David Artiss

Raspberry Pi


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Raspberry Pi is a novel, brilliant idea. A cheap $25 computer that will help re-invigorate people’s (particularly children’s) interest in computers – the hardware, software and in programming. You can put free versions of Linux onto it, and there would be programming packages available too. There’s no better way to learn about computers than a circuit board that you can look at and explore – indeed it has a number of ports for connecting additional circuits too and they readily promote people trying to expand it’s capabilities further.

However, it’s far more about fixing the UK computer programming situation in schools, as that could be remedied by simply adding it to the curriculum (as it is being) and installing the same programming packages on the schools’ existing PCs. As Raspberry Pi themselves state…

We don’t think that the Raspberry Pi is a fix to all of the world’s computing issues; we do believe that we can be a catalyst. We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we’re doing. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children.

All of this has been made possible by the not-for-profit and registered charity The Raspberry Pi Foundation.

So, there are to be 2 models, Model A and B 1. Initially Model B, which has the higher specification, has gone on sale and has been an overwhelming success. The Model A will come later, as will versions in cases (the current release is a bare circuit board). I ordered my model B, caseless Raspberry Pi on the day of release. Model A retails for $25 and Model B for $35. Sadly, even by 9am I wasn’t quick enough to get the first batch, so my estimated delivery date was April 16th. Because of hold-ups I eventually received it on 4th May.

Rasperry Pi in Lego case

Inside a jiffy bag was a small box, inside of which was the Pi wrapped inside an anti-static bag. To give you an idea of how small it is – it’s under 86 × 54 mm. There are no instructions but a URL was printed on the otherwise pretty plain box. I quickly made a case for it from Lego and you can see an image of that to the left (click on it for a larger view). In fact it’s small enough that you could probably make a case for it out of a cigarette packet!

Both models have a 700Mhz ARM processor and 256Mb of memory. Where the Model B differs is with ports – it has 2 USB ports rather than 1 and a 10/100 Kbps ethernet connection. As a result of this the Model B also draws more power – 700mA/35W rather than the Model A’s 500mA/2.5W. It’s still rather frugal though, whichever version you choose.

Additional ports include HDMI video, RCA video and an audio jack. Power is via a micro USB connector – no cable is provided for this and you can either connect it to a USB power supply or into another device that supplies power. I’ve successfully powered the Pi via the USB port on my desktop PC. Some people, using plug-in mains USB chargers have found that they don’t provide enough power, so be wary of that. One thing it doesn’t have is a RTC (Real Time Clock), so every time you boot the Pi up you need to set the time and date again.

No hard drive is required – instead a bare SD card reader is on the underside of the board. You simply add the OS onto an SD card and boot from that instead. However, be aware that not all cards work and a list is maintained on the Raspberry Pi site of those that are known to work 2.  Myself, I bought a 16GB class 6 Integral SD card only to find that didn’t work – Debian booted but I got a “mmc0: Timeout waiting for hardware interrupt” error. Switching to a Sandisk of equivalent specifications worked.

In fact, it’s worth repeating that no software, SD cards or cables are included with the package, so ensure you have everything you need – at the least a USB keyboard and mouse, an SD card, micro USB and HDMI connector.

Once you have an SD card you need to choose a version of Linux that works with the Pi. Two are currently available – Debian and Arch Linux. Ubuntu is unlikely to ever be available due to it’s higher processor demands.

On your PC, download the image from the Raspberry Pi website and then also download the free Win32DiskImager utility. Run the latter and it will allow you to copy the Linux image to your SD card. Once that’s done you can put the SD card in your Pi and, hopefully, it should boot up.

So, all of this sounds great, doesn’t it? Except, having used it I have some big reservations.

The whole initiative here is to get people excited about computers – as their own tagline says, “Take a byte”. So what you don’t want to do is be putting them off once they have a Pi in their hands and that’s precisely what I expect will happen.

The hardware is great and I have no complaints but the software is poor. The Arch Linux distro is command line only so you have to pretty hot on Linux in the first place to want to use that (and that’s not really who the Pi is intended for). The Fedora version does have a GUI interface but still boots to a command line and you have to manually start it up. The distro generally is lacking – little software is installed by default, what is has system-type names that would mean nothing to most people and, worst of all, to install anything else you have to use the command line. It is, in a nutshell, very unfriendly.

