Fancy a Slice of Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi first appeared on the scene back in 2012. Since then it has gone from strength to strength with sales figures now well in excess of 12 million! Here we will look at the ins and outs of everyone’s favourite little computer.

So what is a Raspberry Pi?

As mentioned in the first paragraph, the Raspberry Pi is a small computer; a single board computer to be precise, about the size of a credit card.  As the description suggests, a single board computer simply means all the parts (known as components) are built in to the one circuit board.

Since its launch back in 2012 the Pi has gone through several revisions.  Each version has improved upon the one before, to the point that we now have a computer with built-in wifi, bluetooth, and wired networking, that is many times faster than the original.

So who makes the Raspberry Pi?

It is made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which is a UK-based charity.  Their mission is to promote the study of basic computer science in education and to put the power of computing and digital making into the hands of people (like you and me) all over the world.  You can read more about them here:

https://www.raspberrypi.org/about/

What’s the latest version of the Raspberry Pi called?

Currently, as of the time of writing, the lastest and greatest version is the Pi 3B+

So what are the hardware specs like?

The Raspberry Pi 3B+ consists of the following:

(Don’t fret if a lot of this sounds like gobblydegook, you don’t need to understand it to be able to start taking advantage of the many benefits a Raspberry Pi has to offer).

* Broadcom BCM2837B0 quad-core system-on-chip (SoC) running at 1.4GHz

* Broadcom VideoCore IV GPU

* 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11b/g/n/ac wireless LAN

* 1GB LPDDR2 SDRAM

* Bluetooth 4.2, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

* GPIO: 40-pin GPIO header, populated

* microSD storage

* HDMI port

* 3.5 mm analogue audio-video jack
* 4x USB 2.0
* Camera Serial Interface (CSI)
* Display Serial Interface (DSI)

The idea of a small computer that can fulfil almost any requirement I can think of sounds great, but how much is it going to cost me?

That’s the best part.  It costs under £35 ($40) to buy.  That get’s you the computer itself.

Do I need anything else to be able to use it?

Yes, you are going to need a few more bits, but you may already have some of these already lying around.

* Firstly, you need a power supply.  The Raspberry Pi Foundation make their own, but any power supply with a micro usb connector capable of supplying 5V and 2.5A will do the job.  NB. It is important to make sure it supplies the full 2.5A or your Pi may experience reliability problems (many mobile phone chargers will physically connect to, and power the Pi, but DO NOT provide sufficient current).

* Next, you’ll need a monitor or TV with a HDMI connector and a HDMI cable to connect it to your pi.  As a side note, HDMI also provides sound, so you don’t need to worry about a separate cable.

* You’re going to want a nice little case to put your Pi in.  These are available cheaply from several suppliers (you can even 3D print your own, if you’re into that kind of thing).

* We also need both a USB keyboard and mouse to plug into the pi.

* Lastly, we require a MicroSD card.  More on this later.

Optional: A Cat5 network cable, if you intend to connect your pi directly to your router.  You don’t need this if you’d sooner use WiFi.

Okay, so I’ve bought my first Raspberry Pi. Now what do I do with it?

Well the choice is almost endless.  Raspberry Pi has been used for everything from a media centre to a desktop PC, a web server to powering robots, a retro gaming console to a stop motion camera, and much more besides.  They’ve even been sent into space!  Basically, if you can think of something, someone has probably done it with a Raspberry Pi.

Why do I need a MicroSD card?

Right, once you’ve got your Pi all connected, you’re going to need something to boot it off.  That’s where the MicroSD card comes in.  Unlike a standard PC, the Pi doesn’t have a hard drive, so your MicroSD card will effectively be your hard drive; so go for the best you can get.  These cards are pretty cheap now so its best to go for a larger capacity so you don’t run out of space.  Aim for at least 16GB to be on the safe side.  You also don’t want to slow your Pi down due to a slow card.  Get one with a Class 10 rating as these are the fastest.  Further information on this topic can be found here:

https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/installation/sd-cards.md

Okay, I’m ready for action.  Now what?

