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By Ron Scopelliti
For most of us, computers are an integral part of our lives – a hub for our documents, bookkeeping, photos, communications tools, banking, etc. But sometimes I long for 1980, when a personal computer was a thing that weird hobbyists played with for no better reason than to see what it could do. In those days, if you wanted new software, you often made it up yourself, or typed it in from an issue of Creative Computing magazine. And if you wanted your computer to make sound, you bought a speaker and an amplifier kit from Radio Shack, and broke out the soldering iron. Well, thanks to my purchase of a CanaKit Raspberry Pi Starter Kit, it’s 1980 all over again, only better.
A Raspberry Pi is a simple computer built on a single circuit board that’s a little bigger than a credit card. Instead of a hard drive, the Pi uses a Micro SD memory card as its boot-up and storage device. Though it was developed in 2012 as a learning tool for young programmers, it has since become a hit not only with young learners, but with experimenters, artists, and hobbyists looking to dig into the blood and guts of hardware, operating systems, and programming.
Since the basic card only costs $35, it’s a great device if you want to experiment with coding, interfacing, and internet-of-things projects, without worrying about compromising your personal information or losing valuable data. If you mess up your operating system, you download a new one for free. If you completely fry your computer, it’ll cost you $35 to replace it.
CanaKit product I chose comes with the latest Raspberry Pi 3 card, which features built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, as well as four USB ports. The kit also includes a plastic case, an HDMI cable, a set of heat sinks, and a 2.5 amp power supply. Possibly the best feature of the kit is a 32 Gigabyte Micro SD card, preloaded with NOOBS, a system that guides you through the initial boot-up of the computer, and helps you install the operating system of your choice.
The kit cost $75, which I thought was justified, given the cost of ordering all the components separately, and the foolproof convenience of getting the pre-loaded software on the card. My decision was further justified when I discovered how sturdy and well-fitted the case was, and how quickly the whole system went together. It took about 15 minutes to go from a box of parts to a functioning computer.
The vital parts that aren’t included in the kit are a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. I had at least one of each hanging around, but if you’re lacking these types of spares, you can use any HDMI television as a monitor, and Logitech’s k400 keyboard/touchpad combo will serve your input needs nicely for $19.99
The kit’s SD card comes loaded with a variety of different operating systems. I chose the latest version of Raspbian – a Linux-based system that has an easy-to-use Graphic User Interface, but also allows you to switch easily into terminal mode to enter line commands, just like we use to do in the golden age of DOS and CP/M.
To my surprise, the card also included Libre Office, an open-source office suite, a version of Minecraft, and a web browser. But I was most interested in the programming tools. The system includes development environments for the Python, Java, and Wolfram programming languages.
There is also a programming language for the youngest of computer users – Scratch. Developed at MIT, Scratch allows kids to write programs that manipulate cartoon creatures, using a graphic interface that cleverly introduces them to basic programming concepts. Even if you’re not a kid, it’s hard to resist messing around with Scratch, and it strikes me as a great way for people who are intimidated by programming to alleviate their anxiety.
Though there’s not much to CanaKit’s quick start guide, part of the Raspberry Pi experience is interacting with the community – going to the official raspberrypi.org website and to other online forums to see what other Pi users are doing, and how they solved the problems that you may be running into.
So far I’ve started playing around writing simple Python programs, and making them executable through Linux line commands. I haven’t yet started any physical computing projects, but the Pi’s set of General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) pins is designed to facilitate that sort of thing.
While there are other kits that are more complete or more kid-friendly, the CanaKit offers a good balance of price, convenience, and quality for anyone from a pre-teen looking to learn more about computers to an older hobbyist looking to get up-and-running quickly. The kit is readily available online, but if you want to get truly nerdy, I’d suggest a trip to MicroCenter in Cambridge where you can easily pick up any extras you need, and revel in the atmosphere of one of the few remaining big-box computer stores – I love the smell of circuit boards in the morning.