Raspberry Pi: How I spent almost $150 on a $35 computer

Raspberry Pi: How I spent almost $150 on a $35 computer

Summary: Billed as the $35 computer, the Raspberry Pi, has taken the DIY world by storm. It's a cool project system but it's no $35 computer.


The Raspberry Pi model A was the $25 computer and model B is the $35 computer, however, there's a little surprise waiting for the unsuspecting, wide-eyed DIYer; It costs a lot more than $25 or $35. In fact, it costs between four and ten times that much, depending on what you have to buy to make it work. As Robert Heinlein said, and David Chernicoff confirmed, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch or a $35 computer. I've been around long enough to know better on both but I still sprung almost $150 for a Raspberry Pi and peripherals.

When I first heard of the Raspberry Pi, I was excited because I thought it was more of a computer and less of a gadget thingy than the Arduino. And it is. But it's only a motherboard, not a computer.

Now, I guess it's time to split hairs here. 

When I think of a computer, I think of a complete system, not just a bare motherboard. At the minimum, a computer is a motherboard, storage device, a power cable, and possibly an operating system. The Raspberry Pi is only a motherboard for $35. Well, $35 plus shipping, which usually brings the total up to the $42 mark.

Now, add in the cost of a 4GB (at least) SD card, a mini USB power adapter, an HDMI cable, RCA cable, RCA to S-Video adapter, or whatever mashup cable mess you can come up with to get from either the RCA jack or the HDMI port to a monitor, TV, or some other video device. You'll need a USB keyboard and a USB mouse. You'll also need to plug it into a wired network. That is unless you're clever, like me, and you buy a wireless USB network adapter.

If you have to purchase all those things new, you might spend upwards of $200 or more depending on the quality of your peripherals.

So, your $35 computer now costs you $200+.

Fortunately for me, I have a small digital TV available that I can use as a monitor, so I didn't have an additional cost for that.

Here's a breakdown of what I bought and the cost for each:

 Mind you that some of these peripherals are optional but also note that I did not have to purchase a monitor, so I guess it kind of balances out. Still, for something that's billed as a $35 computer is misleading. It's a $35 motherboard. Nothing more.

It's a cute, little piece of hardware and there are hundreds of projects that you can create with it. So far I haven't but I'm getting there. In my opinion, there are some issues, other than the misleading price, with the Pi but that's fodder for another post (coming soon).

I told a friend that I have a Pi and his response was, "Why didn't you just buy a cheap Android tablet?"

Good question.

Especially since an Android tablet would have a virtual keyboard, no need for a mouse, a built-in monitor, built-in WiFi, and a battery that allows me to be untethered. My opinion is that anything you can do with the Pi, you could do better with something else. I'm not sure that beyond some light geekery that there's much practical benefit from using the Pi for anything besides a learning tool. Perhaps that's its true value.

That's the funniest thing about the Pi. It's very small. Like cell phone size small. But you have to plug in wired Ethernet, a keyboard, a mouse, power, and a huge HDMI cable. Seriously, what the heck is up with that? You have ten pounds of peripherals required for a 1.6 ounce board. 

OK, again, it's cute, clever, and great for DIY projects but if you're looking for a real computer, keep looking. If you're looking for a $35 computer, wake up because you're dreaming.

Have any of you created anything cool with the Pi? Talk back and let me know. Post a link to the project too. I'd love to see it.

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Topics: Linux, Hardware, Mobile OS, DIY


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • Realistically, it's not a SYSTEM.

    Yeah, a few kids around 9th or 10th grade might buy one and not have all the hardware. I was into electronics at that age in the mid-1960's. But anyone around 11th grade or older who would buy one of these will already have everything else necessary lying around or be able to scrounge it up for next to nothing. And in the process they'll learn a good deal about hardware.
    • I built my first computer while I was doing

      Electrical Engineering. I built using breadboard, 8085 processor and VCR for my storage. Good old days. You are right. It teaches you the hardware and logically how the ALU, Control Unit, registers, DMA, IRQ etc. operate.
      Ram U
      • Same here..used to build radios too

        But hardware isn't where it is at anymore, be best to work on programming and theoretical skills. Also, work the idea muscle and try to build your own business by solving a problem that someone else has.

        But yes, I think these are cool, but I've got better things to spend my time on.
        • Software needs a home...

          And that home is the hardware. If nobody builds it then there's nothing to run your software.
          So few people today take the hard way (pun intended) so it's little wonder that all of these skills are now making Japan, Korea and China rich.
      • Hand wired the individual IC's!

        In the early 80's I worked as a repair tech for Brinkmann Instruments (now Sybron Brinkmann) which sold chemistry lab test equipment. They came out with their first microprocessor-based titration system and we had to learn CPU-based technology. I kept trying to read articles and kept falling asleep.

