Raspberry Pi and Raspbian, hands on

Raspberry Pi and Raspbian, hands on

Summary: Christmas surprise - a tasty little Raspberry Pi (Type B). I heard all about it, but never actually touched one, so now I'm going to find out what it's really like


What could be better at Christmas than a shiny new gadget? Perhaps a shiny new gadget that runs Linux?  One that reminds me of Heathkit, and TRS-80, and days of experimenting and playing with computers for no reason other than curiosity, and joy, and learning? That's what I got, a Raspberry Pi!

A Raspberry Pi depends on Raspbian which is a free operating system based on Debian and is optimized for Raspberry Pi hardware. Raspbian comes with over 35,000 packages of pre-compiled software.

What I intend to write here is "Jamie's Excellent Raspberry Adventures": it will document my own experiences, discoveries, successes and failures with this little gadget. If you want authoritative information, go to the Raspberry Pi web site, and if you want concise instructions about setting up and configuring one, an excellent new article was just posted there.

What I write here will be my own experiences based on those and other information sources, and my own knowledge and previous experiences.

Ok, first, here's what I got. I ordered all of this from the Pi-Shop here in Switzerland.

  • Raspberry Pi Model B.  The model A is still available, and costs a bit less.  Both have the same basic design, and the same processor. The Model B has twice the memory (512MB vs. 256MB), dual USB ports instead of a single port, and RJ-45 wired network connection. In my opinion you would have to be pretty hard-core to choose the Model A today.
  • 16GB Category 10 SD Flash Memory Card.  The minimum size required is only 4GB, and it doesn't have to be category 10; buying a 4GB Category 4 card would save a fair bit of money.
  • 5.25V/1.5A Micro-USB power supply.  This is essentially the same as most smartphone chargers today, and one of those could theoretically be used. However, if you are going to connect USB-powered peripherals, or other devices on the expansion bus (such as the optional camera), the power requirements could exceed what such a typical charger could provide.
  • A multi-layer clear plastic case. The Raspberry Pi board can be run without a case, it doesn't need cooling or whatever, so you don't really need to buy this at all. If you choose to buy a case, they run from the simplest possible plastic box, to polished and/or varnished wood, and probably all the way to solid gold diamond-encrusted works of art. Go wild.
  • Heat Sink. Absolutely not necessary, the Raspberry Pi web page specifically says it is not required, but I am old and paranoid and very conservative.

To these basic components I had to add a USB keyboard and mouse - no options here, there are no other ports or connection possibilities for them. I am using a Logitech Unifying receiver, so I only have to use one of the USB ports for the two devices. 

Had to have a display, of course: I am using an HDMI to DVI cable and one of my standard monitors. Many people will simply connect to a TV, which I suppose has the additional benefit of giving you sound output via HDMI to the TV speakers, but I haven't tried this yet so I can't say for sure.

If you want a network connection, you have to either connect wired via the RJ-45 plug, or wireless using a USB wi-fi adapter. The safest way to ensure compatibility a wi-fi adaptor and other such peripheral devices, would be to order them from someplace like the Pi-Shop as well.

Assembling and connecting all of the hardware took about 10 minutes; the most tedious part was figuring out how to put the case layers around the circuit board. Many other cases are simple boxes that you put the board in - but they don't look as cool as this layer-cake box!

Once everything was assembled and ready to go, I needed an operating system, of course. The simple solution here would be to buy the SD card with New Out Of Box Software (NOOBS) already on it, again this is easily available from specialty places such as the Pi-Shop, but I want to get my hands a bit more dirty and really understand what is going on, so I chose not to do that. 

The alternative is to download the NOOBS package, and then extract it to the SD card. That is dead easy to do, regardless of whether you are working on Linux or Windows, and once you have done it you just slide the SD card into the Pi and you're ready to go. There is no power switch. Seriously. When you want to start up, you plug in the power supply. When you are done, you shut down and then pull the plug back out again. That's it.