Now we need to prepare the MicroSD card.  We need to put an operating system on it before we can do anything else.  Your operating system is the base of your computer.  It is what gets everything going so that you can use it how you want.  If you went out an bought a computer, the odds are it would probably come with Windows already installed – that is your operating system.

The Raspberry Pi doesn’t come with anything on it, so we need to put it on ourselves.  Don’t panic, its not difficult.  In the first instance, your best best is to use the official operating system known as Raspbian.  This will allow you to familiarise yourself with how the Pi works.  You can download it here:

https://www.raspberrypi.org/downloads/

You will see a there is a choice of two downloads: NOOBS and Raspbian itself.  Both allow you to install Raspbian, but NOOBS is designed to be an easy installer for beginners.  Unless you are familiar with torrents it is best to choose the “Download ZIP” option.  Also use the “NOOBS” download rather than the “NOOBS Lite”.

Save the file to a safe place.  We now need some software to copy the operating system onto our MicroSD card.  For this a good option is Etcher, which you can download here:

https://www.balena.io/etcher/

Once Etcher has downloaded, run the installer and follow the wizard to install it.  Now launch the software.  To use it, it’s simply a matter of selecting the image (the NOOBS file you downloaded earlier), selecting a drive (your MicroSD card), and then clicking “Flash!”.  This may take a little while so go make yourself a well-earned cup of coffee.

NB. If your computer doesn’t have a MicroSD card reader you may need an adapter.  You can get them cheaply on Amazon below:

https://www.amazon.com/

Once the Raspbian (NOOBS) is successfully copied (Flashed!), eject your MicroSD card.  We are now ready to fire up our Pi.

Put the MicroSD card into the Raspberry Pi and turn on the power.  Note that the Raspberry Pi does not have an on/off switch, so turning on the electricity at the wall socket turns on the Pi.

If all went well an image should appear on your TV/monitor.  NOOBS gives you the option of installing multiple operating systems onto your Pi.  Be sure to select Raspbian in the first instance.  Further instructions on installing NOOBS can be found here:

https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/installation/noobs.md

I’ve booted to the Raspbian Desktop, now what?

Congratulations, you have successfully completed the Raspbian install.

You will note that the desktop has some similarities to Windows but it also has a lot of differences too.  The main difference being that the task bar, by default, is at the top of the screen rather than the bottom.  This can be changed if you prefer.  Simply right click on it and select “Panel Settings”.  You can now change the position from “Top” to “bottom” and click “Close”.

Most things should work as you expect.  The default web browser is Chromium, which is what Google Chrome is based on, so should be familiar to anyone who uses Chrome.  Clicking the little Raspberry Pi icon brings up the start menu with a selection of preinstalled software ready to use.  LibreOffice should cover your document needs, and VLC Media Player your entertainment.  Powering off is as easy as clicking “Shutdown”.

What if I want to install some other software?

On the Raspbian’s start menu, there is a “Preferences” section, and in there is “Add/Remove” software.  Simply click on this to get started.

You can either search for the program your are after by name (as in the screenshot above) or click a category on the left to see what’s available.  When you’ve found what you want, click the checkbox next to it and click “Apply” to install it.  Once it has installed, click “OK” to close the window.  The program should now be available in the start menu.

So I can use my Pi as a desktop computer, what’s next?

As you already observed, NOOBS has a selection of operating systems that you can install.  LibreELEC and OSMC are both good choices and will turn your Pi into a fully fledged media centre, especially when connected to a TV.  Both of these are based around the excellent Kodi.

NB. Be aware that when you install a different operating system, it will erase the one that was on your MicroSD card previously.  An alternative is to get several MicroSD cards and install different software on each of them.  Then when you want to use that operating system, simply boot your Raspberry Pi using that particular MicroSD card.

