In early 2012 I found an article about the Raspberry Pi. All of my news feeds were filled with buzz about “The $35 Computer.” Ever since then my mind and my project to-do list have been filled with projects that the Raspberry Pi could be used for.
I often bring up the Raspberry Pi in casual conversation. People usually get excited about it and want to know more. They will often ask me questions that I can never adequately answer on the spot. I want to be able to say “I don’t have enough time to do this topic justice right now! However, I have wrote about it extensively on my web site! Please, take a look!” If that is why you are here, I’m glad you could make it! 🙂
After having owned and used many Raspberry Pi (Pi) boards, I want to finally start writing about it. Sharing projects where I have utilized the Pi.
I want this blog post to be used for both newcomers and slightly more technically savvy people who just need some recommendations for what to purchase and links to additional resources to get them started.
Please note that I make no claims of being an expert with the Raspberry Pi, Linux, or computer hardware. I consider myself a fanatic!
What is the Raspberry Pi?
Before I tell you what the Raspberry Pi (Pi) is, let me tell you what it is not! The Pi is not a $5, $10, or $35 computer! We’ll talk more about that later.
The Pi is a low-cost ($5 – $35), low-powered (5V, 2A), and tiny (the largest being 3.37″ x 2.21″ x 0.83″) system board (think motherboard) that contains all of the necessary components to function as a desktop computer, server, laptop, thin-client, mobile computing platform, or the brains of an Internet of Things (IoT) device. You supply the storage media (to boot the operating system), monitor (or TV), mouse, keyboard, and case.
It was originally designed for kids to be used as a way of learning how a computer works and how to write computer programs. Instead of them trying to attempt these things with their family’s home computer. Kids could do this with a low-cost computer that could be easily wiped and restored if anything went wrong. If the board itself was destroyed, thankfully it wasn’t the family’s much more expensive home computer. The original Pi board was released for $35. There are now versions of the Pi that are available for as little as $5 (original Pi Zero) and $10 (Pi Zero W).
When the board was released, the DIY/maker community embraced the Pi and used it as the basis for thousands of projects. Any project that you can think of that would require any type of computer processing at its core, the Raspberry Pi has been used for. To give you an idea of what people in the DIY community use theirs for, below is a list of 4 projects that I absolutely love and why I love them.
As a photographer and a fan of Star Trek I’ve always had this crazy idea of creating holographic photos of people. While holographic technology is nowhere near the level I would like for it to be, this Pi scanner gets us closer to capturing people and objects in 3D. You can then take the captured image and use a 3D printer to reproduce a replica.
At my parent’s house in Tennessee. Buried deep in the closet is a 2-XL robot. It was an interesting toy. You put cassette tapes in and it would ask you questions which you answered by pressing buttons on the robot. For several years, since the Pi has been out, I have thought it would be fun to revive my old 2-XL with a Pi. The link above takes you to another individual who turned one of their toys, a phone in this case, into a talking toy. It gives me hope that I can do something fun with my 2-XL if I ever get the chance.
Two Pi were sent to the International Space Station with astronaut Tim Peake. The Pi boards were equipped with sensors for monitoring the environment within ISS, detecting how it is moving through space and pick up the Earth’s magnetic field.
Before my partner purchased a sprinkler system with built-in Wi-Fi, I thought it would be fun to create a Pi sprinkler controller.
This is an extremely popular project. If you do a search you will see thousands of results for people with their own version of this project.
What would the average person use a Raspberry Pi for?
The Pi would not win any speed comparison contests with any desktop computer that is on the market today. However, it can be used as a desktop computer for basic computing tasks such as browsing the Internet and office applications (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations). If you’re not a fan of LibreOffice (the free and open source office suite pre-installed with the desktop version of Raspian) you can use Microsoft Office online.
If you have a relative or a friend who would like to have a computer for basic tasks, but you and they do not have a lot of money to spend on a computer, then the Pi would be fantastic. It’s fairly easy to setup. It can be configured to sync with cloud services such as Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox. If the OS becomes corrupted it can be wiped and re-loaded easily.
