Getting started with Raspberry Pi (#RasPi)

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Raspberry Pi is a trademark of the Raspberry Pi FoundationMuch to my manager’s disgust (he has a programming background, whilst I’m an infrastructure guy “by trade” – although I did write code in my youth!), my Raspberry Pi arrived last week. Despite the botched launch, I still think this is one of the most exciting products we’ll see this year because, well, because it’s a fully functioning computer for around £25 (Model B) and that means the potential addressable market is enormous. Actually, that’s not quite right – the Pi is around £25 (plus VAT) and then you’ll need some peripherals – although they should be relatively easy to lay your hands on:

  • A micro-USB mobile phone charger (I use the one that came with my Nokia Lumia 800 but any 5V supply that can feed a micro-USB cable will do)
  • A USB keyboard
  • (Optionally) a mouse
  • (Optionally) some speakers
  • (Optionally) a USB hub (powered)
  • A wired network connection
  • An SD card
  • A display – but watch out as Raspberry Pi supports HDMI and component out (RCA) – not VGA.

My monitors are mostly VGA (I have one that will take DVI) and my TV is far too old for HDMI (it’s a 14-year-old Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT!) so I set the Pi up to use the analogue  connection to the TV.

Installing the operating system

I selected a Linux distro (the Raspberry Pi blog suggests that Fedora Remix is the recommended distro, as does the FAQ, although there is extensive discussion about whether to use Fedora or Debianthe Raspberry Pi quick start guide suggests that developers should use Debian and there are alternative downloads too). Eventually, I managed to install the Raspberry Pi Fedora Remix on my SD card (my Ubuntu machine recognised the SD card, but the Python version of the Fedora ARM Image Installer didn’t*; meanwhile my work laptop installed an image on the SD card but it wouldn’t boot – I suspect that’s down to the disk encryption software we use; finally I managed to run the Windows version of the Fedora ARM Image Installer on another Windows 7 PC).

Once I had an operating system installed, I booted and the RasPi picked up an IP address from my DHCP server, registered itself in DNS (raspi.domainname) and set to work expanding its disk to fill the 8GB SD card I’m using.

*getting this installer to work involved installing the python-qt4 package in the Ubuntu Software Centre, then running ./fedora-arm-installer.

Switching displays

Unfortunately, standard definition CRT TVs are no better at working with Raspberry Pi’s than they are with any other computer (except a games console) – and why I thought that should be the case is a mystery…

With only part of the display visible via component out (and not exactly easy to read) I started to investigate options for use of the HDMI port.  It turns out that HDMI to VGA is too expensive, but an HDMI to DVI cable cost just £2.39 at Amazon (thanks to Chromatix, The EponymousBob and GrumpyOldGit on the Raspberry Pi forums for sharing this info). With the RasPi hooked up to my only digital monitor, everything was much easier, although I did have to plug the cable directly into the monitor and I’m now waiting for delivery of a DVI-I female to female gender changer so that it’s a bit easier to swap the monitor cable between my computing devices.

So, what’s it like to use then?

Did I mention that the Raspberry Pi is a fully functioning computer for around £25? Well then, what’s not to like? Sure, performance is not lightning fast – the Raspberry Pi FAQs suggest:

“… real world performance is something like a 300MHz Pentium 2, only with much, much swankier graphics”

but that’s plenty for a bit of surfing, email and teaching my kids to write code.

I am finding though that I’m struggling a little with my chosen distro. For example, I haven’t yet managed to install Scratch and it doesn’t seem to be one of the recognised packages so I may have to resort to compiling from source – hardly ideal for getting kids started with coding. For that reason, I might switch to Debian (I’m downloading it as I write) but for now I’ll continue to explore the options that the Fedora Remix provides.

I’m sure there will be more RasPi posts on this blog but if you’re one of the thousands waiting for yours to arrive, hopefully this post will help to prepare…

And once the educational models are available, I’ll be encouraging my sons’ school to buy a lab full of these instead of a load more netbooks running Windows XP…

8 thoughts on “Getting started with Raspberry Pi (#RasPi)

  1. @Tom – no cases available yet (although I’m sure they will hit the market soon). I could probably create something but in the meantime it’s just a bare circuit board!

  2. @Mark – I’m using a case from Maplin (N06GC) temporarily. 10 minutes with a Dremel did the trick. Feel much happier about it being enclosed!

  3. @Steve I really must buy myself a Dremel… I’m told that an alternative to the Maplin case is the box that business cards get supplied in and I have one here, just need to cut the holes!

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