Raspberry Pi: everything you need to know

The little Linux PC that could be a really big deal

Raspberry Pi

While many eyes are on Windows 8 at the moment, there's another computing story that could prove to be much more important: the launch of the Raspberry Pi.

It's a bare-bones Linux PC that costs a pittance, and it's designed to help encourage kids to code - but it's also powerful enough to handle everyday tasks such as spreadsheets and word processing.

Remember the BBC Micro? The Raspberry Pi could be its 21st Century equivalent.

Where does the Raspberry Pi come from?

The Raspberry Pi is the work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charitable organisation founded in 2009. It's supported by the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and tech firm Broadcomm, whose system-on-a-chip powers the device. Speaking to our sister magazine Edge, legendary games developer and Raspberry Pi Foundation head David Braben explained the foundation's mission: "[In Raspberry Pi] you've got quite a powerful, very cheap device that anyone can carry around, take to school, and hopefully do interesting things with that make it seem less like it's purely a school thing."

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Raspberry pi

SMALL WONDER: The Raspberry Pi may be tiny, but it's still a real Linux-powered PC [Image credit: Liz Upton / Wikimedia]

Why do we need the Raspberry Pi?

In today's schools, IT education means IT literacy, not computer science - that is, teaching kids how to use applications rather than how to make them. According to The Royal Society, "we appear to have succeeded in making many people comfortable with using the technology that we find around us, but this seems to have been at the expense of failing to provide a deeper understanding of the rigorous academic subject of computer science." The Pi hopes to help promote that understanding.

Raspberry Pi price

There are two versions of the Raspberry Pi hardware: the $25 Model A and the $35 model B - that's around £16 and £22 respectively. Neither one, it's safe to say, will break the bank - but you do need to provide your own keyboard and TV.

Raspberry Pi specifications

The Raspberry Pi processor is a 700MHz Broadcomm system on a chip with a Videocore 4 GPU. That provides OpenGL ES 2.0, hardware-accelerated OpenVG and 1080p HD video. There's 256MB of on-board RAM and sockets for HDMI, USB 2.0, RCA video, USB 2.0 and 3.5mm audio jacks, and power comes via a MicroUSB connector.

The model B adds a second USB 2.0 port and a 10/100 BaseT Ethernet connection. There's no Wi-Fi in either version, but you can easily hook up a USB Wi-Fi adapter. It doesn't come with a case, either, and there's no hard disk or SSD - it's designed to use SD cards for booting and storage.

Raspberry pi diagram

EASY DOES IT: The Raspberry Pi is deliciously simple, but it's still a tasty - and cheap - bit of kit [Image credit: Raspberry Pi Foundation/Paul Beech]

Raspberry Pi operating system

The Raspberry Pi software is Linux - Fedora, to be precise - and it supports programming languages including Python, BBC Basic, C and Perl. You don't have to run Fedora if you don't want to, although the PC's architecture - it's based around version 6 of the ARM architecture, which may not be supported by some more recent distributions - will slightly limit the available options.

Where to buy a Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi will be available from two outlets: Element 14 and RS Components.

Raspberry Pi launch date

The Raspberry Pi UK launch has already taken place for the Model B, with stocks selling out in a heartbeat, and more stock is expected in the next few weeks. What we've seen so far is a soft launch, however, with Raspberry Pi devices being bought by interested individuals rather than bought in bulk for schools.

The official educational launch will take place later this year. The plan is to use existing customers as voluntary guinea pigs so that when the Pi hits schools, its "software will be more mature and free of obvious bugs, and easier for children and educators to use."

Is the Raspberry Pi the BBC Micro 2.0?

David Braben again: "At the moment, on a normal machine you've got to know quite a lot to be able to boot Linux, fire up a compiler and get anything to compile. Just to say your own name on the screen is a challenge. Whereas on the BBC, you'd see in every shop that someone had typed, 'So-and-so is clever,' or 'So-and-so smells'.

Line 20, Goto 10: that almost entered the vocabulary, it's so straightforward. It's understandable even to someone who hasn't done programming. It would be great if you could take that and wrap it in something where it's easy to create something - websites, for instance - very easily." There's also potential for the Raspberry Pi to play a role in developing countries: its simplicity means it's much more sturdy than a laptop, and as we've already seen it's exceptionally cheap.