I have never seen the insides of this computer.

Over a decade ago that statement would have been patently ridiculous for any machine I had spent as much time working with as I have this one. But 12 years of living with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome changes one's hobbies. Having witnessed the birth and maturation of personal computers, I've played with a lot of hardware. From cutting my teeth on the early C64, Apple II, and IBM XT and the dizzying explosion of peripherals and processors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I have always enjoyed being elbow deep in the guts of some computer. But two marriages, several disparate careers, and fatherhood mean that it has been a long, long time since I've worried about jumpers, pins, or I/O interfaces (none of which even have the same meaning that they did 13 years ago). But recently I discovered the Raspberry Pi, and once again I am enjoying the Frankenstein-like excitement of bending hardware to my will.

The Raspberry Pi is a computer. Unlike modern desktop PCs, the Pi does not come in a large case. It is not packaged with a keyboard, or a mouse, or any kind of disk drive. The Pi is a small palm sized circuit board. Instead of having a huge heatsink-laden multiple core processor, the Pi has a small 700 MHz ARM processor. Bereft of the gigabytes of RAM common among today's personal computers, it instead can be purchased with either 256 or 512 megs of memory. Clustered together on the small board are two USB ports, an HDMI and RCA Composite video port, an audio out port, a micro USB jack (for power), and for the Model B, an ethernet port. An SD card slot provides a means for persistent storage (similar to the hard drive commonly found on desktops). And that's it, that is all it has. No peripherals. No software. Not even a case.

So what's the point?

The Raspberry Pi was originally designed as a low-cost, affordable computer for educational purposes. Intended to be similar to the BBC Micro of the early 1980s (in the sense of a computer/programming learning tool), it was developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in the United Kingdom. They have distributed the Pi through a handful of online retailers, and in 2012 (its first year of full-scale release) waiting periods of six weeks to several months were common. But the higher than anticipated level of demand did not stem from educational institutions. Instead, hobbyists, hackers, and makers have taken to the little Pi in force. A reasonable person might ask, what is the appeal of a seemingly underpowered bare-bones computer with absolutely no frills included?

  • Price - Model A retails for $25, and Model B for a friendly $35. While that only pays for the Pi itself, among the crowd it has become popular with not much else is usually needed. Computer enthusiasts generally have plenty of cables lying around, and items like USB keyboards are readily available. For the price point, the Raspberry Pi makes DIY home computer projects accessible while eliminating much of the fear of experimenting with more expensive electronic components.

  • Size - Due to its small footprint, the Pi can be used in projects that would be prohibited by a larger PC. Examples include the remote-controlled dirigibles demoed at Google I/O this year, or the retro gaming emulators which utilize the shells of old videogame units like the NES or Game Boy to hold a Raspberry Pi.

  • Flexibility - Because the Pi runs off of different flavors of Linux (including a custom build of Debian called Raspbian), it benefits from significant amounts of customization from an active user community. Want to create a home security system using a Pi? Someone has already created the necessary scripts, programs, and explanation necessary to do that. Want to create a tiny home media center? There is already a build of Linux made specifically to do that. Home weather station? No problem! Many projects have utilized the Raspberry Pi in conjunction with an Arduino to expand inputs to new levels. One home project used a combination of the two to create a setup that utilized motion detectors to sense when a person came to the front door, snap a photograph of them, and then text the photo to the owner's cell phone at work. Neat stuff!

The Raspberry Pi can be obtained from the following website: http://www.element14.com/community/groups/raspberry-pi

Learn more at:

http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs

http://elinux.org/RPi_Hub

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