Monday, 29 October 2012

Raspberry PI - The Sinclair Spectrum of the 21st Century

Posted by Gary Newell  |  at  00:24 14 comments

Introduction

One Christmas in the mid 1980s when I was 10 or 11 years old my parent's bought me the best gift I have ever received.

My parents know nothing about computing or technology so they would never have come up with the gift if they hadn't asked "What would you like for Christmas this year?"

The gift I received was the Sinclair Spectrum +2. My cousin Ian had a 48k Spectrum with rubber keys and we had spent an inordinate number of hours playing games like Matchday and Grand Prix Simulator.

The Sinclair Spectrum was a great games machine at the time and even though the games lacked sound quality and graphical ability they more than made up for this with playability.

The thing is though the Spectrum wasn't just about playing games. The Sinclair Spectrum gave budding young programmers the ability to write their own games and applications.

I learned a lot by copying reams of code from the middle pages of Sinclair User and I believe that the Sinclair Spectrum is responsible for making me a decent programmer (not spectacular, but very competent) today.

The Raspberry PI

You might be wondering at this point what all this has to do with the Raspberry PI. Some of you might be wondering what on earth a Raspberry PI is.



The Raspberry PI is about the size of a credit card and is basically a circuit board. It costs around £35 and that is all that you get when you order one.

It boasts a mere 700mhz ARM processor and just 512 mb of Ram. If you want to run an operating system you have to buy an SDHC memory card with an operating system on it (or buy a blank card and install one on it). There is no built in WIFI and it has 2 USB ports, a HDMI port, an Ethernet socket, a power socket and audio/video ports.

To power the Raspberry PI you can use a standard mobile phone charger.

After purchasing the Raspberry PI there is other hardware that you will immediately require. You will need a USB keyboard and mouse, a USB hub (2 USB ports will be taken straight away with a keyboard and mouse), a HDMI cable, a USB wireless dongle and of course a monitor (or TV).

At this point you might be wondering what is the point? A low end tablet comes with similar memory, running Android for around £150. A decent netbook is available for around £200 and will come with a lot more power and even a fairly mediocre laptop has more power at not much more than £250.

To answer this question you have to understand the demographic the Raspberry PI is mainly targeting.

If I was an 11 year old today where is my Sinclair Spectrum?

Using a tablet it is entirely likely that I will learn nothing. A tablet is a great entertainment device for watching videos and listening to music, for browsing the web and playing novelty games.

Netbooks and laptops are perfectly fine for learning basic programming and to mess around with but herein lies a problem. If little Johnny wants to try Linux out for the first time it is likely his parents will tell him not to bother because if it all goes wrong then they might not know how to fix the issue and that means getting PC World to fix the computer. £200+ is a lot of money to be turned into a door stop by an experiment attempted by an eager 11 year old.

Lets face it, it is more than likely that an 11 year old will screw up and may need help along the way. Do you want that 11 year old experimenting on a £400 laptop or on a computer that costs £35?

The other peripherals will still work even if little Johnny accidentally steps on the Raspberry PI rendering it useless. Another £35 and little Johnny is ready to go again.

The great thing about the Raspberry PI is that even if little Johnny messes up the operating system it is just one format of a memory card from being back to its original state.

The Raspberry PI is the Sinclair Spectrum of the 21st Century giving another generation of budding computer enthusiasts and potential programmers the chance to experiment without their parents looking over their shoulders for fear of their child rendering the family laptop useless, losing all the precious photos and the presentation that dad spent days writing.

£35. That is a real bargain. That is less than the average hourly rate of good programmers.

The 512mb of memory should not be seen as a drawback either. It should be seen as a plus point. The Sinclair Spectrum that I was given boasted 128k of memory and that was huge compared with the 16k and 48k models that came before it.

When you have less resources to deal with you learn to manage it better, you learn better programming techniques and you learn to work within the boundaries that you have been given.

So why all the hype?

The Raspberry PI has clearly exceeded the expectations of the inventors. It has caught the imagination of so many people. Why is this?

I cannot answer this question with any certainty but I can only give the reasons why I wanted one so much.

The Raspberry PI is a great toy. The hardware is the same on every model which means I can develop software for the Raspberry PI specifically and know it will work on each and every one. I can also use the Raspberry PI for so many different purposes. For instance I can install emulators on it and use it to run old Megadrive and SNES games. The one thing I know is that no matter how much I play with it I cannot mess it up. If it all goes wrong I just put the image of the operating system back onto the SD card and start again.

Thankyou for reading.

About the Author

Gary Newell started the Everyday Linux User blog in 2010 and has written reviews on dozens of different Linux based operating systems. He has also written a number of tutorials.

