December 29, 2012

Christmas (Raspberry) Pi


And guess what I got for Christmas?

Courtesy of Aziz. I’d been contemplating getting a Raspberry Pi to play with for a few months now. I had heard that Aziz had one and so I asked him about it. That’s when he suggested that I wait till Christmas and he give it to me for a present rather than rack his brains on what to get me for my annual Christmas party. Given that the new version with higher RAM would be out then I agreed and the rest as they say is history.

Now if you read about the RPi online, you’ll see its not “as easy as Pi” to deal with. Ok, I’ll can the “pi” puns – they are making even me uncomfortable. Anyway, a lot of users find the RPi frustrating, but read a little deeper and you’ll realise these people were complaining cos they were using it wrongly. The RPi was designed as a not-for-profit system for kids to learn how to code. It has a 700MHz ARM processor and 512MB of RAM. If you try to run an X desktop on this thing, you deserve the pain you get. Then again you can’t blame these people because they get their images of the web from from people who should know better and they just use them. There are a whole lot of distro images available for the RPi and I downloaded a few of them to try everything out – Puppy for ARM, Raspbian Wheezy (an RPi port of Debian’s Wheezy), Sugar and XBMC, just to name a few. Even Sugar, a desktop designed to get kids started with RPi was crawling and I expect most kids to have much, much less patience that I do (that is actualy arguable). As I said, X is a no no on this thing.

As a server or a headless node, running things in the background, its pretty good. Boots quickly, its responsive and can be mounted behind a monitor and out of sight. Its powered by a micro USB, so if your monitor has one of those USB ports on it, you don’t even need a seperate power source. The board comes standalone but it has 2 USB2.0 ports on it, a fast ethernet port (100MBps), RCA video out, HDMI out and an anlogue audio out. As mentioned its got a 700MHz ARM processor, but using its own configuration tool (raspi-config) you can overclock it quite a bit, but this dramaticall shortens the life span of the RPi I’m told. Cases are obtainable seperately and by the time its all put together its hardly bigger than your average sized palm.

I didn’t want to plug it to my main setup, so I setup my older monitor, a good old 23 inch Samsung Syncmaster, dug out my Dell wireless keyboard and mouse started plugging stuff in, until I realised that this particular monitor didn’t have a HDMI in, only DVI and VGA in. Not wanting to have wasted the effort I went through to get the monitor out of storage and powering it up, I went out and bought a DVI to HDMI converter. That worked fine in getting the picture up and in the righ resoution and a quick config later, I had sound coming out from the analogue audio output into my Christmas present from 2011, which was a small sound bar – fits right under and behind the monitor. Added a USB wireless device and and I had a “portable” computer – sort of. Lift the monitor and everything goes with it, sans keyboard and mouse.

There are a lot of projects for the RPi out there and you can check out some of the distros available from here. The most common use of the RPi seems to be as a media server. Folks just download XBMC for Raspberry and connect up their media directly through the USB ports to be served to their other devices. And while you don’t have to necessary interact directly with the GUI for XBMC after its setup, I still think its way too slow to be worth it. Aside from which I already have a DLNA NAS.

What would really be cool would be Android ICS on the RPi. Its seems to have already gone into developement, but somehow isn’t being released. More than half a year has passed since the original announcement, so I’m not holding my breath.

That leaves me still weighing my options as to whats the best use I can put my RPi to. Will think it over then get back on what I decide.

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