It’s not as if the Fedora installation is even stable – many users are complaining about issues with sound (the most prominent one being a lack of sound via HDMI, but I can’t get any sound from the audio output either) and this is apparently due to some poor quality drivers.

There was a mention in the Raspberry Pi blog of a Fedora distro. However, I couldn’t find it on the download page and the installation program they linked to didn’t seem to work. After some more searching I found that it had been removed because of issues – nothing was added to the blog entry or the downloads page to indicate this and, to me, is indicative of how little thought it being put into make this whole thing a friendly experience.

No documentation comes with the Pi and the online documentation is, although present, lacking too – it didn’t even give the correct password to sign into Debian and I had to hunt around forums to find it. Considering this device is a great tool to teach people about computers, the developers have provided one diagram for the board…

Now I’m sorry but that’s rather lacking. It shows the ports, yes, but it doesn’t mention a number of connectors that have obviously been added for future use and it only shows one of the chips. A teaching aid it isn’t.

It’s not as if the documentation can even help you with the basics. The provided online documentation is short, doesn’t cover basics such as troubleshooting as often just assumes you to be a power user (the kinf of person this product isn’t aimed at). An example from their “Quick Start Guide”…

Kernel sources and a cross-compiling toolchain for use on an x86 Linux PC are available at https://github.com/raspberrypi.

Example code for OpenGL ES, OpenMAX and other multimedia APIs is available in the directory /opt/vc/src/hello_pi.

Excuse me? I have no idea what that’s about.

My own feeling is that this has been rushed – they started promoting this product long before it came out and so pressure was put on them to get it out. Their were delays and this caused ill-feeling as it was. If they hadn’t done all the pre-promotion they could have spent some time getting this product better upon release. The hardware would have been defined so they could even have been producing cases and “getting started kits” (both of which they promise for later in the year – the latter is likely to be an SD card, USB cable, etc).

Instead, the extremely un-user friendly documentation and OS is highly likely to put people off. The fact that they can’t even officially get one in its own case (yes, it is lovely to show and everything but after a while you want to put it in something rather than let it drag across your desktop) I think shows that this was pushed out too early. Too many people are going to connect this up, try out the OS, find it difficult to do much with, switch it off and stick it in a cupboard. In fact if they have problems getting a successfully boot-up (as I did) then thanks to the lack of documentation many people may not even get any further than that. After all they’ve made it cheap enough to be almost disposable.

For my money, and I don’t think for one minute that I’m in the majority with this though, I think it is, currently, a wasted opportunity. Once the decent software gets out there, with a cased version of the product and some decent documentation to back it up then I think they have an amazing product. The danger is that so many people are buying it now, finding it hard to use and probably giving up now. And that’s a shame.

[review]An amazing piece of hardware let down by poor software and documentation. I’m sure this will improve with time, but how many people will have given up on it by then? A waste opportunity[/review]

 

  1. and a good reference to the model names of the original BBC Micro[]
  2. class 10 SD cards in particular are known to not work, and it’s best to stick to 16GB or below capacity[]

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4 Comments

  1. I can’t help feeling that this criticism is unfair to the Raspberry Pi Foundation. They were very up-front about the first production batch being developer units, not aimed at consumers or the education audience. They made 10,000 units for developers, then watched in shock as 350,000 people tried to buy them.

    I do suspect that the great majority who placed pre-orders are technically savvy and will not be easily discouraged by its half-baked status.

  2. I am one of the 350,000 who is eagerly waiting for my turn and don’t see how the numbers support your argument that it is a wasted opportunity. For many this is a long awaited device. You think that 10,000 of a first run puts in the league of the standard consumer appliance. Many people seem to disagree. Yes, there will be people disappointed. How will that be different to any other consumer device? Do you have other devices against which to benchmark your opinions? Are there other devices at this price, including h/w and s/w, that do everything you wish the RPi would do?

    In the end whether or not someone finds the RPi useful will come down to what they expect. Having followed much the news on the RPi, I expect to find exactly what you found. I expect to get my hands dirty, to learn at a lower level the nitty gritty of the OS, and for there to be the odd hiccup. I don’t expect it replace my current development machine/environment, but I do anticipate learning a lot along the way. And isn’t that what the designers had in mind?

    I have 25+ years experience in programming, learning the trade in the days when the command line was the norm, so I can appreciate that the designers are hoping to achieve. Having tinkered with Arduinos and built HTPCs for the home I can see enormous potential for the RPi, and for future versions, particularly as support for ARM in the Linux world continues to develop.

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