When you boot with nothing but the NOOBS software extracted on the SD card, it boots to an operating system select/install menu. With the current NOOBS version (watch out here, there was a new release made on Christmas Eve), there are a nubmer of choices:

  • Raspbian Debian GNU/Linux specifically adapted for the Raspberry Pi
  • Arch Linux ARM Arch Linux for ARM processers, further customized for the Raspberry Pi
  • RaspBMC XBMC Media Center
  • OpenELEC XBMC Media Center
  • RISC OS An alternative NON-LINUX operating system
  • Pidora: Fedora 18 remix for the Raspberry Pi

If the SD card is sufficiently large, you can choose more than one of these to install.

For the first setup and experimentation, I chose only Raspbian, on the assumption that starting out with something familiar would be a good idea. The NOOBS installer then goes through partitioning the SD card and installing whatever has been chosen. That takes about five to 10 minutes per selection, during which it displays some general information about the hardware and software.

After the Raspbian installation was complete, I had to choose whether I wanted to boot to a CLI (text) or GUI (graphic) interface; I chose GUI, and after it rebooted I got this LXDE desktop:

The Raspbian LXDE Desktop

Well all right: it works, and I'm up an running! I can't tell you how pleased and impressed I was at this point.

What is it like to use? Well, compared to normal desktop or laptop systems today, it is very slow. That is to be expected, because it is a slow, single-processer CPU and a really slow system disk (the SD card).

One of the reasons I got the category 10 SD card was that I hoped it would make the whole thing faster - but if this is "faster" then I'm not sure that I want to see "normal" or "slower". I suspect (and hope) that the difference in the SD card doesn't really carry through all that much to user performance. But that doesn't really matter much, honestly, because you don't buy a Raspberry Pi as a desktop replacement. It is an educational tool, a toy, and perhaps a media center (I'll get to that last bit later). So the speed is what it is, end of story.

Next, what is included in Raspbian? The current version (just released on 24 Dec) is based on Debian GNU/Linux 7.2. It's kind of interesting that I have just been writing about various different distributions and desktops recently, and about "lightweight" LXDE and Xfce distributions in particular. Raspbian is a classic example of a very lightweight LXDE system. 

Some of the obvious things are shown in the screen shot above - one that jumps right out is the Midori browser, rather than Firefox or whatever.  There is also the LXTerminal emulator, and a variety of programming tools and games. 

I checked the LXDE menus, and found that there is actually a pretty nice array of utilities and applications installed - things like a file manager, a simple image viewer (leafpad), an image viewer and a PDF viewer, a calculator, and lots more - almost all in "lightweight" versions. What it doesn't have are things like Office tools (document editor, spreadsheet etc.), graphic/photo management and editing packages (GIMP/Shotwell/digiKam), and multimedia playback applications.

I also found that it includes the basic aptitude (apt-get and such) utilities for software/package management. It doesn't include synaptic, which I have become very much used to, but that can easily be installed with

    apt-get install synaptic

The next thing I wanted to do was look at how the NOOBS had partitioned the disk, but of course my favorite, gparted, was also not loaded. Again, easily fixed with apt-get (or synaptic if it was installed above).

On the other hand, the things which are installed give a clear idea of what the Raspberry Pi is really intended for - eduational programming use. Under the Programming item on the menus are listed:

  • IDLE A Python IDE
  • Scratch An interactive visual/graphic programming language from MIT
  • Sonic PI A programming language for sounds
  • Squeak A Smalltalk programming language development environment
  • Wolfram/Mathematica Scientific programming/analysis

Raspbian also includes many of the standard Linux/Unix programming tools and scripting languages, such as perl (5.14), awk (actually mawk), and of course good old shell scripts (bash and friends) - guaranteed to keep old-timers happy.

Whew. That's a lot of stuff to investigate, and an amazing little piece of equipment. I've got lots more to do, investigating Raspbian and trying out some of the alternatives.  I'm particularly looking forward to Arch Linux.

Related stories

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Since it's ARM - can Windoze RT run on it?

