What am I missing about the Raspberry Pi?

raspberrypiAll anyone is talking about in the world of the Internet of Things or computer education is the Raspberry Pi. I feel like the kid in that old story about the emperor’s new clothes – I just don’t get what everyone else is seeing.

It’s a cheap computer

OK the Raspberry Pi is not a particularly expensive bit of kit. You can pick them up for between $40 and $50 depending on the model and that’s a huge part of the marketing appeal.

But the important thing to understand is that for that much money you do not get a functional computer, you get a card, a motherboard. In addition to the card you need to buy all the peripherals including a power supply. So the shopping list, using the absolute cheapest peripherals I could quickly find looks like this:

  • Raspberry Pi – $45
  • 8GB SD card – $10
  • HDMI cable – $11
  • Keyboard – $12
  • Mouse – $12
  • Power supply – $11
  • Screen – $138
  • Ethernet cable – $5
  • Speakers – $10
  • TOTAL – $254

If you want wireless connections or any one of the myriad of extras that make the Pi flexible they are all additional costs, as is shipping. Suddenly that very cheap computer is not looking so cheap. If you are buying one just for use as a computer you don’t need to spend much more to get a real computer with some decent processing power, built-in WiFi and so on. In an educational environment you could buy from the One Laptop Per Child organsiation and get a self-contained and maintained computer for that sort of money.

And, by the way, unless you bought a package, you then have a download of over 1G to get hold of the operating system before you can get up and running.

But what if you already have the peripherals lying about? I see this a lot. I see people unplugging peripherals from perfectly good computers only to attach them to a Raspberry Pi. Why?

It’s educational

The argument is that, by exposing the board, people, and kids in particular, will gain a better understanding of electronics and the underlying principles of computing. Many of the articles discussing this hark back to the dark ages of computing when people built their own computers. Two things: First those weren’t the good old days, we moved on for a reason; and, secondly, you’re not really building anything here beyond plugging in the peripherals and having to initially boot through a command-line interface.

There is the capacity to do some electronics using the Pi and I’m completely supportive of how useful that can be. But those things can be achieved using an Arduino attached to that existing real computer. That gives you a real computer to do serious work with and a genuinely cheap device to hack, play with and learn from.

It’s small and hackable

The place I see a point to the Raspberry Pi is if you are actually looking for a low-powered unobtrusive computer for something like a media centre; and you’re desperate to build something yourself as opposed to using Chromecast and streaming from your main computer. In those limited circumstances there might be some point but more for the sense of achievement than any justifiable cost or return on investment.

Also the tiny size, refers to just the board – plug in all the cables and peripherals and you got an untidy mass that’s no longer looking so small.

So what am I missing?

I am genuinely confused about why Raspberry Pi has captured so much of people’s imagination.  I’m missing something crucial, clearly. But I can’t for the life of me see what it is. I have a feeling that the Pi is a marketing triumph that left poor Arduino in its wake. But maybe there’s more to it. Or maybe, like the emperor’s new clothes, there isn’t…

6 thoughts on “What am I missing about the Raspberry Pi?

  • July 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

    The original spirit of the RPi was to offer an inexpensive computer (not development board) to get the young ones interested in programming etc, just as the 8-bit computers of the early 1980s did. So the RPi has HDMI to plug into contemporary TVs, and the keyboard and mouse could be borrowed or bought cheaply. $10 for an SD card. Etc.

    However the Arduino/Make crowd juggernaut latched on to the RPi and it found a lot of uses by people not originally in the target market. They’re seemingly happy to spend the money on flash displays, option them up etc.

    • July 18, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Fair point John. I guess part of my confusion is that most kids I see have access to a ‘real’ computer these days and they could be doing their programming on that far more fluently and simply than on the RPi.

  • July 18, 2014 at 9:49 am

    This is my POV.

    I’ve got 2. One which is connected to my main TV, which my son uses mostly. We can also plug this in to a secondary TV which he can use. He programs in scratch and at this stage plays with Minecraft Pi. I’m not too sure how much he will be using it though as he recently got a hand me down laptop.

    The second one is connected to my 3D Printer so I don’t have to have my laptop or one of my desktops dedicated to print something (also uses less power). I’m running Octopi which, once I get it sorted, will be able to do timelapse videos of the prints. It also gives me a web interface to monitor it and I should be able to upload something from my android tablet to print on it, when I get around to testing it.

    I’ve also got plans to use the Pi in one of my upcoming robotic RC projects.

    As for the cost, sure that’s the cost of an additional computer. The screen you have listed there is 1/2 the total cost. Most people would have these plugged in to an existing TV. It sort of reminds me of the old days of the Commodore 64… with more memory, CPU and graphics.

    $254 (using your set up), is still cheaper than a full blow desktop and for educational institutions, 3 or 4 of those could be purchased for the price of 1 desktop.

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