You don't need an electrical engineering degree to build a robot army. With the $35 Raspberry Pi B+, you can create robots and connected devices on the cheap, with little more than an Internet connection and a bunch of spare time.
The Raspberry Pi is a computer about the size of a credit card. The darling of the do-it-yourself electronics crowd, the Pi was originally designed to teach kids computer and programming skills without the need for expensive computer labs. People have used Raspberry Pis for everything from robots to cheap home media centers. See Best Raspberry Pi Starter Kits.
The Pi sports USB ports, HDMI video, and a host of other peripherals. The latest version, the B+, sports 512MB of RAM and uses a MicroSD card instead of a full-size card.
Most people install a Linux distribution called Raspbian onto the SD cards needed to boot the Pi. Raspbian is a version of Debian Linux (the distribution Ubuntu is based on) designed specifically for use on the Pi. Raspbian is also recommended for new Pi users to familiarize themselves with the device and the Linux operating system.
If the the big "L-word" scares you, rest easy knowing that Raspbian ships with a familiar graphical environment, complete with a web browser. And you can get your Pi up and running in less time than it takes to bake an edible raspberry pie.
Ready? Let's get cooking.
Raspbian Raspberry Pi
Yield: One web-ready 2.2-inch x 3.4-inch Raspberry Pi. Processing time: about 20 minutes. Prep time: about 20 minutes.
Before you start, gather everything you need in one place, preferably near your router.
- 1 Raspberry Pi B+, bare
- 1 USB mouse
- 1 USB keyboard
- 1 ethernet cable
- 1 monitor with HDMI (preferred) or DVI input
- 1 HDMI to DVI adaptor (optional)
- 1 USB cable with micro-USB connector (you can borrow this from an Android phone) and wall adapter
- 1 8GB MicroSD card with standard SD adapter
- Windows PC with SD card reader and Internet connection
Once the graphical environment starts, you're good to go. While the Pi can handle web applications like Google Apps, don't expect desktop-like performance. Remember that the Pi is running desktop software on really cheap hardware meant for mobile phones.
Raspbian comes preloaded with the Midori web browser. To install another browser like Chromium, you'll have to use a couple of commands with console program apt. But first, you'll have to update the list of packages available to apt. Type or paste the following into a console window:
sudo apt-get update
Next, open up a terminal and type sudo apt-get install to install the appropriate software package.
sudo apt-get install chromium
You can use the apt command to install everything from LibreOffice to the Apache web server. A full list of Debian packages available for Raspbian is available online.
To turn off your Pi, double-click Shutdown on the desktop. Once the Pi's screen has gone dark and is no longer showing text of any kind, simply unplug the Pi from its USB power supply.
Once you feel at home with Raspbian, you can try writing programs for the Raspberry Pi using Python, or try your hand at other distributions like Pidora (a Pi-friendly version of Red Hat's Fedora Linux) or the Raspberry Pi version of Arch Linux.
Because the Pi is so cheap, don't be afraid to experiment and break things. If you ever get in a situation where your Raspbian installation is unusable, simply use Win32 Disk Imager to flash a fresh copy of the operating system onto your MicroSD card and start anew.
Whether you have a big project in mind or just want to learn how to program in Python, the Pi is a great way to get a taste of what tiny computers can do.