REVIEW: Raspberry Pi 2

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When the original Raspberry Pi was first announced, its creators spoke of how they wanted to recreate the bedroom coding culture of the 1980s – whereby individuals coding alone could learn to code with ease, and possibly even create the Next Big Thing.

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On this score then, the Pi has been an undoubted success as it puts into your hands a computer that you’re unafraid to tinker with. The Pi 2, like the original Pi, is tiny – about the size of a credit card. It runs off of Micro SD cards, meaning that if you mess up your coding project, you can switch out for a fresh memory card and within minutes be starting afresh, with no risk to all of your important documents on your proper computer.

Even the hardware feels as though it’d be okay to mess around with: in a worst case scenario you wouldn’t be breaking a computer worth several hundred pounds – merely an easily replaceable £25 machine.

And this gives you the exact confidence you need if you’re like me: A moderately nerdy person, but something of a novice when it comes to Linux and the command line.

What’s new with Raspberry Pi 2?

So what’s different in the new hardware? Essentially, the Raspberry Pi 2 is a supercharged version of the first unit – running a quadcore 900mhz processor, which makes it about six times as fast as the original. RAM has been doubled too – and the number of USB ports has been helpfully boosted up to 4. There has also been a switch from SD cards to MicroSD cards, to keep the device footprint down.

What the speed boost means in real terms is that the Pi can process a lot more data, a lot faster: boot-up times for Raspbian are now lightning fast (it had nearly done by the time my monitor had switched on), and it is much better at number crunching – the best demo of which I saw the launch event, where a series of complex sums to approximate the value of pi (geddit?) took six seconds in the Pi 2, compared to 40+ seconds on the Pi 1. (And get this – the maths was being performed inside Minecraft…).

Getting started

Execution wise, the Raspberry Pi 2 is basically identical to the first device. Brilliantly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation have made it super easy to get an operating system up and running – all you have to do is download something called “NOOBS” (standing for “New Out Of Box Software”) from the foundation website, whack it on an SD card, and plug it into your Pi along with a keyboard, mouse and ethernet cable – and the Pi will start the OS installation software, where you can choose what OS you want to install.

Brilliantly, there’s no need to “burn” Noobs to make it bootable – you can simply drag and drop the files.

What’s cool about NOOBS is the number of options for OS. You can opt for the traditional Raspbian Linux installation, or if you want to build a media PC, install XBMC directly. Amusingly you can even choose to install RISC OS, which you might remember ran on the Acorn computers you probably had in school. I went for Raspbian.

Community

After about ten minutes the installation was done and Raspbian was mine to play with. There’s so much you can do with a Raspberry Pi, but I thought the best place to start might be to try and turn it into a home web server – so I can mess about with some HTML and PHP, without worrying about breaking anything on the web.

Now, I’ve no idea how to install a web server, but the brilliant thing about RP is that there is a gigantic community of users to offer advice – so you can Google for pretty much how to do anything with the Pi, and someone will have written a helpful tutorial, outlining the exact commands you’ll need to make it happen.

You’ll need this community support too, as Raspbian does not come with everything on a plate. Even making files shareable over a network requires the installation of some extra packages.

Conclusions

So is the Raspberry Pi worth picking up? Unequivocally yes – for £25 you really cannot go wrong. Sure, it’ll probably be frustrating and you might have to start over a number of times, but that’s part of the fun. The possibilities for what you can do are pretty much endless. Perhaps don’t expect to use the Pi as your main computer (unless you’re very brave), but for something to mess around with, it cannot be beaten.

James O’Malley