I had been meaning to try the Raspberry Pi for a while, but I was occupied working on a Parallax Propeller project. The task was to communicate with a keyboard, just to read what keys were pressed. It was easy to do with a PS/2 keyboard. USB keyboards are much more complicated. We used an FDTI Vinculum chip to act as a host for the keyboard and ended up having to get into recompiling firmware running on the Vinculum chip to get it working. That allowed us to get updates on the key addresses pressed, which we translated into actual characters.
When it was time to open the Raspberry Pi, the first thing that stood out was the enclosure. It’s a wood-colored box a couple sizes up from an Altoids tin. It does not have a VGA port but only HDMI and RCA ports. We happened to have a TV around with an RCA port. When I first saw saw the menu in text that was difficult to read it reminded me of my first real computer, which had a CGA card. I instantly had the feeling Raspberry Pi was in some ways like the computer my parents paid thousands of dollars for in the 80s. “Look it has an audio port,” I told a software engineer, “If they were going to put a ‘sound card’ on the motherboard, they should have put an audio input port too.” Then I left the 80s and realized it has USB ports.
We installed the Raspian operating system. The Linux-based operating system makes basic tasks much easier than using embedded controllers like Propeller. When it came time to connect a keyboard, we just plugged it in and it worked, totally plug-and-play. To connect it to the Internet, we just connected an Ethernet cable from its Ethernet port to our office router. We installed a GUI that came with Raspian, and the image visually reminded me of the first time I saw Windows, Windows 3.1 in the early 90s.
It turns out Raspberry Pi is way more powerful than that. It only reminds me of old computers because we used a TV as a display. In reality, the processor is about as powerful as Pentium II, an average Smartphone, or slow tablet computer. Unlike those devices, a Raspberry Pi runs on Linux-based operating systems and costs $25. This means it’s ideal for any application that would be good for an old junky computer. But unlike an old computer, it doesn’t take much space and you don’t have to struggle to find drivers to talk to modern peripherals like a USB keyboard.
The next steps will be to see how difficult it is to run Linux programs and to try to find a program that lends itself to being in a small, inexpensive, but moderately powerful computer.
For millions of kids around the world this could be that “first machine that their school or parents paid a week’s pay for” like a TRS-80 or XT clone is to some of our readers.