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14 comments:

  1. The new RaspberryPi is 512 RAM not 256

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right. I've updated the article accordingly

      Delete
  2. To be honest I don't see the point here. If kids want a platform to mess arround without cause a crash in a more complex system why not try Linux in a virtual machine? I think much of Raspberry PI hype is due to its ARM processor very low energy consumption.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whilst virtual machines are an option I do think a dedicated computer like a Raspberry PI is a much safer way to experiment.

      The truth is the Raspberry PI is now being used for much more than a kids learning aid. It is being used for all sorts of purposes. Just Google uses for a Raspberry PI and you will some excellent suggestions

      Delete
  3. Just bought one. I have enclosed it in a "Built-to-Spec" case , which was challenging for my clumsy fingers in itself, but cool anyway. My Pi's first job is to run internet content on a large tv. If satisfactory, I will buy another for some projects, perhaps with an arduino board. This is an inexpensive way for an old guy to "tinker".

    13CROSSBONES

    I would like to see some projects and ideas posted.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Pi folks have done all the right moves on the PR front, on the free/libre software front, on openess and community involvement. The recent surprise of more RAM at the same price is just the cherry on the sundae.
    I just bought a phone cover (because who would ever think that a glass phone in pants pocket could ever be a problem? I miss the clam phones) this week and it cost the same price as a Pi. So for many of us, the price isnt a big deal. But to many families barely making ends meet, it is a godsend.

    But all that is secondary to me. The success of the program isnt how many Pi's they sell but how many kids they can interest in computers. Remember, the older generation among us who read a site like this have all different experience with computers that the average 10yr old has.
    No doubt, children are more experienced with various UI's of computers, tablets and smartphones but as we are moving away from the desktop paradigm, less and less families have the 'let's bring the box to the store and upgrade the ram or videocard,etc' experience. More kids now are unavare of whats in a computer from a dozen years ago. The innards of a computer are an afterthought.
    There will alway be a certain profile that will be interested in how things work but I think this project's educational mission can reach a much wider net of young people who might not have ever thought of computer hardware or software.

    Problem is schools arent equipped for this mission. Schools boards everywhere are cutting in programs and the teachers arent equipped for this mission (schools wever visited this year have either some insane amount spend on Macs because of the more$$=better quality beliefs of the 30 desktops in one HOT room because IT departments love hardware and running a whole class on 3-4 servers with thin clients means less buying power is given them.
    KP

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. School computing is shocking. My son's school still using Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6. Scary

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  5. (contd)

    Having a cool science teacher in grade 5-6 who knows Linux and similar stuff is great for kids in that class but it doesnt transfer well over a whole school board where not everyone has a resident computer geek teacher like Mr.Podgson.
    What the Pi educational program has to be able to do is have a 12,18,24 months curriculum set up for the Pi where a fairly intelligent teacher with minimal computer skills could follow directions and lecture plans to help kids get started.
    Then a series of online, interactive lessons that use video examples and graphics that the students could follow week to week.
    By making this a learning process that doesnt demand expert supervision, it becomes doable by any school (minus the cost of the Pi hardware)
    Heck, Id donate to the local school 3 Pi's for a just a 100$ under the condition that it doenst simply become a surfing station (heck, even that is a nice gift for a school to receive). A curriculum would encourage people to donate Pi's.
    But more importantly, this program can also be used to interest kids whose schools dont have Pi's.
    Its nice when a geek like myself can buy his nephews Pi's and teach them the basics of programming. But what about the kid whose parents and family dont know computers?
    He saves his money and buys a 35$ Pi and then what?
    A school program that can be ported to individual kids at home who may be supervised but zero help from adults is once again THE key.
    Little Bobby should be able to sit at the Pi. Put in the SD card he bought for 8$ bucks thats running Linux A and he too should be taken care of for the next year with a series of lessons, seminars, labs, and experiments both online and offline. (I am kind of wary about 10yr olds on forums with adults but supervision when online should be constant for minors anyways... always in an open common room with screen facing room)

    There are literally dozens of sub 100$ boards nowadays. None as low as the 25-35$ but for those that can afford it not a dealbreaker. What differentiates Pi from the rest is the educational mission it proposes.
    Which is why I think its success is utterly dependant on how it does this.

    I truly hope it does.
    How cool would it be for a child to receive a gift (worth 50% of a PS3 game) that could permit him to learn AND have fun at the same time. Lets not forget that last part.

    kushi purac

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ahhh the 48k Spectrum, I remember it well... good old days.
    young_kid + 48k_Spectrum = lots_of_fun

    ReplyDelete
  7. www.worldofspectrum.org. have fun!

    ReplyDelete
  8. You had a Spectrum? Lucky - I had to make do with a ZX81!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. do you remember the thermal printers? each page printed had the smell of burning toast

      Delete
  9. I wanted a spectrum... but i never got pass the sinclain cz16 or something like that... i will look for the damned thing now... you made me nostalgic!

    ReplyDelete

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