Raspberry Pi!

I have to admit I’m getting really excited waiting for this┬áto be released…

This pic from the official site, not taken or owned by me... if there's a problem with me using it, let me know and I'll take it down!

It’s a tiny little credit card sized computer, designed for teaching kids programming. Despite not being a kid (well, not physically anyway) and already knowing how to program, I want one.

Or several… they’re only going to cost 25USD for the basic Model A or 35USD for the slightly more powerful Model B. But despite the ridiculously small size and price they are capable of playing full HD video, which is more than my netbook can manage. This is made possible by the fact that the Raspberry Pi is using a mobile phone processor rather than a normal PC processor. (The main processor core, an ARM11, is very similar to the chip in my HTC Wildfire, but the one in the Pi runs a bit faster and is coupled with a very powerful graphics processor to handle video decoding and 3D acceleration).

The idea of it, a simple little machine that plugs into a TV and is easy to write your own programs for, takes me back to the old home computers of the 80s and early 90s that I first learned to code on. I did most of my learning on a ZX Spectrum +3, which is probably still in the wardrobe somewhere along with a BBC Micro Model B+ that I acquired a bit later. They were laughably primitive machines by any sort of modern standard, but I miss the simplicity and accessibility of them. You could turn them on and immediately start writing a program, and if you were curious there was plenty of information out there that would let you learn how the machine worked inside out.

The Raspberry Pi won’t be quite the same as that. It will still run a modern operating system (some form of Linux; Windows won’t play well on hardware like this) and elements of it, especially the graphics chip, will be too complex for most people to learn fully. But it seems like it will be a fairly large step in that direction. The Model A and Model B naming, in fact, is a nod to the first two versions of the old BBC Micro.

Normally when I want something like this, I’d probably buy one eventually, but have nagging doubts at the back of my mind. “You’re already working with computers all day”, they would say. “Why do you want to spend your free time hunched in front of a screen playing with code as well when you could be enjoying so many of life’s other rich pleasures instead?”. “But I want toooo… it’s fuuuun….”, another voice would argue back in the tone of a whining five-year-old.

This time, though, I’ve neatly side-stepped that whole dilemma by offering to supervise a project at work involving Raspberry Pis. So I can legitimately play with, um, create something valuable and useful with them in work time and even get paid to do it. Yay!

Can’t wait for the release date… which is hopefully January 2012 :). Next problem is how to actually get hold of one… seems I’m far from the only person to be disproportionately excited about this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the first batch sells out pretty quickly.

Helvetica II: Vengeance

… actually, not really Vengeance. I already put the RAM in.

Last week we had to leave Helvetica without a processor when it turned out we had the wrong one. It was a bit of a disappointment having to go home again without seeing it start up and work… but anyway, one fairly quick Amazon exchange later and we were ready to have another go.

Gavin unwraps the replacement CPU while Alex looks on. A nearby tiger is so overwhelmed by the awesome power of this machine that it deflates on the spot.

This time, it fits!

Building the “Arctic Freezer” cooler.

Surely in the arctic you don’t need a freezer? They clearly haven’t thought this naming through.

We cannibalised the BluRay drive from Gavin’s old, much dustier looking PC. Sorry Inara!

The moment of truth. Installing Helvetica in its home under the desk. Will it work??


Gavin had to prepare for a job interview the next day so he didn’t have time to install Windows and we had to content ourselves with seeing the BIOS setup screen for the moment. That was probably just as well as after a busy few days in York and here, I really needed to get home and sleep!

Building Helvetica

I work with computers all the time, but usually just on the programming side… I don’t often get to mess around with hardware much. Especially not since I switched to laptops for my personal machine about 5 years ago… much less potential for fiddling about inside. (I used to do a lot more. My first PC lasted me coming up for 10 years but during that time almost every component was replaced and upgraded at least once. In the end literally the only original parts left were the case and the keyboard. I’d probably still be using it now if I hadn’t decided I wanted something portable instead).

So when Gavin asked me to help him assemble all the bits for his new video editing computer, I was actually quite excited.

Why “Helvetica” you may ask? Isn’t that a font? Well yes, but it’s also this…

The Helvetica Scenario

…which is way cooler and more bonkers. (If you’ve never seen “Look Around You” before, you should check it out because you’re in for a treat… it’s one of the most awesome things ever).

The parts all arrived speedily from Amazon, so Alex and I took a trip through to Glasgow last night. There, being careful to ensure there was no possibility of the Queen Atom leaving the nest, we set about putting it together.

I love the over-the-top, way too exciting names they give all this stuff. “Alpine”, “Freezer”, “Sabertooth”…

… but the name of the RAM has to be the best of the lot.

(I’m not very sure that “vengeance” is really what I want from the memory in my computer. I think I’d prefer it just to be solid and dependable, so if it was up to me I’d probably name it “Mahogany” or “Concrete” or something. This is probably why I don’t work in marketing).

The case looked very empty apart from the bundle of front panel connectors inside, and the rear cooling fan.

The power supply was the first thing to go in. I love the big fans, they’re so cool. Some people think they suck, but in my opinion they do the opposite ;).

The motherboard was the hardest thing to install. But after a bit of cajoling, it was in place.

Always use an anti-static wrist strap.

And then we hit the problem. We knew there’d be one. There always is when you try and plug a load of separate bits together. We just hoped it would be something more minor than this, like maybe a missing screw or, oh, we forgot to buy thermal paste.

Little processor, big socket. Oops.

We learned too late that not all Core i7 chips will fit on all motherboards that say they support Core i7 chips. So Gavin looked up Amazon’s returns policy…

… while I got on with installing the RAM, hard drive and graphics card. That was as far as we could get today.

To be continued…