As Nice As Pi…

And a Raspberry Pie, at that.

On February 29th, 2012, a small UK charity released an absolutely tiny microcomputer to the waiting world. It wasn’t much to look at [see the photo, below]. In fact, it wasn’t much when it came to performance, either. The initial release model came with a 700MHz, single-core processor from Broadcom, 256Mb of RAM, an SD Card slot for “disc storage”, an HDMI output port, and a 3.5mm jackplug for audio. Small enough to fit in a [“kitchen-sized”] box of matches, this machine was released for about $35 with the intent that it could be supplied to school children to promote programming and technology skills.

There is some lovely synergy here… Many of the Team responsible for developing the Pi started started out working for a small UK computer company, Acorn, back in the early 1980s. Acorn produced the “BBC Microcomputer” for schools, then went on to design their own 32-bit RISC processor (the Acorn Risk Machine). If you recognise the name, it’s because ARM Holdings Limited, effectively an offspring of those early foundations, is responsible for designing chips that power most of the world’s smartphones. And, of course, the Broadcom chip that powers the Raspberry Pi is an ARM core.

So: cool, right? Well… mostly. The early iterations of the Pi (a Model A, A+, B and B+) were all very successful, reliable, and economical, but not exactly powerful… But that’s just changed… Enter the Raspberry Pi 2… An iterative improvement on the Model B+, the Pi2 comes with 1Gb RAM, a faster, Quad-Core Broadcom chip, much improved graphics [like: quite capable of generating a 1920×1080 resolution display to play video content!]…

There are various software images that can be used to power it, too: Raspbian, a port of Debian Linux to the Arm architecture; RaspBMC, a port of the popular XBMC derivative of “X-Box Media Centre” [to create a full-featured meadia centre; plus RiscOS – a port of the Operating System that first debuted in about 1986 on the Acorn Archimedes – the first commercially-available computer with an Acorn/ARM chip inside it.

What’s not to like?

Now, OK, you may be thinking: hang on – this is hardly powerful enough to do *anything* useful. But you’d be wrong… This setup is roughly equivalent in power to a dual-processor Intel Pentium II system with similar RAM; a high-speed 16Gb micro-SD card is likely faster than the 8.4Gb PATA drives of the day, too – and the SoC graphics is comfortably a match for what was on offer at the time… Well, they have gone from strength to strength – and are used in robotics, home automation, classrooms and, even, super-computer classes at universities [building a 120-note super-cluster from RasPis, which cost $35 each, is a bit more realistic than more expensive gear.

And on of the harder skills to learn in IT today is “how to do more with less” – how to tune and tweak something to work with seriously constrained resources. You can’t beat as RasPi for that… It really is as nice as Pi… [sic]