Put one in the kitchen. This is where one of my Pi’s has lived for a year now. I use Microsoft Office OneNote (via web browser) to take phone call notes. I use it to lookup recipes. I use it to look up anything I would like additional information about that my partner and I may be discussing. I also use it to play Solitaire while I’m on the phone!
Because Linux is the primary operating system that a person would use if they want a graphical user interface with the Pi, there are hundreds of free and open source games that can be installed. Put one in the kid’s playroom. You can disconnect it from the Internet once you have installed the games you would like for them to have access to. There are a lot of people who play Minecraft with their Pi.
Put one in your guest bedroom. Not that I ever have guests, but if I did, I wouldn’t want them on my computer. No offense potential future guests!
Put one in the garage. Use it to look up tutorials for servicing your car. Connect some speakers and use it to listen to web radio.
Connect one to your TV and play your digital media files or use it as a game console emulator.
What would a more technically savvy person (or small business) use a Raspberry Pi for?
Virtual Private Network (VPN) Server
Using public WiFi is extremely unsafe. If you absolutely have to use it, you should be connecting to a VPN. You can setup a VPN server in your home that you can connect to while you are traveling. You’ll get a secure, encrypted connection back to your home office. You’ll have the added benefit of being able to access your home network resources.
One of the projects that I fully intend to implement in my home and write about is a virtual machine server and utilize Pi’s as thin clients. I’ll have the benefit of being able to move from different terminals in the house and pick up where I left off in the other room. Do I really need this? Yes, absolutely!
Digital Signs and Information Screens
In some of my favorite fast casual restaurants I am seeing digital displays showing the menu and prices. As a business owner I would love the ability to update my menu and price boards without having to print new copies of everything. The same goes for information screens. If the information you are wanting to display can be pulled from a database you can use the Pi to display it. If you don’t have a database there are many other ways that you could display the menu (presentation, image viewed in full screen, web page, etc.). I suspect that the commercially available options for digital signage are extremely expensive. It doesn’t have to be! If you’ve got a display you can use a Pi to display your content.
If you have a web site that doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic and you don’t want to pay for web hosting, you can use the Pi as a web server. If you’re concerned about security you could simply use it for an internal site or just use it as a testing environment.
Too many families do not back up their photos! Some people are scared of storing their photos in the cloud. Some people simply do not know how to backup their photos. The first MagPi magazine that I purchased included an article about using the Raspberry Pi to backup your family’s photos. The project was called the Mason Jar Preserve. I loved that they used a Mason jar as the enclosure for the Pi. I think these would be fantastic to give as a gift.
What do I need to order?
The Pi is too often referred to as the $5, $10 or $35 computer. I have even made that mistake myself in the past. While it is true that there is a model of the Pi board that only costs $5; I want people to understand that it takes more than that to get the Pi up and running. Hopefully, you’ll have many of these items on hand already (excluding the case, of course). Below are my recommendations for items to have on hand prior to the arrival of your Pi.
Obviously, you’re going to need to purchase a Raspberry Pi. You will first need to decide which one to purchase. There are currently six models that you can choose from. This blog entry is going to focus on three options. If you would like to see the others, please visit the Raspberry Pi Foundation web site product page. The specifications listed below were copied from that page.
Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
Quad Core 1.2GHz Broadcom BCM2837 64bit CPU
BCM43438 wireless LAN and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) on board
40-pin extended GPIO
4 USB 2 ports
4 Pole stereo output and composite video port
Full size HDMI
CSI camera port for connecting a Raspberry Pi camera
DSI display port for connecting a Raspberry Pi touchscreen display
Micro SD port for loading your operating system and storing data
Upgraded switched Micro USB power source up to 2.5A
This is the “go to” Pi board. It’s the most powerful. It has the most memory. It has all of the ports you need for a desktop computer built-in to it. Unless you need more than four USB devices attached, you won’t need a USB hub. Bluetooth and WiFi are built-in. This is the board that I recommend for most people who are interested in the Pi.
