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
    +2

    Comment number 244.

    232. David P
    At least we both want it to work, I think that is all that matters!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 243.

    @ Free Willy.

    You seem determined to underline your ignorance, and you're doing a great job.

    It is best to remain silent, and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove any doubt.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 242.

    #152. It is true that switching it off and back on will not do a reset, that requires a rewrite of the SD card, it will be a routine task for a lab technician (I assume schools still have them) to restore a batch of cards to their default state

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 241.

    227.fuzzy
    Has anyone posted here from a Pi?
    [sent from my hp]

    I am posting this on a "Pi emulator" using Iceweasel browser on Debian Linux in Oracle VM Virtual box. Does that count?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 240.

    Many years ago, my mother's school was one of the first with a BBC B. She didn't like all the programmes so I bought my own BBC B and wrote some very simple, colourful programmes for her to use instead. I never became a programmer but I did enjoy myself and learnt a lot about structuring things.
    Hope this new computer is as succesful.... Good luck

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 239.

    190. "You've not seen the [nice product search word] yet then?"
    I've been designing and building occasional one-offs like that for nearly 20 years. You've been able to buy off-the-shelf, cheap external IO / microcontrol for any PC for much longer.

    You're all individuals. You don't need a Pi. The software can be freely downloaded. USB/GPIO / microcontrol is cheap *and* you won't ever use it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 238.

    I think this is a wonderful gadget for kids to get to grips with the building blocks of today's technology. It also introduces a different operating system experience from the one forced upon us and schools from such providers as RM, mainstream retailers and the corporates we work for. Python is also a great language to learn. Let's sit back and watch the new ideas start to flow

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 237.

    Clearly my android smart phone or oi unix usb stick acheives more than this soo


    I don't understand this project when there are more advanced working and proven projects working already??

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 236.

    I am really glad this has come out. Hooray!

    Children will learn something interesting and creative in technology - not just sit there learning how to click buttons and forgetting/not learning basic grammar and spelling because the computer, supposedly, does it all for you.

    The present ICT Curriculum teaches people to consume the end product and stifles creativity.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 235.

    @Phil Anthony such an attitude to software is just what the likes of Microsoft and Apple want to promote. Slavish USERS of proprietary software with no clue on how the "magic" is done. OS's like linux show that software can be open and free whilst still providing a decent living for those who gain skills there. It also has a tweak-ability that neither M'Soft of Apple OS's offerings provide.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 234.

    This has to be great news for our economy. I'm from the generation that grew up hacking code on a commodore 64 and other home computers. I went on to study computer science and then founded an internet software company in the late 90s (which continues to this day). This project offers kids a glimpse of the same excitement we felt back in the 80s and to learn useful skills for the work place.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 233.

    I'm hoping I can persuade my 7 year old son to let me buy him one of these instead of an iPad. I'm not holding out much hope...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 232.

    219. Nakor

    "I still disagree."

    ----

    OK, fair enough. I started working on mainframes back when most people only ever saw computers in films. I adored my BBC Micro. I love programming. I'd love this scheme to work, it's aims are laudable - but I just don't think it will.

    We shall see :-)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 231.

    I'll admit, despite working with computer all the time, coding is far beyond me. But I think it's going to become an essential skill in the future. How empowering it'd be to be able to write your own software rather than be slaves to the companies that make them. Could see some REAL competition emerging!! Hey I might even get one for the fun of it ;)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 230.

    226.GreenInker
    I clarified the point about 30 minutes after posting it. I realise its ambigious but I ran out of characters. What I mean is programming is a part of computer science, and computer science is taught to university level. I don't for one minute mean that only those who have been to uni can programme. I realise it can be read that way though and I apologise for that.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 229.

    But times have moved on and computing is now about building cloud apps on hosted servers or for mass market mobile devices.

    ---
    Cloud apps aren't just magic, you need somebody to know load balancing, query optimisation, and how to set up the OS for efficiency, otherwise your app won't scale. You can't do this just by knowing some html funnily enough. These devices will help teach computation.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 228.

    We're also in the same situation when it comes to other industries too. WW2 led us to appreciate some of the most remarkable minds and we facilitated great leaps in technology as a result, as did Germany. We let that die through failed education and complacency. America recruited the Nazi scientists while we closed shop and consigned our technological leaps to the history books.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 227.

    Has anyone posted here from a Pi?
    [sent from my hp]

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 226.

    " Programming is computer science - a university level subject"
    Piffle! I started programming in classes at school in 1975 at the age of 14, and continued to A-level. I was able to work as a programmer on leaving school, and when I later went to university my programming skills remained better than those of my fellow undergraduates throughout the course.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 225.

    This is reminscent of Spectrum etc and 30 years ago would have been great device then. But times have moved on and computing is now about building cloud apps on hosted servers or for mass market mobile devices. Sure useful to get a nuts and bolts understanding but unless you are going down the engineering track not perhaps best use of time, and frankly fairly boring to most kids after 5 minutes

 

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