I’m not very good at looking after things. I’d like to be better, it’s just that I’m not. The roof on my house needs a few more tiles, my car needs a service, my bike is sitting in our cellar with more than an ample covering of iron oxide on its chain, and my laptop looks like it’s been used to dig my potatoes on the allotment that I do in fact look after pretty well. My neighbour across the street from me, on the other hand, is incredible. Not a tile is out of place, his many cars are spotless (his weekends mostly seem spent in blue overalls caressing what ever needs caressing on the underside of his vehicles) and his children cycle on shiny steeds that look newer than the day they were unboxed several years ago. It’s about love. I don’t particularly love the things around me. They’re functional stuff to do the things they are designed to do. For my neighbour, there is a lot of love in the things that he owns. A ‘Zen and the Art of Maintenance’ philosophy that I don’t have, and he does.
What, you might ask, has all of this to do with a Raspberry Pi, in particular the latest release of the Raspberry Pi B+? It’s simple, and it comes down to a very basic human instinct – the human instinct of love. The Raspberry Pi is the most loved computing device that we know of. A deep love. Not the lust the populace feels towards the latest shiny offering from Apple, but a kind of love that we Brits reserve for red telephone boxes, Routemaster buses and Ordnance Survey maps. We love Raspberry Pi. People who have no idea of the difference between Mac OS and Windows know all about the Raspberry Pi. My dad phoned me on the day it was released to tell me all about it. I didn’t mention that I was one of the many who crashed the RS website at 6am on 29th February 2012. My dad used a computer once in 2007. And the love is still there. When I spoke at Microsoft Research’s Think Digital event for a thousand school kids in December 2013, over a third put their hands up when asked who owned a Raspberry Pi (this might be because it was in Cambridge and it was a ticketed event for students who were considering computing as a further career – but impressive nonetheless).
The love goes beyond our nationwide interested is goes deep into the community that Pi have built.
And Pi listen to this community. They have listened in incredible detail to the grumblings from a dedicated community of people in love with their Pis. This community is Pi’s strength. It points to a sophisticated Twenty-First-century business model that could only exist in a world that has grown up with and through web 2.0. It’s a robust business model that I am absolutely certain will ensure that Pi will grow from strength to strength in the coming years. This is a business model with the power to change a single capacitor on a circuit. A capacitor that has been a notorious problem for the community. A single unit costing a few pence has caused the death of many of the first release of Pi.
When RS asked me to review the latest Raspberry Pi B+ I had to call in a big favour from our resident creative technologist and all round brilliant hacker, Ali Napier. Ali lives in a wonderful tech cave that would, if we lived close enough to Gotham City, have Bruce Wayne knocking on the door asking to borrow a charger for his utility belt. Ali’s tech cave is about to get a bit of a make-over, but we’ll leave that story for another day. Ali took the B+ into his cave and started to play. Now Ali and I are big on physical computing. It’s what we live and breathe. We’re huge fans of Arduino and in particular the Yun, and we’re completely in love with Electric Imp and everything it can do for the Internet of Things. We’ve dabbled with Pis – we’ve set up Minecraft and road-tested Scratch – all the things that are at the heart of the original and current mission. In our home town of Dundee there is a fantastic code club supported by Dundee Contemporary Arts and Brightsolid But we love it to be able to go beyond the screen and get into the physical world – to make the web physical. With this in mind, let’s get into the details that Ali’s uncovered.
Starting with the outside
The physical improvements that B+ has over the original. Overall it’s just so much tidier. Given we’re into the design of products, it makes so much more sense to have the board mountable with far less board overhang. Put simply – it’s easier to put in a box. It’s overall footprint with an SD card in place is a good 20mm shorter in length and 8 mms narrower – meaning we can make the things we design smaller. This has been achieved by replacing the standard SD card slot with a MicroSD, lowering the profile of the audio connector (with composite video), and making the USB sockets flush with the board’s edge. There are good hardware improvements too; the four USB sockets, 40 GPIO pins (we like the way the pinout of pins 1-26 mirrors the original, which helps with forward compatibility of older code) and the doubling of on-chip RAM to 512Mb. With the mounting holes now in place it’s clear it’s designed to be put into things. Things that can connect to the web. We like that.
We also really liked the ease and speed of setup. Something the original took a bit of a weathering from its online community.
Let’s go into the software in a bit of detail.
Ali flashed up an 8Gb class 4 MicroSD with Raspbian by using the straightforward directions from the Pi site. It was a little slow, but until card reading tech is sped up, it’s what we’re limited to for now. This delay is very much made up for with the reward of perfect first time detection of Microsoft keyboard/mouse, HDMI monitor and internet connectivity. Ali tends to stick at the Linux command line, so we never launched the GUI – he’s always interested in what’s going on under the hood. Once Ali verified the Pi had picke up an IP address, he got straight into Aptitude package manager to install updates, Apache 2 webserver, PHP5 and ALSA audio tools. What we want to be able to do is make things that connect to the web. In other words we need to be able to simply control pins and create sounds. Both of which were incredibly simple to do. Ali deosn’t really ‘do’ Python, which has emerged as the language of choice for the Pi. Instead, as with Arduino Yun, he puts together a bunch of shell scripts and calls them using tools such as PHP or compiled C programs. Being able to manipulate GPIO pins directly from the OS by writing values to files that represent each pin makes for a very happy Ali! We checked out audio quality as well, writing a few sound files to the SD card and playing them using aplay. There were a few audible artefacts straight off, but this was easily cured by maxing the audio output using the amixer utility. In short, in less than an hour, we had all the tools in place to create a pin-or-internet-controlled audio player, which is pretty cool.
Raspberry Pi is an incredibly agile, simple and powerful device that can power the things of the web. Things that can move, play audio and light up our world. All of this for around £25. That’s pretty much perfect.
Me and my friend Ali give the Raspbery B+ a straight A.