Monday, August 20, 2012

The Pi is tiny, light and cheap, but a powerhouse


If there is any hardware I have been excited about this year, it is the Pi. This is arguably the smallest commercially available computer in the world, which, according to its manufacturer, Raspberry Pi Foundation, is primarily used to teach about the basics of computer hardware and the inner-workings of the machines.

In my opinion, every school of computing should have this Pi. It is a total game changer in the ICT field if it used appropriately.

It is perfectly priced for just about any market. For between US$25 (about Sh2000) and US$35 (about Sh3000), you get yourself a Pi, “fully kitted” and ready to go.

But “fully kitted” is not what you might expect. Normally, you get a “fully kitted” computer to which you connect a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and a power source to get working.

The Pi is not so different in approach of the idea, but it is a totally different concept from what one might be used to. It’s about the size of a credit card, which makes it more portable and useful than any phone or touchpad, but with one drawback. It has no cover.

It has a 700MHz ARM processor, similar to the processors that are on a majority of the smart phones in Kenya and pretty much the rest of the world.

For RAM, it has 256MB, which is shared with the Graphics Processing Unit, a fancy phrase for saying video card.

For storage, it has an SD card, which also carries the Operating System, and is the main storage of the Pi. Size is pretty much what you can get. No limitations have been mentioned so far.

The difference between the varying prices, however, is that with the pricier one, you get two USB ports as opposed to one, an ethernet card, and a higher power rating (a 700 mA (3.5W) unit as opposed to 300mA (1.5W) unit for the more affordable one).

So, what makes this little machine exciting?

In terms of size, the dimensions make it very attractive. It is tiny and light, weighing about 45g. In many markets, this is much lighter than the lightest phone available.

Then it runs on Linux, of which, for the record, I am a self-professed long term user. Once you plug it into a monitor, you can get it to go as far as 1900 x 1200 in terms of resolution.

With a composite (RCA) connector, it can be plugged into a television set. This means that the end user does not have to buy one of the pricier components of a computer, the screen.

But there is more to it than this. Since the Pi runs a fully working Linux, it can be built up as a low cost mass produced computer. Imagine a fully working computer, with the latest software, retailing for about Sh7000.

In a school scenario, imagine students building customised units for resolving common problems.

The fact that it is raw hardware and Linux is available raw for modification means that fabricating the equipment outside Kenya for custom work is no longer a necessity.

There is even more to the Pi than these, and as cliché as it might sound, the possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination.

One might wonder; how possible is this? How realistic is this?

To get a Raspberry Pi is as easy as ordering a unit off the Internet. You wait for about two weeks for delivery, and you will be good to go.

For the hard-core geek who is into building things, this is the perfect way to build a desired item.

For a business looking to automate infrastructure, this is easy, provided you understand the technology constraints, mostly being storage and performance and having the right person to do the job. This could be anyone certified to repair computers.