Maker Club: Raspberry Pi

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What is a Raspberry Pi, and is it delicious?

Well, yes and no. “No” in that it’s actually a cheap ($35) credit-card-sized computer invented in the United Kingdom to help children learn programming skills. “Yes” for the same reason! (The name harkens back to the early days of computer companies being named after fruit, such as Apple). You can watch an introductory video about the Raspberry Pi here.

How is it so cheap? Well, you have to supply the peripherals yourself, like a keyboard, mouse, monitor (and adapter if necessary), micro SD card, power supply, and Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi adapter. However, if you have those lying around already, you’re good to go. Kits are also sold online including some of those things, and many also include cases for the Raspberry Pi.

Just make sure the case corresponds to the kind of Raspberry Pi you’re getting. There are several differences between models, as explained here. Among other things, models A and A+ have only 256 MB of RAM, and models B and B+ boosted it to 512 MB. Just this year, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B was released, and with 1 GB of RAM, it’s the most powerful Pi yet. It’s still not as powerful as your standard desktop or laptop computer, but it’s great for small projects.

The Raspberry Pi can run various flavors, or “distros,” of the free operating system Linux. Instead of the computer’s operating system and memory being stored on a hard drive, it’s kept on a micro SD card. If you want to switch distros, it’s as simple as popping in a different micro SD card. You can also install different distros on the same SD card with NOOBS (New Out Of Box Software), which lets you pick from several. Just watch the video at the link.

The main distro is called Raspbian, which comes with plenty of educational software, including Scratch (created by the MIT Media Lab to help children learn programming), Python (a simple programming language), and the Pi Store, which makes it easy to browse and install new apps. The Raspberry Pi Foundation provides even more educational resources on its website.

One of the computers in the reference area behind Electronic Services is a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B running Raspbian (and Minecraft—a world-building game extremely popular with kids. Think of it like using Legos on a computer, but the Pi version also teaches kids how to program). If you’d like to experiment with the Pi, just go up to it! We have a kit that goes with the Raspberry Pi, too, that can be borrowed with your driver’s license. Just ask about it at the Reference Desk.

If you decide to get a Raspberry Pi for yourself, you can watch a Lynda.com video tutorial on how get up and running. It’s slightly out of date, but the principles remain the same.

You can use the apps on Raspbian and run it like any other desktop computer (and if you took the Linux class, everything will look very familiar). However, the real magic of Raspberry Pi lies in its tiny size and “hackability.”

However, you don’t need to “hack” anything if you don’t want to. Remember that other distros besides Raspbian are available for the Pi, and they too can be downloaded from the Raspberry Pi website. One of the most popular uses for the Pi are as a media center, which means you can watch movies and TV shows, listen to music, play picture slideshows, download podcasts, access the Internet, and do much more when your Pi is hooked up to your television. The two most popular media center distros for the Pi are OpenELEC and OSMC (formerly known as RaspBMC). They both run a media center program called Kodi (formerly known as XBMC).

Another popular use for the Raspberry Pi is as a retro game emulator, allowing you to play old games for Super Nintendo, Commodore 64, Game Boy, and more. The most common distro that is used for this purpose is RetroPie, and people have built large arcade cabinets using it as well as handheld Game Boy-style cases. You can also just plug in USB game controllers into your Pi and relive your childhood (or adulthood!) However, there are legal issues surrounding the copyrighted games often played in emulators.

If after installing one of these images you decide to format your microSD card to delete everything and get it back to the original size, use a utility like SD Card Formatter and follow these instructions. You can then write a new image to your SD card using these directions.

There are only a few spaces left for this month's Maker Club: Raspberry Pi (taking place on Wednesday, June 17 from 7:00-8:30pm in the Computer Lab), so sign up now while you still can!

Fun fact: the computer by the circulation desk that patrons can use to sign up for library cards is also a Raspberry Pi. Just look behind the monitor, and you’ll see something very familiar!