Pi in the Sky Technology for the class room

Well now I have one, a raspberry pi, model B. You may be wondering what it is. Some culinary delight, perhaps? No, it’s a computer, but not as you know it. It’s also become insanely popular (among a small population of, admittedly, mainly men with ponytails who seem to say “awesome” quite a lot). Computers are ubiquitous in training (in fact in most areas of life) and trainers like to travel light (because they have so much other stuff to carry). Low profile, light laptops have obvious manual handling advantages too. But netbooks, iPads and to a certain extent iPhones, Galaxies and Android-based phones are filling the space. But they lack that certain something….and since Raspberry Pi is up and coming, I decided to see whether it might be any use in training.

At the risk of turning this into a techy journal, I should at least describe what it is. The raspberry pi is a somewhat basic computer board that costs around £30. It’s about the size of a pack of playing cards but much lighter. It’s somewhat stark, rugged electronics – though cases are available or make your own. It will not work out of the box. I needed to add a power supply (a decent 5V micro-USB phone charger will do it), USB compact keyboard/mouse and borrow a TV/monitor. Connection is via HDMI (digital video/audio) cable, so you’ll need a VGA converter for older devices/data projectors, a bit like the one I have for my iPhone (I discovered simple connector adapters don’t work for digital output; you need a converter containing a box of tricks to do a proper job).

The operating system sits on an SD card that slots in beneath, so you need to buy that too. I bought my OS pre-loaded on a 16 GB SD card, but you can just buy the card and load the OS yourself using another computer. I also did the latter with an alternative OS – it’s free and relatively painless. The board also comes with a network port for wired internet access (but you can buy a wireless dongle) and several other interfaces. Obviously all this adds up to closer to £50, excluding the TV (and the OS is free). I also added a powered USB hub which is handy to plug in extra memory sticks, as the Pi only comes with 2 USB ports.

I first started with the recommended OS. This is a lithe, slim version of Linux, called Raspbian “Wheezy” (yes, really). So, it is a relative of UNIX and Mac OS. Microsoft Windows will not run on this hardware, so don’t even try it. When you switch it on, don’t get your hopes up. Real world performance has been likened to a 300 MHz Pentium II computer. So, it’s not quick by modern standards, but that’s largely because modern software has become much more resource hungry (well, ok, obese). The challenge therefore is to install slim, undemanding OS and software to make it reasonably fast. It does initially boot into a windows type environment (but is far quicker if you drop back down into a command line interface (CLI) – a bit like the Windows Command Prompt. It comes with some basic software already installed (including programming software) but with access to an extensive repository of free packages.

I am not a stranger to Linux, running Ubuntu OS on another computer, so the environment and CLI are familiar. The location of the repositories is already set for you, so, provided you are connected to the web, it is quite easy to load new software, using the “sudo apt-get install” command. You can search what’s available using “sudo apt-cache search” followed by the name of something you are looking for. I installed a basic word processor called Abiword quite easily (it’s a bit like an older version of Word). Major components of OpenOffice or LibreOffice were not yet available in the repository for this version of Raspbian. I therefore couldn’t install Impress (the LibreOffice version of PowerPoint) to test out my slides. But that will come soon enough.

I also tried a different OS, called Raspbmc (Raspberry Media Centre). This is quite different and is biased very much towards using the Pi as a media centre, such as for playing videos (including YouTube), displaying pictures and access to facebook. It has a very pleasing, intuitive and modern interface. It is extremely easy to add software (called “add ons”) – just select to install. But it seems slow. You can drop out into the CLI but that defeats the object.

Of the two versions, I can see the media centre having some use in class. But on balance, I prefer the flexibility of the Raspbian OS, if and when I can display slides. But there are many other OSs to try.

If you want a cheap, very light computer that you don’t mind messing with, the Pi might work for you. Will it work as a laptop replacement? No – it’s portable but not really mobile. But it’s passable as a very cheap, portable media centre with an incredibly small footprint. It’s fun too. Building your computer in front of a class will at least be a talking point.

But this is an emerging gadget that seems to have captured the imagination of many, including software developers. I know that means things will quickly develop. I hear too that soon there will be a version of Android OS (another variant of Linux) available for the Pi. Android is currently one of the world’s leading smartphone operating systems. Just like the iPhone OS, it has access to an app store – so it is extendable in an almost infinite number of ways. That may improve things and make it even easier to use. Gooseberry (don’t laugh) is another Pi-like board which has revealed itself but is rarer still. It is however more powerful but similarly priced to the Pi. So, you could have a fruit sundae or a Summer pudding.

The icing on cake is the realisation that Britain’s Cycling team have just won Olympic gold at the Velodrome. Now if that doesn’t make you rush out and buy some Pi I don’t know what will.