Raspberry Pi Zero
1GHz, Single-core CPU
Micro-USB OTG port
HAT-compatible 40-pin header
Composite video and reset headers
CSI camera connector (v1.3 only)
I would only recommend this board for single task projects. I would also only recommend this board for projects where you will not need on-board WiFi/Bluetooth or you plan to use an external adapter anyway.
Raspberry Pi Zero W
Same specifications as the Raspberry Pi Zero (above), but also includes the following:
802.11 b/g/n wireless LAN
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Like it’s predecessor (Pi Zero, above); I would only recommend this board for single task projects. As an example, I have had success in using these as car dash cameras.
Where to Buy Your Pi
I usually buy my Pi boards 1.) Anywhere that has them on sale. 2.) Anywhere that has the best shipping.
I have purchased them from Adafruit, but I am always hesitant because in the case of the Pi Zero, I paid more to have it shipped than the Pi Zero actually cost! I do appreciate that they allow you to use Amazon as a payment source.
I like buying Pi from Amazon, but only when it is from a reputable seller (preferably from the Raspberry Pi Foundation themselves), Amazon Prime shipping is available, and the price isn’t insanely jacked up.
I have had good luck with CanaKit, but in the case of the Pi Zero again the cost of shipping was more than the cost of the device itself.
Occasionally, arrow.com will have an amazing sale on Pi boards. A few months ago I purchased 3-Raspberry Pi 3 boards for $70. It was an insanely good deal and I had to jump on it.
Whichever model of Pi you purchase, buy the case for it. It bothers me to see naked Pi sitting around.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation makes amazing cases for the Pi. However, if you aren’t keen on the Foundation’s cases, Adafruit makes and sells some great Pi cases as well.
Raspberry Pi Foundation Cases
Adafruit Raspberry Pi Cases
ModMyPi Pi Zero Case – Frost/Clear – This case is from ModMyPi, but sold by Adafruit. ModMyPi is based in the United Kingdom. If you’re in the United States (like me) and want a ModMyPi case you’ll get it faster by ordering through a re-seller such as Adafruit.
There are several online electronics stores that sell a pre-flashed microSD card with N00BS (New Out Of the Box Software). NooBS makes it extremely easy to get the Raspbian operating system up and running.
These are great if you don’t want to spend any time downloading and loading the Raspbian OS onto a microSD card yourself.
My problem with these is that you are paying a premium. The microSD card is usually small (16 GBs as of late). You’re most likely going to need to update the OS anyway.
If you do go the route of buying your own microSD card and flashing it yourself (which I recommend); Don’t purchase one smaller than 16 GBs. You could probably get away with an 8 GB card, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you know you will not be installing additional applications. The Raspian operating system is already over 4 GBs and that is before you install updates or your own applications. I typically use 32 GB or 64 GB cards as they’re usually less than $20 these days and are often on sale on Amazon. I do highly recommend SanDisk.
For the Pi 3 you can use a regular HDMI cable.
For either of the Pi Zero boards you will need to use a Mini HDMI to HDMI cable.
You will want to purchase a power adapter that can supply 5 volts and 2.5 amps. You may have a phone charger that you are no longer using that may suffice. Just make sure that it meets the 5v/2.5A requirements. If you need to purchase a power adapter I would recommend the following two options.
CanaKit’s 5V 2.5A Raspberry Pi 3 Power Supply / Adapter / Charger – Works with the Raspberry Pi 3 and the Raspberry Pi Zero and Raspberry Pi Zero W.
AUKEY Power Strip with 2 Outlets and 4 USB Ports – For this option you’ll also need to purchase a micro USB to USB cable. Make sure to get one long enough to reach your Pi.
Where I have my Kitchen Pi, I was running out of power outlets. I needed a plug for the Pi, the monitor and an Amazon Echo Dot. The AUKEY power strip turned out to be an adequate solution. I was able to connect the Pi and Echo Dot to the power strip via USB. Then connect the monitor to one of the power outlets on the power strip.