    With the right drivers, I'd bet it would work.
    Roger Ramjet
    • No

      From the Raspberry Pi FAQ:

      Will it run the Windows 8 ARM edition?

      No. Even if Microsoft decided to devote all its resources to getting Windows 8 on the Pi it would not work. The Raspberry Pi lacks the minimum memory and CPU requirements, it runs on an version of the ARM processor that is not supported by Windows 8, it lacks the appropriate axis sensors… the list goes on and on. The Pi will not run Windows 8.

      If you are so determined that you feel like you absolutely have to try it, here is another FAQ:

      Will it run WINE (or Windows, or other x86 software)?

      Wine Is Not an Emulator. Some people have put Windows 3.1 on the Raspberry Pi inside an x86 CPU emulator in order to use specific applications, but trying to use a version of Windows even as recent as Windows 98 can take hours to boot into, and take several more hours to update your cursor every time you try to move it. We don’t recommend it!

      Thanks for reading and commenting

      • I don't think he cares nothing about WINE.

        Only Modern applications which he should just buy a Surface and forget about the Pi.
        Grayson Peddie
        • It will be a very cold day in ...

          Before I buy a Surface, for any reason or under any circumstances. A very cold day indeed.

          Thanks for reading and commenting.

          • i like your attitude man

        • Over priced.... The raspberry Pi starts at ~$45.

          Trying to add an additional $100 for not that much is just dumb.

          And Surface is over $250.

          What is listed is a usable, but slow system for about $90.
    • Bloatware on the Pi?

      Windows RT on a Raspberry Pi? No way - there is not enough capacity (CPU clock, RAM) to run bloatware on the Pi. That is why Linux is such a success on the Pi. Linux can be configured to be quite frugal. The Raspberry Pi success demonstarates clearly why the future is Linux. It will take a while until the mainstream will realize it but Windows is dead. Even the best new manager won't be able to prevent that in 2015 Linux on the desktop and tablets will take off. Slowly, slowly the Windows market share will drop (same story like with IE). Mark my words.
      Just a note for the author. Next to Raspian Arch for Arm is also a great distro. I tested both. Amazing what you can do with these distros on the Pi (Own Cloud server, web server, NAS and much more).
  • Also check out Adafruit

    Adafruit.com has all sorts of accessories and HOWTO videos on Arduino and Raspberry.
    Roger Ramjet
  • I'll be following your article...

    Picked up a Pi after I got involved in the Kickstarter project Kano and found out it ran on Pi. Decided to get my own to start learning it before the Kano arrives for my son to start his learning and discovering. I've got a few sd cards with different OSes on them. One favourite is OpenElec for a media centre.
  • Also you might want to check out UDOO

    It combines Raspberry Pi and Arduino on the same board.

    Roger Ramjet
  • Seems cool

    Do something useful with it.
    Actually a home automation system could use that or an external H.D. and an old wide monitor and display all your photos instead of them rotting away in a box.
    • Excellent Suggestion

      I particularly like the monitor/display/photos idea... I already have all of my photos on an external hard drive, so all I have to do is hook that up, and away we go!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Lots of Ham radio uses for the RPi

    I operate a Linux Based Amateur Packet Reporting System Internet/RF Gateway at my home. with a Pad I can remote in to the OS over the network so the setup does not require a monitor or keyboard. Whole setup operates on ~25 watts of power making it suitable for mobile/field use. Hence I've built a second setup in an Amo case along with a wifi router making a remote field unit with wifi connectivity. I've operated the setup for days on the top of a mountain campsite on nothing more than a battery...
  • Thank you, Mr. Watson!

    This is an enormously useful article for a noob like me. I'm just now getting my feet wet in Linux as a whole, and couldn't understand from the other articles on Raspberry Pi, how it differed and even, what it was. It seemed to be just a way to make your TV stream, or something. Now, thanks to your article, I realize it's an actual distro, though on a smaller processor.

    Best of all, I can learn the hardware innards. Next Christmas.

    Thank you again!
    • Whoa!

      Hang on, it's not a "distro". We're also talking about two things here.

