A tasty slice of Pi

Last year I was quite excited to hear about the new Raspberry Pi, a computer designed to be small and cheap. Its main aim is, apparently, to provide an accessible and stimulating route into computer programming for young people (rather like the ZX Spectrum and other microcomputers of my youth, although I’m not sure if that was one of their design goals or just a side effect of the fact that you had to type in commands just to get a program to load and the easy accessibility of a programming environment if you wanted to take things further) but it is also a quite capable general purpose computer. The thing that most immediately attracted me to the Pi was the presence of a GPIO port, allowing easy access to hardware control.

As with several other items of new technology, including my Android phone and my Kindle, I waited until I had got my hands on one or two Raspberry Pis (or Pies – I’m not sure if there’s an official plural form) belonging to other people before I purchased one of my own. In many ways this wait served me well, as they doubled the amount of onboard RAM fairly late in 2012 and so, by waiting until the cusp of the new year, I ended up with 512MB instead of 256MB. Mine is a Raspberry Pi Model B, which comes with a built-in ethernet adapter and 2 USB ports so is (IMHO) well worth the extra cost against a Model A (about ¬£10 cheaper but with 1 USB port and no ethernet – actually I don’t recall seeing any of those for sale, so I don’t know if they are still doing them).

The Pi comes with composite video and HDMI outputs for graphics. Unfortunately I don’t have a TV at home (to use the composite video signal) and my monitor is VGA-only (for which HDMI adaptors are expensive). Also I didn’t, until last week, have a USB keyboard. This meant that I couldn’t plug my I/O peripherals directly into the Pi and have had, instead, to resort to running it headless and accessing it via an ssh connection from my PC. This is no great problem except that my PC is in my bedroom, my router is in the kitchen and I therefore have to keep running in and out to get to the Pi (or I could trail an extra-long network cable through the house but I’d rather not). I have now procured a USB keyboard and have an HDMI cable with DVI converter on order, so that I’ll be able to take the Pi into work (I have a DVI-capable monitor in my office) and play with it directly during my lunch breaks, but for now I’ll be sticking to headless / ssh use when I’m playing with it at home.

To start with, I decided to run my Pi with the recommended operating system – a customised version of Linux called Raspbian (which, as the name suggests is based on Debian, one of the most established Linux distributions). I’ve been running Linux, on and off, pretty much since I first got my own PC about 12 years ago and it (in the flavour of Linux Mint 11, aka. Katya) is currently my main OS on my home PC, so Raspbian is pleasantly familiar. At some point, I may try out one or more of the other Pi-based Linuxes (or Linuces or whatever – again, I’m unsure about the plural form). If so, I’ll probably wait to get a new SD card first. One of the attractions of the Pi is the fact that all the software resides on an SD card, so you can effectively have a different machine set up just by swapping out to a different card. One of the ways I can foresee playing around with my Pi is to have several different versions of Linux set up on different cards with a nice stable one (probably Raspbian) I can fall back on and others to be more experimental with.

As I mentioned before, the thing that first drew my attention to the Pi was the GPIO port and, indeed, I have already started to play with that. Since this post is getting a bit long, I’ll postpone further details for a bit.

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