interest in the DIY home computer market. Thanks to the little marvel there are now a wide range of kits and platforms available for users to assemble their own machines. In this feature we'll show you some of the best.
Although it certainly wasn't the first DIY computer kit, the Raspberry Pi has quickly become the most widely known platform thanks to a few key elements. Firstly, it's cheap, second it's British (although production was moved from Wales to China in order to meet demand), and thirdly it was adopted by schools all over the UK as an excellent way to teach basic programming and encourage kids to invent their own technical solutions to problems.
The success of the Raspberry Pi has seen a huge range of projects spring up around the platform, with Raspberry Jams (user groups were people show off their ideas) occurring regularly around the country, and indeed the world.
There are dedicated magazines and books covering the kind of devices you can build, an excellent website that has a variety of fun projects laid out and explained, and even a recent initiative called AstroPi which enabled code written on a Raspberry Pi to be taken into space and used on the International Space Station.
Raspberry Pi uses it's own operating system, called Raspbian, but can also run with flavours of Linux and even a slimmed down edition of Windows 10.
Of course the Raspberry Pi is just a circuit board, so to do anything useful with it you’ll need a USB keyboard, mouse, monitor, and SD card to run the OS. While you can use any spares you have around the house, there are also full kits available.
As a starting point for DIY computing the Raspberry Pi, thanks to its widespread support and educational links, is an excellent place to begin.
Also see: Best Raspberry Pi Starter Kits.
Long before Raspberry Pi was around Arduino was the place to go for do-it-yourself computing. The company began in 2005 when it released an open source platform which people could use to build a whole number of impressive devices. From robots to security cameras, Arduino has been used in pretty much anything you can turn your mind towards. Due to recent internal disputes Arduino boards sold outside the US are now known as Genuino, but retain the same components and design.
There is actually a wide range of boards available, such as the UNO (Rev3) that costs around £15 and contains 14 digital input/output pins (of which 6 can be used as PWM outputs), 6 analog inputs, a 16 MHz crystal oscillator, a USB connection, a power jack, an ICSP header, and a reset button. You can buy more complex boards for advanced projects, such as the Mega 2560 (Rev 3) for £25, and there is even a board for wearable projects if you want to build the next smartwatch or intelligent t-shirt.
A huge community of enthusiasts surrounds Arduino/Genuino and meet ups are found all around the world. It does have the feel of a more advanced product, with specialised uses catered for, so if you’re confident in your abilities then Arduino is the place to go.
Asus Tinker Board
The latest micro computer comes from Asus. It's more powerful than a Raspberry Pi 3, and also cost proportionally more at a shade over £50. Its key specs are:
- CPU: 1.8GHz Rockchip® RK3288 SoC quad-core processor
- GPU: Mali-T764 GPU
- Video: HD/UHD video playback support – including H.264/H.265 decoding
- Audio: 192kHz/24-bit audio support
- Memory: 2GB of dual-channel LPDDR3
- Storage: Micro SD(TF) slot features SD 3.0 support
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0 + EDR and on-board 802.11b/g/n WiFi
- Networking: 1Gb Ethernet
- Ports: (4) USB2.0 ports, (1) HDMI 1.4 out port, (1) 3.5mm audio jack
- I/O Ports: (1) 40-pin GPIO interface header, (1) 15-pin MIPI DSI, (1) 15-pin MIPI CSI, (1) 2-pin contact point for PWM and S/PDIF signals
- Power: Suggested 5V/2A AC adaptor via the micro-USB port
- OS: ASUS TinkerOS (Debian-based Linux) & Android Support
- Dimensions/Weight: 85.60mm x 56mm x 21mm, 45g without included heatsink
Asus has designed the board so it can work as a direct swap for a Raspberry PI - it's even pin-compatible with the Pi's GPIO.
The Kano is a DIY kit that uses a Raspberry Pi at its centre, but surrounds the device with beautifully designed peripherals that fit together to make a complete, small, PC. The idea came from a challenge to build a simple computer that was as fun as Lego. Kano came up with the design, then released a Kickstarter project that became an instant success.
The pack costs £119 and features a Raspberry Pi 2 (B+), bluetooth / USB RF keyboard with built in touchpad, external speaker, 8GB SD card, plastic case for the Pi, WiFi dongle, cables, books, and stickers.
While you can put together your own set for less money, the friendly, easy construction, and child-sized keyboard make this an excellent kit for the younger people on your life. One of these under the Christmas tree will certainly be a welcome present for many children this year, and a few adults too.
BBC Micro Bit
Find out more about the Micro Bit on BBC's website.
Those of a certain age will remember the BBC Micro B, one of the first home computers in the UK, and one that many people started their PC adventures upon. Now, thirty years on, the BBC is once again looking to bring computing into the classroom with its Micro Bit. This tiny circuit board packs some impressive specs, with bluetooth capabilites, an accelerometer, compass, two programmable buttons, and a grid of LEDs that are also controllable.
The Micro Bit can be programmed by a range of devices, from PCs to mobile phones, making it open to everyone that's interested in making an electronic scoreboard, bluetooth remote shutter button for a smartphone camera, or even a basic games machine.
On 22 March 2016 around a million Micro Bits were given to year 7 students at secondary school. At some point the Micro Bit will also be available for the public to buy.
Another Raspberry Pi based system is FUZE. This titanic unit is a fully metal construction, with a full size keyboard, chunky body, and all powered by an included Raspberry Pi. The look is very reminiscent of early home computers from the 80s, and with its focus on teaching children programming, starting with FUZE BASIC, the comparisons to BBC Micro B and Acorn Electron models are justified.
The kit also comes with a box of electronic components and a ‘breadboard’ on which to mount them. This allows children, or indeed adults, to build simple electronic devices and control them via programs written on the unit. The included, and very detailed, project guides and programming manual make the process a lot easier, enabling users to create things quite quickly.
All of this doesn’t come cheap, as the standard FUZE model costs a not inconsiderable £179.99, but if you’re going to spend that kind of money then we recommend adding an additional chunk of cash and buying the model that comes with a programmable robot arm. Yes it’s £229.99, but come on. A robot arm. If that doesn’t get kids interested in programming, nothing will.
If you prefer to use Linux or Android on your device then the Beaglebone Black is an interesting choice. The small board is inexpensive and comes loaded with a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU, 512MB RAM, 4GB of 8-bit eMMC on-board flash storage, a 3D graphics accelerator, plus USB, ethernet, and HDMI ports. It runs on a range of operating systems, with Android 4.0 supported, alongside Ubuntu, Debian, and others.
When connected to your PC the Beaglebone is recognised as a standard flash drive, and you can access the unloaded files that link to online tutorials about how to use the device and projects you might want to attempt.
Beaglebone also makes several other boards, varying in complexity and capability, while the user base is growing, meaning there are plenty of people to help you if you get stuck. At £40 the Beaglebone Black is a very tempting unit for those who want to push things a little further than your standard Raspberry Pi.