Snacking on a Raspberry Pi


I have too many guitars. Acoustic, Electric, Classical. I can’t get enough of them. Very few things can capture my attention like the product of the luthier’s craft…except for mobile devices and gadgets. I’m not alone in this. I’m sure I could start a chapter of Hardware-holics Anonymous and have many of you in attendance. For Christmas, those two worlds (guitars and gadgets) came together when I received an iRig / Amplitube setup that allows me to run my guitar through my iPad. Forget effects pedals and large amps – give me an iPad and a small adapter and I can bring you Slash or Hendrix effects anywhere (as long as you can ignore the quality of my guitar playing).

It’s amazing how the Apple iPad and other similar tablets have been able to transform how we think about everything that we do. But that is old news. The latest Apple of my eye ;) is not an Apple at all but rather a Raspberry, or more specifically, the Raspberry Pi. You’ve seen the news on this I’m sure. The waiting list on these devices is several months long. If you haven’t heard of them, they are credit-card sized computers that cost about $35 and include graphics card, usb ports, wired ethernet, and more. I ordered one last month and expected it to arrive sometime in March, April or May. Much to my surprise, I received it yesterday (after waiting for only 3 1/2 weeks) and am now ready to report on my initial experience.

First of all, total cost of ownership on the Raspberry Pi is actually more that $35. In addition to the computer, I purchased an enclosure (e.g., a box to put the device in), a USB hub, a USB network adapter, and SD memory. Total cost: $100. In addition to these items, I needed an HDMI cable (which I had leftover from some other gadget I recently purchased), a USB keyboard (I’m using one that was given to me by Adobe when I visited their headquarters last year), a power supply with a miniUSB port (I stole my wife’s Android phone charger), and a USB mouse (found one lying around). Those items probably bring the total up to $140. The last thing needed is a monitor/TV to connect the device to. I connected it to my Samsung 47″ TV. If you get an HDMI to DVI adapter, you can connect it to a monitor. Or you can even connect it to a TV with an analog composite cable. I’ll ignore the display from the cost. Comparatively speaking, you could buy 4 of these Raspberry Pis and still be under the cost of the Microsoft Surface Tablet (I’m picking on Surface because frankly, $560 is too much to pay for a brick).

Here are some pictures of my setup.



With the Raspberry Pi, there is no such thing as “out of the box” setup. You have to download the Raspbian OS (a variant of Debian Linux) and load the image onto the SD card. My experience in setting up the system wasn’t smooth, but also wasn’t disastrous. My first go around I decided that I should download a version of the OS that supported the Oracle JVM. When I started up the system I ran into a problem with the power supply. The original power supply I used wasn’t rated high enough and so the system wouldn’t boot (this is when I stole my wife’s Android charger). My next try resulted in a flurry of messages that were actually caused by the fact that my USB keyboard required too much power. I got around this by omitting the use of the USB network adapter. However, that keyboard was the bane of the rest of my (late) evening. Next, after completing some initial configuration steps, I experienced what I thought was a system hang and (foolishly) unplugged the power to reboot. I rebooted again and used Google on my iPhone to determine that the system hang was not a hang at all but rather expected as the OS expands the root filesystem to encompass the entire SD card. However, my action of unplugging the power still forced me to have to reload the original OS image onto the SD card because I had corrupted the filesystem. I would repeat this step one more time as it turns out that my decision to try to use the Oracle JVM was also a bad one. All told, my setup time was about 4-5 hours as I experimented with figuring out the proper configuration for the system including wireless networking. Getting a different keyboard connected was definitely a Godsend as it removed much of the frustration of my earliest moments with the device. Also, switching to the recommended OS image turned out to be best.

Performance wise, the system is not comparable to a laptop or even remotely comparable to a desktop. In my opinion, its really intended to control other devices rather than an interactive system. You can run a web browser (the picture above shows me running the Chromium browser), but the experience resembles that of an iPhone 3G on a lossy edge network. You can load Java onto it as well as eclipse and use the system to do programming, but that would be extremely frustrating as the system isn’t really designed for on-system programming. More likely, the software would be written on some development platform (like your laptop or desktop) and then deployed to the device for execution. However, the system does have Scratch pre-loaded on it and so someone out there believes the system could serve and a programming environment. I haven’t tried to run apache on it or any other web server software – that’s the next thing I will check out.

I can envision all sorts of applications for this device and even requiring that my students purchase one for a course. Over the coming weeks, I intend to see whether I can connect the iRig interface to it in order to use my guitar as an input device, will connect a web cam to see if I can use this for security applications, and try to use a battery to power the system. If any of you have any ideas, I’m all ears!

Bottom-line: this is not a device for everyone. It requires more knowledge than what the typical end-user has and even more patience. That being said, I still think this device is better than the Microsoft Surface tablet/brick sitting on my desk at work.


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