      Raspbian IS a distro - one that's built to run on a Raspberry Pi. Raspbian is free, and you can download it from their website. Most new users download something called NOOBS, essentially this makes getting a Raspberry Pi very easy to set up, and Raspbian is one of the options here (and the one that is recommended).

      A Raspberry Pi is a small computer board. It is about the size of a credit card (but much "thicker" as it has components on it. It uses a ARM processor instead of the normal "x86" that you'll find in a Mac or PC. The ARM is actually fairly unimpressive, but the graphics system is rather better than you'd think looking at the processor.

      So what makes the Raspberry Pi special? Well firstly the price, it's cheap. But here's a more complete list:

      1) Size. This unit is very small.
      2) Easy IO. It has GPIO pins that are very simple to use for "projects", you want to add lights, motors, sensors, buttons or just "stuff" - it's pretty easy, both physically and in software. So the Pi is very useful for tinkering with physical computing.
      3) Low Power requirements. This makes it safe, and you can power it was a battery. Combine this with is physical smallness, ease of adding other electronics and you can see we have something that can be used for lots of projects.
      4) Well supported. There are a lot of people doing interesting things with the Raspberry Pi, so there is a big community to learn from.

      This is a little computer that is great for learning about computers. It does have practical uses, but its primary use is "to learn about computers" - exactly what they intended. You might think it'll be too slow, or too limited - but actually for projects a single individual is likely to take on, usually it isn't.

      What it isn't great for is surfing the web. Amusingly I often use a Pi with an iPad - the iPad for making notes, and looking up resources on the web!

      What I would recommend is the PiHUB a USB hub designed to work with it, you can power the Pi from the PiHUB and add a few extra USB connections (which stops hungry USB devices asking for too much power). I also use a little Edimax Wireless 802.11b/g/n nano USB Adaptor so I don't have to run ethernet cables (again useful).
  • got one for my kid

    amazing device great price, hope the owner of the board doesnt sell out and if he does keeps it npo and keeps it to himself . The world doesnt need another corp and this device proves you dont need a corp to make a great product
  • Are you kidding?

    Raspberry Pi is old news now. You're just now learning about it? When did your flying sausor land on earth? I figured this article must have been a 2011 in review piece.... sheesh, catch up man!
    • Feel Better Now?

      Did that little rant make you feel better? Not everyone buys every new device immediately after they are released - if they did, then the companies could shut down production after a week and move on to something else. From the other comments here, it seems that there are others who find it interesting and useful to read about starting with a Raspberry Pi at this time. If you have something useful to contribute, please jump right in with a substantive comment; otherwise, well, thanks for reading and commenting, and Happy New Year!

    • Still Attracting the Bottom Feeders, eh Watson?


      WHO gave this clown one vote? Never mind; it was another clown.
      You really, really like to see your lack of ANY intelligence displayed, don't you?
      For your information, the Raspberry Pi went ON SALE on 29 February, 2012. The response was so overwhelming that the servers were knocked off-line. Since then, sales of the device have reached 2.3 MILLION units as of December, 2013.
      2011? What rock did you just slither out from under?
      Have you even bought a RPi? Have you written any code for it? Have you bought any of the very fine books on the device? Do you know how to make one operational? (Since 8-year-olds are having no problems with putting them together and programming them, I expect the challenge to you is insurmountable)
      Never mind; your masterpiece of a comment has all the answers.

      There's an old saying: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way"

      Especially for you, I will add, "...and stay out of the way."

      There's obviously absolutely nothing which you can hope to contribute to this subject, in this or any other forum on the Raspberry Pi.
      Happy New Year, and
      Warmest regards...
      • Comes With the Territory

        Hi, Happy New Year, and thanks for the kind words. Not having heard from you in a while I was beginning to worry that something was wrong. Anyway, the negative comments seem to come with the territory, it seems that some people just need to try to prove their own worth by attempting to diminish that of others. Sad, but it is the way of the world.
        Best wishes for all good things in the new year.
        Thanks for reading and commenting.