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July 30, 2014

Pi in the Oven

July 30, 2014

Over the last few months I've had the opportunity to taste-test the new Raspberry Pi and cook up a few projects myself. For readers still preheating their ovens, a Raspberry Pi is a computer the size of a credit card, that runs a Linux-based operating system, and ships for only $35. If you're looking to replace your current laptop, this isn't the right device for you, but speed and power aren't the reasons why this little computer has created such an uproar.

The original purpose was educational (see Syria's children learn to code with Raspberry Pi). In the age of nano-technology, making and modifying your own computer is becoming increasingly difficult. What makes the Pi truly unique is its accessibility and focus on customization and open-source technology which has given rise to a creative (and sometimes eccentric) new community of electronics hobbyists, hardware developers, teachers, and students. The projects built on Raspberry Pi since its release in 2012 range from a world record breaking hot air balloon ride to robot tanks and cat feeders and so much more. With all this excitement around collaboration and innovation, we knew we needed our own piece of the pie.


Okay, so maybe we didn't need the Scuba Tank USB charger, but who wouldn't want to power their Pi from a miniature scuba tank?


Once the Pi was assembled, it was pretty easy to dive in and start working on different projects. In under an hour, I managed to get Raspbian OS installed and running along with a few extra web browsers, a package manager, and some new themes. The main issue was speed, so I set up an SSH server and connected to the Pi remotely over the network (here's a guide). At this point, all I needed was a power source and internet access for the Raspberry Pi, as I could now do most of the work – installing new apps, transferring files, and configuring settings – from my laptop. In other words, I pretty much had a fully functional file server.

A little homemade file server is useful and all, but they aren't all that interesting; I decided to try setting up a web server to stage some of the projects we've been working on. In no time at all, I had Apache, PHP5, and MySQL up and running and was able to access a test page by navigating to an IP address in my browser. A little more tinkering and I had a copy of Musical Family Tree up and running with relatively low server response time. I probably wouldn't suggest using a Raspberry Pi as a production server, but it's great for smaller projects or if you wanted an affordable web server accessible to anyone on your local network.

Another great feature is that the entire system runs off of an SD card, so when you're ready to start a new project, all you have to do is insert a new SD card. For my next project, I loaded a fresh copy of Raspbmc – a version of XBMC Media Server developed specifically for the Raspberry Pi. The Rasbmc media server lets you play your own music and videos, and access streaming websites (like YouTube and Hulu) on your TV while using your smart phone, computer, or tablet as a remote control. Essentially, a little work and you've got an AppleTV with more customizability.

Fine Tuning

While these smaller projects went smoothly, it wasn't long before we learned that you can't always have your Pi and eat it too. Since Jordan started developing games (with hits including SmallBox is Under Attack!) as a side-project at SmallBox, we've wanted some sort of device or game console to play them on besides our phone or computer browsers. Because the games are written in Javascript, we thought it might be possible to just run them in the native browser.

Unfortunately, the Pi wasn't built to surf the web and Javascript just doesn't run fast enough – making it almost impossible to play even the simplest browser-based game. That said, people have been developing and porting fairly large games for Raspberry Pi, but they're written in Python or another language that compiles for ARMv6 (C, C++, Java, Ruby, etc). For now, this project has become... a pi in the sky.

We'll keep you updated as we continue learning about the Raspberry Pi and working on new projects! Have you started working with Raspberry Pi? Share your projects and inventions with us here!

Hero image via Caitlin Regan on Flickr.

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