When the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced in the late 2000s that they intended to create a capable computer for only $25, most people said they were crazy. The idea of a desktop computer in the double-digit price range was unheard of back in 2006, and indeed it still seems somewhat absurd. Last Wednesday, the Raspberry Pi debuted, proving the naysayers wrong and establishing itself as one of the most cost effective computers of all time.
The original idea was to develop an inexpensive computer which could be used to jumpstart computer science education in developing countries, where schools can’t afford computer programs. This has remained a central objective for the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The foundation intends to implement a buy-one, donate-one policy, where each purchase results in two computers being shipped; one goes to the purchaser, and one goes to a school in the developing world. But for now, all commercial profits are being donated to the foundation’s charitable causes.
The Raspberry Pi mission began with Eben Upton, a British hardware developer with Broadcom who had a dream. Rather than launch a startup (Eben has already worked with two), he decided to start a foundation to take his idea in another direction entirely. The idea for Raspberry Pi was born.
A functional computer for $25 seems too good to be true, and in some ways it is. The Raspberry Pi doesn’t look much like the typical desktop computer. Perhaps the biggest surprise is its size; at 9 cm by 5 cm, it’s not much bigger than a credit card. Additionally, the computer doesn’t come with a monitor, keyboard, mouse, or even a case. Buyers will receive what looks like a small piece of electronic circuitry with some recognizable ports attached. The foundation is selling two models, Model A and Model B. Model A sports a 700 MHz ARM CPU, with 256 MB of RAM built into the chip, making it significantly less powerful than most desktop or laptop computers on the market today. There is a USB output, an audio jack, RCA and HDMI video outputs, space for an SD card, and a power connector. Model B adds another USB port and an ethernet port for $10 more. To actually use the device, you’ll still need a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and SD card. While you might have some of these lying around, it certainly undermines the claim of an utterly unheard-of price.
Despite its apparently underpowered internals, the Raspberry Pi is actually quite capable. It runs a modified version of the Fedora operating system, not the Windows 7 OS that most are familiar with, but it also supports Debian and Arch Linux. The Pi is also capable of playing 1080p videos, but since these videos are handled by a hardware decoder, it can only effectively manage certain video formats. Despite this limitation, its video features are quite impressive. For basic computer use, like writing papers, viewing PDFs, and browsing the web, the Pi is actually usable.
While it’s not likely that we’ll see students showing up at McGill next fall to start the school year with Raspberry Pis, the Pi does set a precedent in an industry which has constantly expanded in only one direction, and does so with an admirable mission behind it. There has never been a reasonable market for cheap computers, as manufacturers tend to drop old models quickly in favour of bigger, better, and more expensive components. Hopefully we will see other manufacturers begin to target this market with affordable but capable computers. In the meantime, the Pi can be purchased at www.raspberrypi.com