Raspberry Pi computer review: 'a great step forward'

 
Raspberry Pi with SD memory card attached The Raspberry Pi runs off an operating system saved onto an attached SD memory card

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The Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer designed to encourage children to learn programming, caught the imagination of millions when it was unveiled in February.

The website where it was offered for sale crashed, and then there were delays in getting the product safety-tested.

Now, though, the first devices are beginning to be delivered to customers.

Mine arrived in the post a few days ago, so small that it came through the letterbox.

I wondered how to set about testing it and decided to invite a teenage programmer, Isabell Long, to come and help me out.

Getting started

18-year-old Isabell is studying for A-Levels, including computing, and is a leading light with Young Rewired State, the organisation which gets young people from all over the country together for hacking weekends.

Getting acquainted with the Raspberry Pi

The uncased device, with everything on show, may have great appeal to the experienced programmers who have rushed to order a Raspberry Pi.

But the device is aimed at children, who could be put off by the need to hunt down various peripherals and cable before you can get going.

After a bit of rummaging in the attic, I found what we needed - a television, an HDMI cable, a mouse, a keyboard, an ethernet cable, and a micro-USB charger to power the device.

Isabell and I found the instructions on plugging it all together pretty simple. The device arrived with an SD card loaded with a Linux operating system and various demos.

Then we turned it on, and watched with glee as lines of computer code scrolled up the screen and, after a moment of worrying blackness, a giant Raspberry Pi logo appeared.

Cartoons and crashes

We set off to explore the desktop, which includes a web browser and the XBMC open source media player.

We were impressed that this tiny machine could play out an HD movie, but after checking out the first minute or so of Big Buck Bunny, the cartoon that comes loaded on the SD card, we remembered the real function of the Raspberry Pi, teaching the joys of coding.

Raspberry Pi desktop screen The Pi's operating system displays the organisation's logo on its desktop

There are two programming languages available to try on the Pi: Scratch and Python.

Scratch is designed to introduce younger children to programming, and is already used in a number of primary schools. Isabell found a demo racing car game, and showed me how simple it would be for children to change instructions in the program.

Next, we found the Python folder, aimed at slightly older students.

It came with a selection of games - the idea is you play them, then tinker with the code. We tried one, it froze, we then tried a number of keyboard commands to force it to quit, but nothing happened, so we had to reboot.

Then, after a bit of exploration, Isabell opened a Python window and tried out a line of code.

She typed in 'print "Hello!"', pressed return, and, lo and behold, the computer said "hello" back. One small step for coding...

Overall, after some initial confusion, we found it reasonably simple to get to grips with the Raspberry Pi, although there is still some work to be done before it is ready to be marketed direct to children and schools.

But at this point let me hand over to Isabell for her review:

It's an incredibly small, cheap computer that is perfect for bulk-buying for schools.

However, its components being so visible could put kids off - they're consumers, not programmers, at the moment, so seeing the electronics involved in what they use will either make them gasp in awe, or shy away in confusion or fear, and I think that its components are a vital part of its beauty.

This may be the perfect opportunity to push coding easily into the classroom, with the Pi's readily available installations of Scratch and Python, and may indeed encourage more girls to get involved if it is put into schools in the right way - proactively.

After all, kids tend to follow their friends: intrigue follows intrigue.

Isabell Long discusses the Raspberry Pi Isabell Long welcomes the fact that the Pi runs off an open source Linux system

As the operating system can only be put on an SD card, which has very limited capacity, they won't become mainstream Windows machines, and that will get Linux into schools. A great step forward.

Open outcome

The people behind this project say that it will be sold with a case, and the opportunity to buy a bundle of peripherals, when they start marketing it to children and schools.

But just a word of caution. Many school students - and indeed some ICT teachers - will not approach the Raspberry Pi with the same level of knowledge or enthusiasm as Isabell Long.

The device may inspire a new generation of computer programmers or it could leave children used to smartphones and tablet computers baffled and bewildered.

A great experiment with the way we teach computing has begun and we can't be sure how it will end.

 

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  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 224.

    @209 Richy_R

    8k! Hah we used to dream of 8k. when I were a lad used to have to get up out of a hole in the ground at 3am, crawl to school over broken glass, boot the computer that had 1 byte of memory and no keyboard or screen.

    But you try and tell the young people today that... and they won't believe ya'.
    (a true story based on a different sort of Python)

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 223.

    I'm 34, I run several websites and operate my own on-line business fill-time since illness forced me to leave my career. I had maybe ten IT lessons as a teenager. My friend, ten years younger than me, cannot tell the difference between an ISP and web hosting. We somehow lost out while the rest of the world (China, South Korea, Japan) were leaping ahead. We needed this fifteen years ago!

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 222.

    #42 What about "Programming" as a GCSE and an A-Level..
    ----
    We need more *computer scientists* in this country and less "programmers". I say this as someone who runs a software company. Programming is no good if you don't have a deeper appreciation of the OS and complexity. You'll just churn out rubbish.

