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Very small computers—based mostly on the 6.7-by-6.7-inch Mini-ITX motherboard—have been around for a while, but the launch of the 3.4-by-2.2-inch Raspberry Pi generated a frenzy of public interest. The model A (256MB of memory, one USB port, no LAN port) sells for $25, while the model B reviewed here goes for just $35. The model B has 512MB of RAM, two USB ports, and 10/100MB ethernet.
The design intent behind the Raspberry Pi was to rekindle interest in computing as a children’s hobby, with modern PCs having become too expensive for parents to allow their kids to experiment with them. But the machine has become a hit with grown-ups, too, and the tiny computer has spawned dozens of competitors. The nonprofit Raspberry Pi Foundation recently announced plans to build 30,000 units each month.
In order to make the Raspberry Pi genuinely useful, you’ll need to provide a USB keyboard and mouse, an HDMI cable, a Micro-USB cable, a power adapter capable of delivering 5 volts over a Micro-USB cable, and an SD Card prepared with a Raspberry Pi OS image. You can be purchase each of these items online (Allied Electronics is the official U.S. supplier). An ethernet cable or a USB Wi-Fi adapter will be useful if you plan to connect the computer to your local network or to the Internet.
The Raspberry Pi model B is based on a 700MHz Broadcom BCM2835 SoC (system on chip), which has an integrated VideoCore 4 GPU capable of outputting 1080p video. I/O ports include HDMI-out, composite analog video-out, analog audio-out, two USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 ethernet port, and an SD Card slot (which the computer uses for both system boot and storage). The circuit board also offers access to the computer’s GPIO (general-purpose input/output) pins and DSI and CSI connectors for direct connection to expansion boards, displays, and more.
The Pi in practice
To assist in our evaluation, the Raspberry Pi Foundation sent an SD Card with Raspbian Wheezy—the Linux operating system distro that the organization recommends for most users—preinstalled. But if you're not interested in learning to program, you probably won't be very interested in the Raspberry Pi.
For casual users, the first shock comes when you boot the OS for the first time: Hundreds of lines of code scroll up the screen, giving you an indication of what's to come with the command-line-based Debian Linux. The system then opens an initial Raspi-config screen, which offers options for overclocking the processor, allocating the memory split between the CPU and GPU (which share the available RAM), changing the user password, and more. When you're done, selecting 'Finish' boots you into the Raspbian Wheezy GUI.
This graphical interface, however, is a bit of a disaster. Even the lightweight Midori browser that comes bundled with the OS requires more than 10 seconds to load, and the operating system itself proved extremely unstable in my tests, crashing at least five times over a 2-hour span one afternoon. Loading more than one application at a time is just asking for trouble.
The ho-hum hardware, combined with the 10/100 ethernet connection, makes for slow Web browsing, too. Graphically intense websites take a long time to load; YouTube, for example, required more than a minute to load. This negatively affected the Raspberry Pi’s benchmark performance, since all the benchmarks we used were browser based. It failed to run PeaceKeeper on several instances, and it wouldn’t run WebVizBench at all because Midori has such shoddy HTML5 support.
I could have installed a different browser with better HTML5 capabilities, but this idea revealed a more serious problem. Certain applications simply didn’t play nice with a keyboard, continuously ignoring my key presses or registering a single button press as a string of presses. Typing the command-line prompt “apt-get install” to download a new program, for instance, resulted in “ap---gtttttttttttttttttt” instead. Slow and deliberate button presses only exacerbated the problem. I tried three different USB keyboards—one of which was supplied by the Raspberry Pi Foundation itself—to no avail.
This problem was most prevalent in the command-line interface and the Midori Web browser—the two applications that average users will likely use the most. The issue also made it impossible to download additional apps natively, although persistent users can plop installation packages onto a USB drive and use that to install fresh programs on the system.
Fortunately, the keyboard worked just fine in the two apps that will prove most helpful to the budding programmers at whom the Pi is targeted: the LeafPad text editor and Scratch, beginner-friendly Python programming software. The apps themselves were rock-solid stable as well.
Who is the Raspberry Pi good for?
When it comes to learning how to program or tweaking hardware, the Raspberry Pi provides a much friendlier environment than other low-cost prototyping boards. The popular Arduino microcontroller, for example, offers a plethora of hardware options but requires the user to compile their code on a PC and then transfer it to the board over USB. That’s because the Arduino is not a computer in and of itself; and unlike the Raspberry Pi, it cannot boot into multiple Linux-based operating systems.
Speaking of other operating systems, I also copied Raspmbc—an XBMC-based Raspberry Pi distro—to a second SD Card and gave that OS a whirl. It was more stable and it easily streamed local 1080p videos, although the actual menus were a bit sluggish. If you intend to use the Raspberry Pi as a media streamer, I suggest ditching Raspbian Wheezy and going with Raspbmc instead.
The Raspberry Pi supports the H.264 video codec out of the box, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation's online store sells MPEG-2 and VC-1 codec license keys for a couple of bucks each. The Raspbmc wiki and forum are great resources if you run into trouble setting up the OS. Alternatively, you can add an external hard drive to transform the Raspberry Pi into a NAS (network-attached storage) box.
The Raspberry Pi has a few flaws, but it's full of potential and it represents an outstanding computing value.
Editor's note: This review is part of a roundup of mini PCs. For more information, you can read the introduction to the roundup and find links to the other products we reviewed.
Raspberry Pi Organization Raspberry Pi
Budding programmers and video lovers with low budgets will find the Raspberry Pi delectable, but performance issues will scare away average users.
- Dirt cheap
- A great tool for learning how to program
- Supports 1080p video
- Sluggish performance overall
- Default OS prone to crashing on this platform
- A steep learning curve for neophytes