Book review: Getting started with Raspberry Pi (so what exactly is it for?!)

A few weeks ago, we were visiting friends who have a teenage son. He’d received a Raspberry Pi for Christmas but was struggling to understand what to do with it.  You see, he’d loaded Raspbian, fired up Scratch, etc. – but still had a pretty big question: what could he do on the Raspberry Pi that he couldn’t already do on his Windows laptop?

That made me stop and think. You see, for as much as I think the Raspberry Pi is a fantastic device for low-cost computing – and a great entry point for those who have a TV but not a PC;  many UK families already have at least one PC – indeed I used to think I was in the minority with my assortment of computing devices but even non-geek friends have multiple laptops (kids need them for school work, parents for their professional work), smartphones/tablets, and games consoles.

So what can the Raspberry Pi do that a PC can’t?  For starters, the GPIO pins mean it’s (potentially) easier to interface with other hardware. Secondly, the lower price point means that, if you blow one up, it’s less of a problem than a PC.  Also, as someone whose computing education started out with logic gates and boolean algebra, it allows one to get a lot closer to core computing principles – you can directly interact with a Pi in a way that’s not possible (or at least not as simple) with modern PCs.

That didn’t help my friends’ son much – although I did help to configure their router to allow him to run a Minecraft server, which scored me a few Brownie points…

Even so, I decided to buy a book to investigate further – partly with my friends’ issue in mind but also out of interest for myself. The book I selected was Getting Started with Raspberry Pi (Make: Projects/O’Reilly) by Matt Richardson and Shawn Wallace and it really is a pretty good introduction.  In a handful of easy-to-read chapters it skims the surface of getting up and running, understanding some Linux essentials, Python, Scratch, interfacing with other boards like Arduino, basic I/O, and working with webcams and Internet resources. Plenty of food for thought, to develop ideas for new projects (I still want to explore options to control a train set with some sort of Pi/Arduino setup when I find the time…). It doesn’t go deep, but nor should it – as one Amazon review says “You will need to be comfortable with computers in general, but if you’re, say, happy installing software on your standard Windows machine, you’ll be fine”.

I’ll be handing my copy over to my friends’ son – to see what a 15 year old makes of it… in the meantime, if you’re struggling to see the purpose of a Raspberry Pi (except as a small, inexpensive general purpose computer), this book might help to generate some ideas.

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