Practical Pi projects
The Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and all its variants (including the popular supercharged Raspberry Pi 3 and dirt-cheap Raspberry Pi Zero), have captured the imaginations of DIY enthusiasts and budding hobbyists alike.
Much of the coverage you’ll see around the web focuses on the more fantastical projects—magic mirrors, portable gaming handhelds, intelligent drones, and so forth. And for good reason! Those maker masterpieces show what sort of power the $35 mini-PC is capable of in the hands of someone with a little imagination and a bin full of spare electronics.
But most people, particularly beginners, won’t use the Raspberry Pi to whip up crazy creations. There are actually many practical uses for this bare-bones kit, from media streaming to extending the range of your Wi-Fi network, as the following 10 projects demonstrate. Time to put that $35 computer to real work.
HTPC media streaming
The original $35 Raspberry Pi may have been revolutionary to makers, but it took off with PC enthusiasts as well thanks to its ability to double as a dirt-cheap home-theater PC. That allure may have waned a bit in recent years as dedicated devices like the Chromecast hit the streets at similarly low prices, but using a Raspberry Pi as a media-streaming box still offers far more power than those streaming-centric sticks, especially if you have a sizeable local media collection.
There are a slew of HTPC-centric Raspberry Pi operating systems out there, each revolving around slapping your HD videos on the big screen. OSMC and OpenElec are two such choices built around the popular Kodi media center software (formerly XBMC), while RasPlex transforms your Pi into the ultimate Plex streaming box.
Give a dumb TV smarts
Likewise, if you have a dumb TV that you’d like to add web browsing and other basic computing abilities to, the Raspberry Pi does the trick without costing anywhere near as much as a Chromebit or Windows-powered Compute Stick. You’ll want to use a Raspberry Pi 2 or 3, though—the original Pi and the Raspberry Pi Zero are just pokey enough to be frustrating for general tasks.
Bonus: If you’re connecting the Raspberry Pi to your TV, you can use it to stream web videos, too!
File storage server
You can also have your Raspberry Pi play wingman for the other devices in your house, serving as a centralized device that performs helpful tasks.
Case in point: You can use the mini-PC as a Time Machine capsule for Macs or a cheap NAS box for general file storage if you connect an external USB hard drive to the machine. Hit those links for technical details, and one tip if you’re planning to convert the computer to a file server: Use a wired ethernet connection rather than Wi-Fi if you’re able.
Wireless network printer
Printing isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, but the Raspberry Pi can help you transform that chunky old USB printer in your closet into a networked printer that every device in your house can use.
You’ll need a power source for each gadget, obviously, as well as a USB connection between the devices, but setting it up is pretty straightforward. This MakeUseOf tutorial walks you through the process step-by-step.
Extend your home network's range
Raspberry Pi doesn’t make the home networks you use, but it can make the home networks you use better if you configure the mini-PC as a wireless range extender. Doing so can help your Wi-Fi signal reach the farthest corners of your house and help wipe out dead zones.
Configuring the device to bolster your home network will take a bit of time, and you’ll need to buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter to do it, but again, it’s relatively straightforward with a guide. Pi-Point is a go-to resource for transforming your Pi into a wireless access point, but you may find Adafruit’s tutorial more reader-friendly.
Old-school gaming emulator
Gaming emulators are a legal gray area, but there’s no doubt that using the Raspberry Pi as a butt-kicking console emulator is a popular use for the machines. It can play games from a wide variety of consoles right on up to the PlayStation 1 era if you manage to snag some legal game ROMs, though the older the system being emulated, the better the performance.
Curious? Check out PCWorld's complete guide to turning your Raspberry Pi into a retro gaming console for the full scoop.
A music streaming machine
The Raspberry Pi’s media chops aren’t limited to video streaming alone. Numerous operating systems have also been released that transform the device into a high-fidelity music player when connected to a speaker, sort of like a more powerful, flexible version of Chromecast Audio.
The various music-oriented OSes available offer different features; poke around the FAQs and features of each to see which is right for your needs. Here are tutorials on how to have your Raspberry Pi turn dumb speakers into smart music solutions with Volumio and Rune Audio (pictured), both of which offer mobile apps so you can control your tunes with your phone.
You could always use the Raspberry Pi as it was originally intended, too: As a low-cost introduction to programming and computer science. The mini-PC’s loaded with all sorts of software that encourages deep-level tinkering.
Beyond the command-line terminal, you’ll need to wade in often, you’ll also find versions of Wolfram Mathematica, Python program creation tools, and Scratch, an animation coding IDE for kids, in the Raspbian operating system that the Raspberry Pi Foundation encourages new users to install. Get smart!
Or you could play Minecraft. There’s a free Raspberry Pi version of Minecraft that anybody can download at no cost. Even better, it’s designed to teach you how to use the Python programming language as you build out the world. (Hey, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella did say that part of the reason the company purchased Mojang was to lure kids into computer science.)
Crazy awesome experiments
Let’s finish where we began. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the Raspberry Pi’s potential, why not try your hand at one of those awe-inspiring inventive projects? PCWorld’s look at 10 insanely innovative, incredibly cool Raspberry Pi creations can help with the inspiration, while the project guides at Instructables, Hackaday, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation website itself are ready to walk you step-by-step through the really awesome stuff like the magic mirror above.
Also check out our roundup of the best Raspberry Pi 3 kits. Whether you're a newbie who just wants to get all the basics with one purchase, or an experienced tinkerer looking to build a specialized project, a kit could be the way to go.