The Raspberry Pi is likely the most discussed product in the tech world right now. Created by Broadcom engineer Eben Upton and Elite-creator David Braben and developed by UK charity The Raspberry Pi Foundation, the idea was to create a highly affordable single circuit board computer offering free software for students. The goal of the Foundation was simple: promote computer science education with these affordable and easy to hack computers, promoting experimentation. Computer enthusiasts and tech journalists everywhere watched and waited, wondering if this simple computer could actually be useful.
It's been a long road to releasing this single-board computer, but this week, the first retail models were shipped out to customers. There are other boards that are similar, such as the open-source Beagleboard or Samsung's Exynos-based Origen, but the Raspberry Pi beats them all with one punch: the price. It costs roughly between a third and a quarter less than competitors, a tenth less in some cases.
The Raspberry Pi features a Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-chip processor and runs at 700MHz and a VideoCore IV 250MHz GPU. RAM for both the CPU and GPU are provided by a single 256MB module of Hynix LPDDR memory running at 400MHz. This leaves the usual 186MB of available memory. The processor hangs out beneath the Hynix memory chip in the middle of the circuit board, using a PoP mounting process.
There is a micro USB port, two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI output, SD card slot, 3.5mm audio and RCA composite video. Want to use the board in an embedded environment? There's a DSI connector for flat-panel displays and a MIPI camera connector included as well. It must be mentioned that if you choose to build a case to house the board and plan to put the SD card slot to use, the SD card sticks out beyond the edge of the board by 17mm. The board is about 109mmx63mm in size.
It also features a single RJ45 Ethernet jack offering 10/100M connectivity. It was actually this jack that caused major production delays: the manufacturer accidentally soldered plain jacks rather than the expected 'MagJack', a jack containing signal-conditioning magnetics, which led to poor signal reception. The boards had to be returned, de-soldered, and re-soldered using the correct jack. There is no wireless capability with the Raspberry Pi, but it is compatible with USB-connected wi-fi dongles.
The Raspberry Pi held up in tests, showing that the chip is quite capable. In fact, it was proven to be more efficient per-cycle than its rival Ferroceon chip. Graphics are no problem for the CPU, either: it was initially developed for use in set-top boxes and portable media players. It is said the BCM2835 is about four times as powerful as the processor contained in the iPhone 4. To get the most out of the 3D acceleration, you have to sacrifice memory, with the Foundation recommending a 50:50 split. This leaves you with a mere 128MB for the OS. Program load times are painfully slow, but keep in mind the system is running on a 5V 1A power supply. The same can be said about scrolling through web pages.
Despite its performance issues, it is an amazing machine for what it is. There is no other machine out there that does the things Raspberry Pi does for the price of an astounding $35. Yes, there are some limitations, but for the patient lover of technology, it is a must-have. There is a lot of potential packed into that board, and programmers are already hard at work designing software and the like just for the Pi.