The ledgers of history are littered with the rotting corpses of well intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to put computers in the hands of the young, underprivileged or severely impoverished. Some, like Intel’s Classmate wanted to put cheap, durable Wintel machines in every American classroom, while others, like the OLPC program, focused their efforts on developing nations. Okay, perhaps it’s a bit hyperbolic to compare those initiatives to decomposing bodies, but there’s no denying they haven’t exactly flooded the world with low-cost PCs the way they were envisioned. So, here comes the Raspberry Pi, another effort with lofty goals, both in terms of purpose and price. Of course, the approach is different here — more barebones, with a healthy dose of inspiration from Arduino and the DIY movement. The question is, what has it learned from those that have come before it? And, most importantly, where does the Raspberry Pi go right and where does it go wrong? To find out, keep reading after the break.
The high price of low cost
If there’s one place the Pi has been an unquestionable success, it’s been on cost. The $10 laptop? Never materialized. The $35 tablet? It cost closer to $60. And OLPC’s $100 laptop? It was pushing $200 by the time it started shipping. The Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, never drew a line in the sand, so, the fact that it clocks in at a measly $35 for the advanced model is all the more impressive. Granted, it hits this Arduino-level price point by eschewing things like storage, a display, wireless radios and even a protective case. What you get instead, is a capable, but low-end ARM CPU with integrated RAM and a surprisingly powerful GPU on an exposed board with a small, but versatile assortment of connectivity options. There’s an exposed SD slot on the underside (where you’ll need to stick your bootable media), a pair of USB ports, an Ethernet jack and, your output options are HDMI or an RCA video plug, paired with a 3.5mm headphone jack. You’ll also spot a microUSB port, used exclusively for power, and a set of 26 general purpose I/O pins.
At the heart of the Pi is a Broadcom BCM2835 SOC. The 700MHz ARM11 core certainly isn’t a barn burner. In fact, the foundation itself compares performance to a 300MHz Pentium II, but with “much, much swankier graphics” thanks to the Videocore 4 GPU. The chip itself is capable of not only decoding 1080p video, but of hitting Xbox (we’re talking original, not 360) levels of 3D performance. In practice those claims seem to be about spot on. While some crafty devs have managed to get Quake III up and running on the diminutive Pi, it struggles to keep up with even modest modern demands. Firing up the Midori browser in the Debian “squeeze” distro suggested for use with the board and opening a couple of tabs is enough to bring the entire system to a standstill. In fact, simply launching Engadget was enough to pin the CPU and bring the OS to a standstill for at least a few minutes. And don’t even think about watching streaming videos — there is no support for Flash or HTML 5 at the moment. And, in case there was any doubt in your mind about how painful just web browsing could be on this thing, we ran SunSpider (which also pinned the CPU) and got a score of 44,230. By comparison, our OG Droid (which is clocked at just 550MHz, but has the advantage of being a Cortex A8 chip) pulled a 11,188.
Booting up and poking around
On the software front, things are currently a tad underwhelming. You have your choice of three officially supported Linux variants (Debian Squeeze, Arch Linux ARM and QtonPi) and a port of XBMC, dubbed Raspbmc. We fired up Debian (the most beginner friendly of the official options) and the media center and came away slightly bemused. Each suffered from its own strange limitations and collection of glitches that leads us believe they wouldn’t be particularly useful as general purpose machines, even in a classroom. Under Debian, we never managed to get sound working and finding compatible apps for the Linux desktop is an exercise in futility. What’s more, on first boot you’re dumped into a command prompt — because apparently it’s the lack of time spent punching arcane commands into a terminal that has killed interest in computer science. If you’re not comfortable in the command line you can launch the LXDE UI by typing “startx” and get to pointing and clicking with a mouse. The environment should be simple enough to figure out for anyone who has ever used Windows. The default app selection is a bit sparse, but the big sells here are the development tools, including Scratch which is meant as an introduction to programming for kids. Scratch is interesting, and certainly simple enough for a child to understand, but it’s hardly intuitive and very rough around the edges.
XBMC center fared slightly better in our testing, but not much. It boots up fast enough (as does Debian) and works more or less as advertised, provided you’re the patient type. The now ubiquitous 1080p copy of Big Buck Bunny took about 15 to 20 seconds to load up from a USB key, but once it did, played reasonably smoothly, audio included. We also loaded up a decidedly busier clip — a 720p copy of the Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Miguel Cotto fight — and it was also reasonably stutter free experience. Though, we angered the Pi when we tried (but did not succeed) to skip past the ring entrances and straight to the bout. Web-based content was a completely different story. We managed to install the Engadget and YouTube add-ons, but both failed to deliver. Launching an episode of the Engadget show took several minutes and, once the video began playing back, we were presented with what amounted to a slide show of the nicest guy in tech delivering his opening monologue. YouTube was an even more disastrous endeavor, crashing the entire system, forcing us to pull the plug.
In the end, it’s important to remember that the Raspberry Pi’s goals are not to be an everyday PC or a media player, but more like a tinker toy. It’s supposed to be a low cost computer for developing apps or a flexible and powerful option (at least compared to the Arduino) for your DIY projects. Honestly, as an introduction to the world of hardware and software hacking, the Arduino seems like a more natural and simpler entry point. For the moment, the community around the Pi is small. People are fascinated with it, but that has yet to translate into a wealth of projects, hacks or software. As production ramps up and more people figure out just how to leverage those I/O pins we expect that to change. Till then, we’ll just have to be satisfied with marveling at what it accomplishes for a lowly $35.