    Lets not dumb everything down just because people don't want to use their brains.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 221.

    Alzak is missing the point. Computer Science made the jump into schools C.1080, but has progressively disappeared.

    There is a cohort of highly skilled programmers around age 40 who started programming at school and soon had a home computer. We left school with the skills that started our careers and enhanced them at University.

    The idea of RasPi is to rekindle the learning of such skills.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 220.

    This generation of children is not exactly attention-based; in fact, attention deficit disorder has never been more diagnosed (right or wrong). I suspect a few brighter, interested souls may take up this gizmo; but I would bet the majority of Raspberry PIs will lay gathering dust within 1 month. It's a toy; it's new....then what?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 219.

    181. David P.

    I still disagree. With the right OS, Apps and privileges it will be virtually impossible for any thing to go wrong that couldn't fixed by reinstalling the OS from LAN or card with a boot routine. I remember the BBC micros. Younger kids couldn't use it without supervision so no "fiddling". This is a one board PC not a supercomputer after all. All the teacher needs is basic training.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 218.

    204 David P

    As far as I'm aware, the Pi isn't at the execution stage yet. The idea of the development version is to allow people to work on how best to use it for education. It's not the whole solution; it's not the olnly solution but at least somebody's trying to do something.

    There's no point whining about the lack of oak trees if you're not prepared to plant a few acorns.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 217.

    Really excited about this product. Great start for children who want to learn the heart and guts of programming with minimal fuss or distraction. After 32 years of computing, I still find it exciting. Programming is where it is at for Creative thinking, solving problems, Just having a go.It removes ALL types of fears of technology. Waiting for mine. Started programming at 16, now taking degree.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 216.

    85.tintin192

    I'm fed up with the HUGE amount of free publicity the BBC is giving to this device. T

    Don't forget that Raspberry Pi is a charity, aimed at enabling everybody ( inc 3rd world) get to grips with computing, I'd say that this is a very good reason for the free publicity

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 215.

    @ 108. Jon K

    No hardware required? Are the kids supposed to access the cloud telepathically?

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 214.

    Why are you technology correspondant again? Every article you wright is written like you have no idea of the world you're charged with commenting, like it's all virgin terratory.
    For the record, all students at my school were taught programming pre GCSE on the veritable Acorn, circa 1998. Not sure what all the fuss is about.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 213.

    207. allthatswronginsport

    "A PC costs ~£350 for a low end PC/Laptop, PI's cost £35, so you can buy 10 PI's for the cost of each PC. Hence a school that has a class of 30 pupils can buy 30 PI's for £1050, as opposed to £10500 ofr PC's."

    ----

    What about screens, keyboards, mice? Network/storage infrastructure? Teacher training? Maintenance? Your fag-packet calculations are way WAY off.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 212.

    206.WiseOldBob
    2 Minutes ago
    I wonder: would any of the posters on here this morning consider themselves to be a nyerd?

    +++
    Do they care? Would you prefer that they answered the "Call of Duty" when the next one is released just before Rememberance Day and spent their time fantasising about killing?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 211.

    @allthatswronginsport #207

    Your maths is flawed; Pi costs £35, but what about the monitor, keyboard etc? Let me guess your answer; "schools already have those". However schools "already have" PCs so why the need for Pi at all?

    @garrowskai #205

    It's a shame you didn't read before you posted. You are wrong about the context of "hack", this has already been explained.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 210.

    Teaching kids how to program/hack will cause them to defraud the internet and steal security details, just like teaching people to drive causes them to do drive-by shootings.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 209.

    When I went to senior school in 1971, the school got given a mini computer, which had no hard disk and 8k (yes, 8k) of memory. We had teletypes to write programmes or you could load via punched paper tape over a high speed reader (300 characters ps). I later learnt how to use DOS but I got left behind when Windows came in, because it is so automatice to load software. So, good on Raspbery Pi!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 208.

    I have been programming since 1969 and on a huge variety of computers. As soon as Iheard about the Pi I ordered one and intend to see for myself what can be done with it. The UK was once the global leader in software and it would be nice to get back some of that lost lead if today's kids get a taste for it and grow into it when adults.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 207.

    @194.richbun, A PC costs ~£350 for a low end PC/Laptop, PI's cost £35, so you can buy 10 PI's for the cost of each PC. Hence a school that has a class of 30 pupils can buy 30 PI's for £1050, as opposed to £10500 ofr PC's. Thats an additional £9000 that can be spent on IT books or spent on paying the teacher more.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 206.

    I wonder: would any of the posters on here this morning consider themselves to be a nyerd?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 205.

    To all those people banging on about the hacking collective mentioned and claiming hacking is a terrible thing, there are plenty of legal hacking collectives. Large companies often hire them to test out security, they are known as 'white hats' and do a very valuable job and prevent the more illegal hackers, known as 'black hats', from breaking into security systems. Think before you type.

 

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