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      29.09.2013 11:50
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      Low-price PC motherboard and PC system suitable for learners, PC use and home automation projects

      A QUANTUM LEAP BACKWARDS

      In the early days of 'home computing', the hardware around at the time, e.g. Sinclair Spectrum, BBC B, Acorn and such-like served a dual purpose. You could run other people's software on them, or, heaven forbid that you should do this today, write your own programmes. Of course, most people went for the line of least resistance and played 'tennis' or tried landing planes on a runway made up of dots and the need for a home computer that could be used for writing programmes just kind of faded away in most people's minds.

      As the technology got 'smarter', we've become 'dumber'. By that I mean, most of us know what to do with the stuff as it relates to ourselves, but ask us to design the next generation of kit and you may just as well ask us to start our own Mars mission from scratch.

      What's really lacking is a cheap simple solution that will get people back to the basics, and more to the point, engender the enthusiasm to become a hardware or software engineer at an early age. If it could do this and and be cheap, then so much the better.

      PROBABLY THE CHEAPEST NEW PC IN THE WORLD

      No, it's not made by Carlsberg, but this is where the Raspberry Pi comes in. With a basic motherboard costing around £29 including p+p, it wouldn't be too expensive an experiment to buy one and then see what you could do with it (I did!) which I suspect is the 'big idea'. Notably, this is probably the only motherboard I've seen in a long time bearing the legend 'Made in the UK'.

      A lot of thought has gone into its design with a view to keeping it real, and affordable.

      For example, much of what else it needs may well be lying fallow at home. For a start, there's the power supply - this uses the almost industry-standard micro-USB port and mains charger used by so many of today's smart phones and you may already have a spare, having sold your last phone to Mazumamobile.com who only want the phone, not the charger. (This may not always work, especially if you make full use of the USB ports on the Pi and you may find you need something with a bit more oomph, a tablet charger let's say)

      You may even have a spare SD card from a defunct digital camera lying around, in which case, you've already most likely got what you need to run its operating system.

      So that you don't need to add on an expensive monitor just to see what you are doing, they've thoughtfully added HDMI and analogue TV outputs, as it's more likely that someone on a budget would have access to a telly than a spare PC monitor - remember how the Spectrum output to a TV aerial socket? This is the 21st century version of that train of thought.

      Its networking is taken care of by a full-size Ethernet socket, but you could of course use up a USB port by using a wi-fi dongle.

      In appearance the Pi is really small - we're talking the size of a pack of cards here. It would appear that to drive down costs they've in effect used the motherboard of a competent but not state-of-the-art smartphone, but bulked it up with desktop-sized connectors. From what I can make out, it uses a Broadcom processor with 512mbytes of RAM, making it somewhat similar to my older HTC Wildfire in specification. The advantage of this chipset, apart from price is that it's eminently suited to streaming HD video provided you don't give it too much else to do.

      Each of the four sides of the motherboard performs a different connection function.

      At the western end (using the most common way of photographing it), we have a stack of two USB ports and the Ethernet socket. North we have the HDMI TV output, with the SD card socket and power input to the east. Along the south side we have the coaxial TV output and a 3.5mm stereo sound jack, neither of which you'd use if using a link to a digital TV instead.

      Thus it's quite likely that to put this thing to any use, you'd have cabling coming out at ninety degrees to three of its four side - not the neatest solution in the world, but hobbyists aren't the sort to complain about this.

      There's a wealth of after-market gear for the Pi, not least of which is a case of some sort, if only to protect the SD card from getting broken off.

      Along with the case costing £4, just about the only 'new' part I bought for it was a compact wireless keyboard and mouse pad for £13 from Maplin. I already had some vague notion of using a Pi to add the other three 'TV catch-ups' to my TV which only carries BBC iPlayer and so a small keyboard combo was ideal for lounge use. It also had the advantage of only tying up one precious USB port for both keyboard and mouse use. Given what I said earlier about making sure the power adapter was up to the job, any further USB use beyond the occasional memory stick is likely to need a powered hub - back-up USB hard drives most certainly will!

