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
    0

    Comment number 304.

    @127. Arnold55555 "Pi seems an irrational name."

    LOL Very good

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 303.

    @tintin192
    Couldn't agree more my 14year old, has a DS, PSP, PS3, Wii Smart Phone, a netbook, internet access and he remains just a consumer. They already do what he wants from them. Cant see how a would RPi would make him spend mins let alone hours getting 'hello world' out of it?

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 302.

    SeeDubya - you are still not thinking about the real question. I don't need a Rasberry Pi with its cool GPU, to control my (whatever) other gadget, if an Arduino board will do instead. As a product for teaching Arduino is much simpler, tried and tested, but say I come with my Strawbery Gamma tomorrow with better GPU, would the BBC oblige to give me the same level of publicity?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 301.

    @Dave "This thread exposes the requirement for better computing education"
    Hmm, I'm a chartered electronics engineer with many years coding at all levels. I hire people with programming skills- unfortunately most of them are now overseas. We must teach our kids the right skills. I don't think this tool is right for 2012 kids - there's nothing new in terms of development from PCs >10yrs ago

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 300.

    #200 why the Anti-Unix obsession - it is free, and fine for anybody to use - whether it is an end user with a web browser or media centre, a beginner learning python (or C++), or somebody who wants to start hacking around in the OS.
    Is there an alternative, free, OS which offers the same flexibility? Paying £100 per go for a Windows license kind of defeats the object of the £25 PC.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 299.

    I think those who bemoan all the hype about this particular device even tough it's not as special or innovative as many claim might be missing an important point.

    The hype itself is Raspberry Pi's strong point. Innovative features or even a low price point won't be enough to create a demand for things like this in classrooms and homes but the massive amount of hype that surrounds them will.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 298.

    The most important consideration is the interface to the Disappointment Driver that is installed in all software creation systems.

    Once the "It works" euphoria has been blown awy by the realisation that that's what it was supposed to do, what does the programmer do next?

    Do they give up or do they say "I know how to do better next time" and get on with the next version?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 297.

    You didn't hack code on the computer. You merely programmed.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 296.

    azkak you've got it right. Nige321 sorry mate , check Vivaldi

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 295.

    My son has to do screenshots of how to write an email for ICT homework. He finds ICT uttery boring.
    I learnt Fortran & Basic at school, which has given me valuable skills that I use in my daily work as an architect using BIM software!
    That says it all.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 294.

    Is a unboxed PCB really going to teach kids how to program? Every kid already has a fully fledged computer in their bedroom - that doesn't seem to make kids program - why will the RPi?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 293.

    285.Dam SeeDubya - The BCM2835 is essentially ARM11 architecture - there is a magnitude of difference but my point is why is the BBC making Rasberry Pi appear as the only PCB out there?

    It's not the ARM part of the SOC that excites people, it is the GPU that is built into it. It's the difference between flashing a few leds and driving an HD TV display. It makes an Arduino look like a BC109!

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 292.

    Brilliant!

    I taught myself Basic on the Sinclair Spectrum. Not only was the whole exercise fascinating but it contributed to my computer literacy and undoubtedly helped my career.

    Great to see today's young people getting the same opportunity.

  • rate this
    -21

    Comment number 291.

    Let's be honest. The Raspberry Pi is just a gimmick and is getting free publicity from the BBC. Manufacturing and production of the Pi has been a shambles. It will be a novelty for a few lessons and then pupils will get bored. Fact.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 290.

    @Bright #288

    Bless....I suppose you couldn't work out for the closing statement that my post was a sardonic parody of the typical Pi advocate posting comments

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 289.

    I sincerely wish ICT teachers understand the design, componentisation and the merits this device brings to students. In my view success of this device purely lies within schools and its teachers ability to deliver value-computing to their kids using this device.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 288.

    @Aidy Point of correction - Linux is not the only OS which C runs on. Also most systems with the Linux kernel uses glibc, you do not need to install C - it comes packed.

    You can write drivers and efficient code on almost all platforms. Start your way from the shell.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 287.

    @213.David P, yep correct, but most computers from supliers only come as the box+keyboard+mouse, screens are generally an additional cost. If we say £75 for a screen and another £30 for Keyboard, you're still quids in by ~£250/unit. As for infra-strucutre you dont NEED it, its helpful but not a requirement, but which can be paid for with the savings and still be in pocket.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 286.

    Once the Pi (or any ICT suite, really) gets paired with ideas such as Code Club http://codeclub.org.uk/ and the similar organisations that are starting to get mobilised we should get somewhere.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 285.

    SeeDubya - The BCM2835 is essentially ARM11 architecture - there is a magnitude of difference but my point is why is the BBC making Rasberry Pi appear as the only PCB out there?

 

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