        One of the hobby magazines at the time, either Popular Electronics, Electronics Illustrated, or Radio Electronics, and a do-it-yourself ELF computer. I got some breadboard and wirewrapped the sockets, etc. If I recall correctly, it didn't work when it was all finished--but I *did* learn about CPU's, address and data buses, etc., which was my real goal.
    • I have all of the NECESSARY components to runs this.

      A point I'd like to make here, is that most of the stuff he listed isn't even necessary to use a Razzy. CanaKit is an upgrade, who doesn't have an extra phone charger laying around these days? Pre-loaded SD cards are not for people who want to learn. Plus, you got an 8 gig memory card? For what reason? It has no SSD, it can only read one memory card at a time... Why do you NEED to buy two? You don't NEED a wireless keyboard w/ mouse traction. And finally, the battery pack. Why would you go off and buy a battery pack right off the bat for something like this? It's designed to be a learning experience. Not a carry-all media center, something for nerds and geeks to cream their pants over for the learning that can come with something so dope as the Raspberry Pi. *Drops the Mic*
  • A lot of tinkerers have that stuff lying around

    so maybe for many others it's still a $35 computer
    William Farrel
    • Yup....

      Almost everything he mentioned I have at least 2 of each of the individual components just lying around my home! Mouse.... check. Keyboard.... check. USB Power Supply...check. SD Card... check! And cables? More than I will ever need. The only thing I don't have is a wireless USB adapter... oh wait... got 3 of them in a box in the closest! I am good to go! :)
      Thomas Kolakowski
    • Absolutely.

      But Ken is a self-confessed master of paradigm, he works with datacentre computers and doesnt understand the purpose of Pi.
      Anyone who has the brains to call himself geek would have everything to hand, or know where to get it cheaper than the stuff Ken bought. Half of it is proprietary nonsense too.

      CanaKit Raspberry Pi (512 MB) Complete Starter Kit (Raspberry Pi 512 MB + Black Case + Micro USB Power Supply + Original Preloaded SD Card + HDMI Cable)

      Expensive way to buy a Pi for starters.
      Case? Its meant to be uncased as part of a larger project, plus its fun for kids to build one out of Lego or something.

      Edimax EW-7811Un 150 Mbps Wireless 11n Nano Size USB Adapter with EZmax Setup Wizard

      Got one laying around spare.

      Transcend 8 GB Class 10 SDHC Flash Memory Card (TS8GSDHC10E)

      You dont need a fast class10 SD to boot from, particularly if thats all you are going to do. 8GB isnt enough to do anything in and Pi will take a 32GB card at a quarter of the price per GB if you must.
      Far simpler to use a 2GB SD with the boot partition on it and modify the boot process to load the system from a big, cheap, USB stick.

      PL2303HX USB to TTL to UART RS232 COM Cable module Converter

      What are you using RS232 for, interfacing it to an ancient modem? I've got several USB-UART dongles that are used exclusively to program and interface to Atmels that the Arduino uses. (Bought one of those and realised it was a 'breadboard' for parts I already had). Cant find a use for it on Pi other than to talk to several of them at once, as the Pi has its own breakouts for serial/TTL communications.

      Favi FE01-BL Mini Wireless Keyboard with Mouse Touchpad - Black

      Ken, you work with computers and you dont have a spare keyboard, mouse, entire computer laying around? I find this hard to believe, I have several. Wireless keyboards are also known to cause trouble with Pi because they draw too much power and brown the Pi out without a powered hub.
      I have to say, a powered USB hub is one thing that a Pi really does need if you want to plug anything into it using a phone charger. Those things push 250ma if you are lucky.

      Gomadic Advanced Raspberry Pi Board AA Battery Pack Charge Kit - Portable power built with upgradeable TipExchange Technology

      I'd hardly call that essential. Sounds like Ken got ridden all the way to the bank by unscrupulous sellers trying to ruin RasPi's reputation with Sophistry. Should have gone direct to RP and looked at their equipment list.
      • @SiO2

        Yeah, I have that stuff, but I'm writing this from the perspective of not having it. Plus, with only two USB ports and no wireless, this thing is just a piece of junk. Why would you buy it and then wire everything in. That defeats the purpose of it being small. If you have to attach a full-sized KB, mouse, monitor, Ethernet cable and power? Seriously people, get a clue. Yes, I work with datacenter computers. Wanna compare notes on that?

        The thing is that this is NOT a $35 computer. It's a $35 mobo and that's all.
        • At least $200,000 if you count correctly

          You forgot to take into account the price of a comfortable chair on which you'll sit while using the Raspberry Pi. You also forgot to take into account the price to build a house around the raspberry pi. And thinking about it: Raspberry Pi users have to eat from time to time: this food is not free!!!
          (More seriously: I have a Raspberry Pi, it is a computer, and the cost was $35 + shipping, exactly as advertised).
        • "I'm writing this from the perspective of not having it"

          Er, what? You don't complain that they sell PCs without monitors included. Who will start his first computer with Pi (which REQUIRES a bit of education), and not being aware of the need for monitor?