      INSTALLATION

      Putting the motherboard into the case was easy, the latter being a two-part clam shell design. I bought a transparent one just 'cos I can with a child-like wish to see all the 'pretty lights' a-flickering! This was sufficiently well-cut to be a convincing fit. Then you slot in the full-size SD card (or, as in my case, a microSD card and adapter) which contains the software. Nowadays, Raspberry Pi software comes preloaded as 'NOOBS', which cleverly implies that everyone's a 'NOOB' here when in fact in means 'New Out of Box Software'. This is designed to boot straightaway to a menu of different software 'flavours'. They're mainly Linux based initially although there's a RISC-OS option for those with a nostalgic wish to revisit the system used by BBC Acorns.

      Notably, from my point of view, there were two 'media centre' options, OpenElec and Raspbmc, the former being a much quicker load due to its smaller file size and so I chose this as I figured that it presented a much reduced 'overhead' memory-wise. Both of these were intended to be solely or at least mainly for the running of an open-source (i.e. free!) media client called XBMC. I'd spent the week prior to delivery getting this to work on my PC, and had succeeded in my 'TV catch-up' quest in all cases except '4On-Demand' which, to be fair seems to be eluding everyone using XBMC at the moment.
      Once I'd chosen one of my preferred media centre clients, the rest was plain sailing except that, like my PC, I still couldn't get 4OnDemand to work. These 'add-ons' have to be installed manually as they do not appear on the official list of add-ons like YouTube does, and like Android 'apps' they depend on someone writing the damned things. In this case, I think Channel 4 has altered its TV streaming delivery method and the add-on hasn't yet caught up.

      As a 'project' it was a bit of a let down, since it only took me about an hour to get it working how I wanted it, but bear in mind that I've opted for a specific job for it.

      WHAT ELSE COULD IT DO?

      A few things come to mind. Adding a large hard drive would enable it to become a home media server for the storage and playback of a wide range of media files.

      Of course, you could also use it as a 'primer' to the black art of writing programmes.
      There are a few expansion boards already around for the Pi, one of which contains a set of electrical relays designed to be able to trip other devices into (or out of) action, thus with internet access it could become a remote control hub for lighting, alarms and heating.

      Another expansion board includes a camera, so as before the internet access could be brought into play to monitor remote locations.

      I hesitate to say that the 'possibilities are endless' as my imagination can only stretch to three other things to do with it, but I'm sure some will grasp the opportunity with alacrity. There's a lively forum community so I guess it's only a matter of time before some ner....errrr.....enthusiast works out a way to get it to drive his car on his daily commute, or maybe just do his job for him!

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      • More +
        24.08.2013 00:20
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        Great little piece of computing equipment with a wide range of uses.

        Now, I am going to review raspberry pi. Yes pi, not pie I am afraid. Thankfully this pi is actually a functional little piece of equipment. Even if you can't eat it.

        The Raspberry Pi is a small single board computer capable of doing every day things that you would normally do on a computer (word processing, internet and even playing HD video files). I use mine with my tv but there are many possibilities with the raspberry pi.

        After being intrigued by the raspberry pi for some time and some internet research on what I could achieve, I decided to go ahead and buy this little impressive project.

        While there are now two versions, this review shall focus on the model B which I own.

        ** Raspberry Pi **
        This small product gives you full computer capabilities (without a storage function, but storage is becoming much cheaper). The website states that they want kids all over the world to buy this to learn programming. Thankfully you don't need to be a programmer to enjoy this product (though if you do I am sure you will get even more enjoyment out of it).

        Fedora, Debian and ArchLinux are the three main supported operating systems for the unit. They are all Linux distributions so it helps to have some experience or knowledge of Linux. It isn't for everyone but then it depends what you intend to do with it. My set up requires minimal interaction with the OS.

        Dimensions: 5.60mm x 56mm x 21mm

        So what are the differences between the models?
        Model A - 256MB RAM, 1 USB port, no ethernet port
        Model B - 512MB RAM, 2 USB ports and a ethernet port

        The official website has a lot more information on the product.

        ** My Use and Experience **
        The raspberry pi was smaller than I expected, even though I knew it was quite small. It may be small but you can't underestimate its potential!

        I bought a raspberry pi to use with my television to enhance my viewing capabilities. It also makes it easier to watch things that are on my external hard drive, my television can't recognise many file formats but the raspberry pi means I don't have to worry about that.

        Set up was easy for me. It was pretty much a case of putting everything together and connecting it to my tv. Some may have an issue on getting the operating system onto an SD card, but you can buy SD cards with operating systems already on them. It was all very seamless and could have been done by someone with a lot less computer experience. While some projects may not be for the technologically afraid but there are some it is just a case of connecting the right cable.