There are also a selection of third party operating system images available that can be loaded onto the Pi.  Ubuntu Mate is a good choice for an alternative desktop PC.  There’s even Windows 10 IoT (Internet of Things) Core; though be warned this is nothing like the deskstop version of Windows 10.

I’ve read about something called a Raspberry Pi distro, what’s that?

Tux – the Linux mascot.

Most of the operating systems that run on the Raspberry Pi are based on Linux.  Without getting too bogged down, Linux is a kernel (the very heart of an operating system) and, in Linux, a “Distro” is just another way of saying an operating system.  So, to put it simply, Raspbian (the official operating system for the Raspberry Pi) is both a distro and an operating system.

What’s with all the pins on the Pi?

One of the features of the Raspberry Pi is the ability to connect a whole range of devices and sensors to it.  This is made possible through a 40 pin GPIO header.

A what?

GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) is the technical name for those 40 pins. These are great for anyone itching to use their Pi in the electronics field. For example, you may wish to turn some LEDs on and off, or control a small motor. Each pin has a specific purpose, as shown in the diagram below.

I’ve heard of Raspberry Pi having hats.  What’s that all about?

No, its not a straw boater, if that’s what you’re thinking, but the Pi HATs or pHATs, as they’re also known, get their name from the fact that they attach directly on top of the Pi (to the GPIO pins as mentioned above).  These devices are built to add extra functionality to your Pi.

Some of the most popular are:

PoE HAT (Power over Ethernet)

This allows you to power your Pi with just a network cable using PoE – although this would also require a suitable PoE switch.

LED matrix

An array of LEDs that can be programmed to light up and simulate numbers and letters among other things.

Pi-DAC

This one’s for the audiophiles among you.  It significantly improves (and amplifies) the audio that the Pi produces.

Houston, we have a problem!

Okay, we all know that with technology anything can happen, and things don’t always go according to plan.  Perhaps you’ve connected everything up, turned on the power and… nothing. The lights are on, but no one’s home.  What to do?

First, don’t panic.  It’s highly unlikely its a massive problem.  Unlike a traditional computer, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t have a BIOS chip (in a standard PC this is the part that starts first and checks that everything is as it should be).  Instead the Raspberry Pi is solely reliant on its MicroSD card, so the first thing to do is trying copying NOOBS to your MicroSD card again (Etcher to the rescue).

If this doesn’t work, try re-downloading NOOBS and copying it over once more.  If this still doesn’t work, try a different MicroSD card.

I have no internet, what should I do?

If you chose to use WiFi rather than connect a cable to your router, you will need to join the Pi to your wireless network.  To do this, click the two arrows in the task bar, as in the screenshot below.

The name of your wireless network should appear in the list of available networks.  Select it and enter your wireless key to connect.  You should now be good to go.

There seem to be different sizes of Raspberry Pi available, why is that?

As previously mentioned, Raspberry Pi is used for myriad projects.  Some of these may have different requirements.  For example, you may want an even smaller Pi to fit inside a robot, or you may need a Pi that uses even less power than the full-fat version (which is fairly low power itself); perhaps you’re running it off a battery.

For these reasons, different types of Pi exist.  The Raspberry Pi Zero, for example, is ridiculously small and low powered.  The Raspberry Pi Compute Module is used in various home and factory automation products.

I’d like to learn more about the Raspberry Pi, where can I go next?

The official website is one of the best resources for the Raspberry Pi:

https://www.raspberrypi.org/

The Raspberry Pi Foundation also produce a magazine that can be bought in newsagents or electronically.  You can even download it for free as a PDF (how good is that!):

https://www.raspberrypi.org/magpi/

Even more resources to get you going:

Turn your Pi into a retro-gaming machine with RetroPie, available here:

https://retropie.org.uk/

Fancy creating a web server, a media centre with Plex or Emby?  How about a file server using Nextcloud?  All this and much, much more is possible using the excellent DietPi.  Check it out here:

https://dietpi.com/

Hopefully you enjoyed this article and are now ready to venture into the fabulous world of all things Pi!  Good luck on your journey.