          A computer's purpose is not only blogging in a a web browser. Come on, how many computers in your datacenter do have monitors or keyboards at all? Pi can serve as a mediacenter, a security camera, a door lock, a http server, whatever. That kind of computer, you know.
          Victor Sergienko
        • it is intended to be used in embedded systems

          my mate turned one into a print server

          my 5 year old granddaughter plays a couple of games her father wrote. Can't stray onto the internet or trash the family photos on the PC by accident

          the definition of a computer requiring keyboards and monitors is misleading. My circa 1985 Black and Decker drill has a computer in it (a venerable 6804).

          Whilst you would not encourage kids to mess around with the innards of a PC because of the higher voltages and currents - even with the AC side enclosed, the power supply can kick out many tens of amps, the Raspberry Pi is something that they can safely breadboard with.

          As a kid I fixed TVs with a soldering iron and a multimeter. Managed never to touch the 25kv.

          I think you miss the point that this is meant to be cheap, safe, and to get people understanding the relationship with hardware and put the fund and curiosity back into programming and restart the hobby computing idea.

          One guy build a supercomputer with a rack of them.

          It is inspiring the next generation to stop playing games and using Office and get "under the hood" of computing once more.
        • it's a mobo

          With a processor and ram, and for very cheap an SD card for storage and boot. Those combination of things is called a computer.I got a monitor, keyboard and mouse for 15 dollars at the YMCA. Those are called peripherals, because they do not compute anything. Maybe you don't know what a motherboard is, but they don't come with ram and processors on them sir.
          Matt DF
        • "Defeats the purpose of being small"

          You have got to be kidding me. I don't even know why you would try and go against the pi if you don't even know it's purpose. It's purpose is to get kids to start programming; not to be SMALL. Have you even done ANY research on the raspberry pi before this?

          According to you If you go and buy a 400$ laptop it actually costs 800$ for the 32GB of RAM you also bought,not to mention the 50$ cooling pad.
          Steve K.
        • MOBO?

          It's not a motherboard. Having assembled computers for the better part of my life, I have some familiarity with motherboards. They don't typically include a processor (with graphics processor) and RAM. When you add those things, it is generally called a computer.
    • yes they do

      I completely second that. It is still a $35 computer for most of the people that actually are interested on this.
  • $200? More like $40.

    This article is a little unfair. The Raspberry IS a computer. The Pi is exactly what is advertised. The monitor is the only extra that can possibly be described as expensive. Power supply $5. Keyboard $5. Mouse $5. HDMI cable $2. Bluetooth dongle $2. WiFi dongle $15. Ethernet cable $2. Hardly breaking the bank. Many people will have these already. No idea how the author spent $200.

    Many desktop PCs are happily sold as computers with the monitor, keyboard, mouse, wifi, network cable, monitor cable, bluetooth being sold separately. This is not only common practice but it makes sense. Most printers don't come with a USB cable these days.

    Many other products require additional accessories. Bicycles for example. Helmets, lights, locks, spare tyres, clothes, shoes. All at an additional cost.

    The Pi has NEVER been sold as a replacement for a desktop PC (or "real" computer according to the author).

    As for the size, if it's a problem in relation to the other objects surrounding it then you can always strap it to a brick to give it a bit more bulk and weight. It's not the Pi's fault HDMI cables are the size they are. Is an HDMI cable not the same size when you connect it to a PC or Mac?

    Tablets are great and can do plenty of things that the Pi can't. I've got both. Connecting a tablet to custom hardware and programming it is either not possible or a massive learning curve. Not very useful for kids. You won't teach anyone to program on an tablet. They'll need a desktop PC for a start to create any apps (that's your $200 gone). Ever tried running servos from a tablet? How about a media server? A motorised camera? What about a security system? Tablets are for consuming content and like falling asleep whenever your back is turned. Useless for hardware tinkering.

    "there's much practical benefit from using the Pi for anything besides a learning tool. Perhaps that's its true value" Maybe it was it was developed as an educational tool? Someone should tell the Raspberry Pi Foundation they could use it for teaching and educating. Rather than mess about with all their other silly objectives ...
    • I agree

      I spent ~$60 for a pi i connected it to my TV to get the base gentoo loaded and have connected to it via ssh then on.
      • Yes

        I get the feeling that ssh is not on some people's maps in this discussion. If they bought a pi in lieu of the latest HP desktop, disappointment could be right around the corner. Nor is this product a competitor of One Laptop Per Child. As its name suggests, OLPC product is a complete, if minimal, laptop.

        The OP has successfully demonstrated that a substantial part of the cost of any new computer goes for cables and power supply and such. Interesting.

        The Rasp pi tiny processor board is built to be built into something bigger than itself, something that might very well have its own case and power supply. In its intended environment, there will be no human-user-related peripherals, so the cost really will be $35.

        Otherwise, what would be the point?