Craig Gibbons' Lifeblog lifeblog://tri.eat.net

25Oct/12Off

Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi

Raspberry PiA long time ago, in a land far away, I had a friend who helped install my first Linux operating system. At the time I had one of the latest machines on the market, sporting a 233Mhz processor, 32Mb RAM and a 2.3Gb HDD. It was my first and I was keen to see what it could do, so when said friend offered to install Linux for me I jumped at the opportunity, not knowing anything about what I was getting into. Surely, I thought, I could just click around and find my way. Later, when I was presented with a blank looking command line it wasn't feeling like such a good idea. I once even rebooted the machine because I couldn't figure out how to exit the vi editor. After reading an O'Reilly book and a lot of tinkering, I felt like I finally got it, sort of.

Fast forward>> 15 or so years and I feel like I've come full circle with the acquisition of the Raspberry Pi, the coolest piece of kit I've ever owned, or if it isn't it'll do until the coolest piece gets here. The Raspberry Pi is at the forefront of a trend towards smaller computers which are accessible to almost anybody. The unit its self costs a mere £29 (incl. postage) and you can buy one from either of the two vendors chosen by the Raspberry Pi foundation, Element 14 or RS Components. If you've found this way onto this page, you have most likely come looking for information on the RPi (see what I did there) so I'll just get onto the details.

First, while the RPi is cheap by its self, you will need some extras before it's actually usable:

  • A 5V 700mA mini USB charger. My Samsung Galaxy S2 charger worked perfectly
  • Powered USB hub (£15)
  • Mouse and keyboard
  • Monitor or TV
  • HDMI cable (£4)
  • Wi-Fi USB dongle (£10)
  • Minimum 4Gb SD card (£5)
  • Case (£10 - £15 optional)

Now, this is important; not everything will work with the RPi so make sure you check out the approved hardware page at: http://elinux.org/RPi_VerifiedPeripherals

For readers in the UK, some free advice I can give you is not to buy the USB hub included as part of the Maplin RPi starter kit, it produced some weird behaviour with the mouse on my system and it doesn't come with a mains charger. The separate charger recommended on the Maplin site goes for abut £30 in addition to the £14 for the hub. You would do better to buy all the bits you need off The Pi Hut.

A number of excellent cases are available, but I chose the Pibow, which is super easy to fit and nice and colourful. Also, I like to see the Pi board and the Pibow case exposes that nicely.

The Raspberry Pi website explains in detail how to get up and running so I won't cover that here, but in general you can either buy a pre-installed 4Gb SD card loaded with a beginner version of Linux or you need to download an 'image' (approx. 440Mb) and write it to the SD card. The RPi then boots from the SD card. I had everything up and running in about 10 minutes from unpacking the RPi and the beginner version is great. It boots right into its window mode, LXDE. Windows users will feel immediately at home. I then went about installing some software to see what the Pi could actually do. As it turns out, quite a lot! Among many others, the following are available:

  • Chromium - identical to the Google Chrome browser (sudo apt-get install chromium-browser)
  • OpenOffice - a replacement for Microsoft Office (sudo apt-get install openoffice.org)
  • GIMP - a graphics application similar to Adobe Photoshop (sudo apt-get install gimp)
  • IceDove - identical to the Mozilla Thunderbird email client (sudo apt-get install icedove)
  • FileZilla - a FTP client (sudo apt-get install filezilla)
  • The LAMP stack - Linux, Apache, MySql, PHP (sudo apt-get install apache2 php5 php5-mysql mysql-server)
  • ... and I'm working on Git or SVN and node.js

Edit Oct 26th, 2012: Since installing Chromium and Icedove, the performance of the RPi has been very poor. The CPU runs at 100% constantly and it's almost impossible to get anything done. I've reverted back to the default browser Midori which is doing the job admirably and instead of Icedove I've installed Claws Mail (sudo apt-get install claws-mail), which appears to be a lot lighter with no loss of functionality, indeed I may prefer it.

I hope this brief post has provided some helpful information for newcomers and whet the appetite of those not yet signed-up. And in case you were wondering, yes, this post was created using the Chromium browser and GIMP for the picture on a Raspberry Pi Model B.

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