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Quick intro: A newcomer's guide to the Raspberry Pi

The potential of this fully functional, ridiculously inexpensive little computer is limited only by your imagination. It's not too late to join the Raspberry Pi bandwagon.

Welcome to our Quick Intro series. These short articles are intended to help you understand a basic IT concept quickly and easily. In this first segment, we discuss the Raspberry Pi single board computer.

The most important thing you need to know is that a Raspberry Pi is a computer that costs $35 or less. There are a variety of different models, the most powerful of which is the Raspberry Pi 3, which costs $35 per unit. You can get a Raspberry Pi Zero for as little as $5.

In the accompanying video, I show you the device in some detail. The key thing to note is that the board is quite well equipped, containing the following specs:

  • A 1.2GHz 64-bit quad-core ARMv8 CPU
  • 802.11n Wireless LAN
  • Bluetooth 4.1 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
  • 1GB RAM
  • 4 USB ports
  • 40 GPIO pins
  • Full HDMI port
  • Ethernet port
  • Combined 3.5mm audio jack and composite video
  • Camera interface (CSI)
  • Display interface (DSI)
  • Micro SD card slot
  • VideoCore IV 3D graphics core

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What it doesn't have is any storage, power, or even a case. Those are all available separately for similarly moderate pricing. I bought the Pi itself, a power supply, a couple of heat sinks, and a 16GB micro SD card from Amazon for a total spend of $54. Not bad for a fully working machine!

In my case, I'm going to use the Raspberry Pi 3 to drive the Lulzbot Mini 3D printer, because unlike the MakerBot Replicator, the Lulzbot Mini comes with absolutely no interface. To do anything, you need to plug a computer into the USB port. So I'm going to install Linux on the Raspberry Pi, add a program called Octoprint, and use that to drive the 3D printer.

That's the power of these little devices. You can use them for many things, including a very basic web browsing machine.

Raspberry Pi is different than the Arduino (another famous, super-inexpensive computer). The Raspberry Pi is a single board computer; the Arduino is considered a "micro controller". The key is that the Raspberry Pi can run an OS (Linux, usually), which can then run programs.

The Arduino will only run a single program, called a Sketch, that does a specific programmed activity. You're likely to use an Arduino to control a specific aspect of a device, like a robot's arm. You might use a Raspberry Pi for anything where you'd want a fully functional, inexpensive computer.

The thing that fascinates me the most, personally, is the ability to build huge inexpensive clusters of computers out of Raspberry Pi machines. Back in 2013, ZDNet covered a Beowulf cluster built out of 32 older generation Raspberry Pi boards to research wireless sensor data. Britain's GCHQ (their equivalent of our NSA) hooked together 66 Raspberry Pis into a Bramble cluster as a showcase for what's possible with this inexpensive technology. The Bramble cluster cost less than $5,000 to build!

So there you go. You're unlikely to fire up a Raspberry Pi to run Photoshop or do video editing, but you might use it to control a series of cameras or, as I'm doing, a 3D printer.

Stay tuned for future Quick Intros and let me know what you think of this format in the comments below.

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You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.