Keyboard and Mouse
You’ll need a USB mouse and keyboard. The Pi Zero W does have built-in Bluetooth, but you will still need a USB mouse and keyboard to set up any Bluetooth devices.
I have successfully used Microsoft and Logitech wireless mice and keyboards with my Pi’s. I have also successfully used an HP PS/2 keyboard and mouse via a PS/2 to USB adapter.
Keep in mind that some key mappings may be off. For instance, the @ and ” keys are reversed on several of the keyboards that I have used with my Pi’s. Someday, I’ll do a quick search and learn how to fix this.
Almost any monitor will do (including your TV, provided that it has an available HDMI port). If your monitor does not have an HDMI port you can use either an HDMI to DVI cable or an HDMI to VGA converter.
I don’t have a recommendation on a good HDMI to VGA converter because I have never used one. I do recommend the following HDMI to DVI cable.
Additional Recommended Items for the Raspberry Pi Zero and Raspberry Pi Zero W
USB OTG (On The Go) Cable
This will allow you to connect a USB wireless mouse/keyboard adapter or the USB hub mentioned below.
I wouldn’t say that a USB hub is a requirement. It is really going to depend on your needs. Keep in mind that the Pi Zero only has one USB port. Which you will most likely be using for your keyboard and mouse. If you are purchasing the $5 Pi Zero, you’ll also need a port for connecting a USB Ethernet or Wi-Fi adapter. The Pi Zero W ($10) has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in.
USB Wi-Fi or Ethernet Adapter
If you are going to go with the $5 Pi Zero and need network connectivity you’ll need to use a USB Wi-Fi or Ethernet adapter. I am quite partial to TP-LINK products and have had great success with the TP-Link N300 Wireless Mini USB Adapter on my Pi Zero boards.
OMG, Andy! That’s A Lot of Stuff!
I know what you’re thinking. “OMG, Andy! That’s a lot of stuff that I need to buy! That has to be ridiculously expensive! There’s got to be a better option‽” Here are my suggestions.
Make sure that you don’t have any of these items on hand already. If you don’t; Ask your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. More often than not they will have one of the items that you’re needing and often they will gladly give them to you free of charge because they are needing to get rid of them anyway.
Check your local thrift and second hand computer stores. We in Boise, Idaho are lucky enough to have the Reuseum.
If you don’t want to ask anyone for anything and you don’t want any dirty second-hand gear, you can get started by purchasing a Raspberry Pi Starter Kit. There are several options available. Keep in mind though that most of these kits are still going to require that you have a monitor, mouse, and keyboard.
The Official Raspberry Pi 3 Starter Kit
- Created by The Raspberry Pi Foundation
- Includes a SMALL keyboard and mouse.
- No monitor.
- Available from several stores.
Note: You will see that I link to a few online stores a lot. I do so because I have purchased items from them before and was pleased with their service.
Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit – 32 GB Edition by CanaKit
- No keyboard or mouse.
- No monitor.
- Available at CanKit.com
Computer Starter Kit for Raspberry Pi 3 by Adafruit
- Includes keyboard and mouse.
- No monitor.
- Available at Adafruit.com
Kano Computer KitS
Kano has put together two amazing kits for the Raspberry Pi. I say amazing because they look fantastic! I have never purchased, owned, or used one of their kits myself. Mainly because of the sticker price. However, convenience may outweigh the cost and frustration of trying to track down all of the components on your own.
- Kano Computer Kit:
- Includes a keyboard with a touchpad.
- These kits go on sale often.
- Available at Kano.com
- Kano Computer Kit Bundle:
- Includes a display, keyboard and mouse.
- Available at Kano.com
- Started on Indiegogo.
- The pi-top kit provides all of the necessary components to build a laptop with the Raspberry Pi (which is included).
- You can also purchase a desktop all-in-one computer (called the pi-topCEED) that has a Raspberry Pi built-in and is ready to go out of the box (monitor, mouse and keyboard are included).
How do I set it up?
Watch this space.
In addition to the Raspberry Pi website itself, the following are additional resources for the Pi.
YouTube Videos and Channels
The official Raspberry Pi YouTube Channel