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

    Comment number 284.

    "253. Dam
    There are hundreds of similar products out there. Why is the BBC freely advertising this particular one as a cool new gadget when such products have been out for a few years already!!?"

    What are it's competitors?

    The only Linux board with various I/O I have is a Fox Board I bought a few years ago. I think that cost me over £100.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    Superb, and Linux too! I've used nothing else since 98, my children both use versions of the system and think it's much more user friendly than the vista they had. They do stuff that I don't understand! And swap systems to meet their needs at that time, mine have grown up telling the machine what they want, This is going to help an awful lot of kids understand tech and what it can do for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    278.Martin Taylor
    4 Minutes ago
    @268: LUXURY! Try using a hand punch... :-)

    Or a small drill bit and bits of sticky tape to edit 8 hole tape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    Pi uses ARM, just like a lot of other PCBs and that is not mysterious at all. See Olimex range for one example of non-mysterious (fully open source), as capable and cheap PCBs.

    There is a world of difference between an ARM microcontroller and the Broadcom BCM2835 SOC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    "Oh yeah, Linux is the best, you can really learn how OSs work, you can only do that on Linux, you can install languages like C (can only do that on Linux) yeah you really need to understand the OS if you want to use a coding language that is hugely abstracted from the OS. You can write drivers and learn efficient code...only on Linux"

    *uses an interpreted scripting language to PRINT "HELLO"*

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    I wish I had one of these when I was growing up - I would've been a bandit coding in hex not text.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    @268: LUXURY! Try using a hand punch... :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    Rory, you tinkered with the Python code which then froze? Maybe you'd put it into a tight infinate loop. Linux has absolute control of its processes. Give the right command (gui or command line) and you will stop the run away process. pkill, killall, kill, kill -9 could have been tried rather than a reboot. Always worth tinkering further.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    I had a BBC B in 1982, and thought I was pretty hot at programming until my IT teacher took the initiative to teach a group of us machine code and assembly language after school - then I learnt how to program all over again.

    I'm looking forward to doing some hardware projects with it - knowing that if I fry the board, it's only going to cost me £30 to replace it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Unfortunately I think this is enough but too late. As a 40 year old Software Engineer, I grew up typing for hours on C64's, ZX81's and BBC B's for basic beeps and block games but that is all we had. Both of my teenage boys (17&14) would expect instant gratification, an hours work for 'Hello world' wont cut it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    30 Minutes ago
    There are hundreds of similar products out there.

    Then use this opportunity to list a few.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    I remember when I first got my hands on my own compute and took the exact same steps to create a "Hello World" program. That was 30 years ago and it was a Sinclair ZX81. Those humble devices catapulted me and many of my contemporaries into a computer age and a career in programming.
    It's great to see this age being reborn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    "let's accept that the project is a step in the right direction instead of mindless "office skills" like spreadsheeting and word processing."

    The Pi runs a fully-fledged desktop operating which is free to download and also runs on ordinary PCs. Spreadsheet and word processing software - even the world's favourite typewriter emulation suite - will run on the Pi. It's a small, slow, cheap PC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Oh, and for the sake of some comment posters who are confused by your use of the term "hacking", please link http://youngrewiredstate.org/ so people understand.
    @Jon K breadboards are used *every* *single* *day* to model circuits prior to making a PCB. If we don't teach people to breadboard their designs, they will get nowhere.
    This thread exposes the requirement for better computing education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    The most important thing is that this should get kids to make stuff. At one time they would have made stuff in woodwork, metalwork or cookery classes - now they'll make software.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    @255. spagbol99

    'mindless' office skills like spreadsheeting/ You've never written a formula in Excel or used VisualBasic then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    1 Hour ago
    We had teletypes to write programmes or you could load via punched paper tape over a high speed reader (300 characters ps). So, good on Raspbery Pi!

    300cps! You were lucky! I had to use TTY at 10cps to load editor, load source, save source, load PAL assembler, assemble source (3 passes) on PPP8. Now it takes seconds to find syntax errors, then it took hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    A great idea! There are many aspects of computer programming that teach skills with a wider application e.g.: analysis (working out what you have to do); logical thinking (breaking a problem down into a sequence of logical steps); accuracy & patience (computers don’t tolerate people who don’t take care over their work) and much more. Skills that I think can help most people in later life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    259. SeeDuba - Pi uses ARM, just like a lot of other PCBs and that is not mysterious at all. See Olimex range for one example of non-mysterious (fully open source), as capable and cheap PCBs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    I don't think that it matters what language it is in, learning to write code develops problem solving and logic skills that are transferable across languages. Writing code on it's own and for it's own sake is quite boring, I would like to see cheap toy robots that can be controlled by the PI so people see the real world applications. We had hours of fun writing code for the ZX81 in the 80's


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