        I have been using the raspberry pi for over a month with no issues. It has been a great little piece of equipment.

        I have been tempted to buy another and complete a more impressive project I have seen online.

        ** Possible Projects **
        While you can use the raspberry pi as a personal computer (adding all the necessary bits yourself) it is small enough that you can be a bit more adventurous with with. The internet is full of projects, ranging from simple to complex. People have done some pretty impressive projects.

        Such projects include:
        * Voice Control to your home
        * Room Alarm
        * Emulation machine (play old console games)
        * Media Centre for your TV

        Plus many more some seemingly less impressive but anyone with the patience to learn programming impresses me.

        ** Price and Availability **
        The official website directs you Farnell to buy your raspberry pi for £28.07. I personally bought mine on Amazon for £29.90. On top of this you will also need a case for your raspberry pi. These come in at around £6-7 but you can buy more expensive ones too. The cost can also add up for any extra cables and accessories you may need and don't have lying around the house such as HDMI cables, wireless keyboards etc.

        This is a nice low cost but good piece of equipment. The extras may add up depending what you have lying around but at least for me the cost has been worth it and I have a system I am really happy with.

        It is also important to note that the power supply is not included with the Raspberry Pi so you will need to buy this separately. It can be bought for around £4.

        ** Conclusion **
        Overall I am very happy with this product. I have a nice little system set up with my tv (though I still have some more playing about to do). I'd recommend this to a wide range of technical-capable people. What I have done is very simple. And the internet is full of instructions, go to your favourite search engine. It is a low-cost piece of equipment. Only downfall may be the extra expense of the extra accessories you may need but this isn't a huge issue as it will usually end up being a cost-effective measure.

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          04.01.2013 22:49
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          Buy it and see, this computer is priced so low that it is almost disposable!

          The Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized personal computer designed to give you all the functionality of a standard household computer without the price tag associated with it.


          There are multiple "boards" available, however I will be basing this review on the current (at the time of writing) board B with 512MB of RAM.


          I got my Raspberry Pi for £30 including shipping from Farnell Element 14, one of the Raspberry Pi's two official suppliers. It arrives in minimal packaging - a static-free bag within a card box. Although this does not sound like much protection, as this computer is non-mechanical and fully solid-state, it is perfectly sufficient. With a traditional computer you must worry about the moving parts inside such as the hard drive even when the computer is not powered up.


          This computer is a direct substitute for a traditional tower minus a storage device. This means that you still need to supply a monitor, internet connection, mouse, keyboard, storage device (An SD card) and all of the cables associated with these. For a techie such as myself, this is no hassle as I can find all of these lying around the house. However, for many people, this can be an issue as they may not have these and could have to buy them all separately - soon building up the cost.


          The next step involves setting up the device which once again can be trouble for non-techies. Without going into much detail (Full details can be found on the Raspberry Pi website), you need to format the SD card and then transfer and configure the Operating System before you can begin to use the device.


          As the computer itself is just an unprotected circuit board unless you spend extra money on a case for it, robustness can be an issue and there is a high chance of it becoming broken. You must take extra care where this is placed during operation adn usage especially to reduce the chance of it being stood on or to reduce the chance of something being put on it - either of which will snap the computer into two.


          For the price however, the cost of just £30 is amazing value and it is fully understandable how it has taken years of planning to finally release the final product:

          *Specifications as listed by Farnell*
          SoC Broadcom BCM2835 (CPU, GPU, DSP, and SDRAM)
          CPU: 700 MHz ARM1176JZF-S core (ARM11 family)
          GPU: Broadcom VideoCore IV, OpenGL ES 2.0, 1080p30 h.264/MPEG-4 AVC high-profile decoder
          Memory (SDRAM): 512 Megabytes (MiB)
          Video outputs: Composite RCA, HDMI
          Audio outputs: 3.5 mm jack, HDMI
          Onboard storage: SD, MMC, SDIO card slot
          10/100 Ethernet RJ45 onboard network
          Storage via SD/ MMC/ SDIO card slot


          Once up and running the Raspberry Pi can handle any of the general task a home user will throw at it; web surfing, email and even watching HD video. Some people have chosen to go to extremes and even use a Raspberry Pi to power a private mobile network, with the help of some additional equipment - this really shows the true power and potential of the device!

          There is really nothing I can really complain about concerning this device, it is perfect for both casual computer users, to reduce cost, and for more advanced users, for the pure techieness, alike!

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