Raspberry Pi: Review
Our discovery of the Raspberry Pi came about from a specific need we had to solve. In February we exhibited at the TFM&A in London, and were faced with the task of running multiple different videos on multiple different screens simultaneously. Supplying a laptop or iPad for every different video would prove bulky and expensive, and so we started looking into alternative solutions – which is how we came across the Raspberry Pi.
The Raspberry Pi is a low-cost credit card-sized computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, created with the intention of aiding the teaching of basic computer science to school, college and university students. It can be adapted to perform a variety of different tasks, including to play 1080p HD videos.
There are two different models available of the Raspberry Pi: A and B. A is priced at £16 and comes with 256 MB of ram and no Ethernet port. Model B comes with 512 MB ram and an Ethernet port and is £26. In this review we will be focusing on the second model, B.
What does it do?
The Raspberry Pi is a small pre-built circuit board which, when connected with a few cables and peripherals (HDMI, power, and keyboard), and then to an HDMI television screen or monitor, becomes a basic computer that enables you to perform a whole host of tasks. One of its big features, and the one that interested us, is the ability to play full HD 1080p videos, which it can play through a television using an HDMI or standard AV video connection. There is also an auxillary cable that enables the Pi to play sound alongside the visual. The Raspberry Pi has other inputs too, including two USB slots, an Ethernet port, 3.5 mm and GPIO outputs that users can control from within its Linux software.
Setting Up the Raspberry Pi
If you’re tech-savvy then the setup of the Raspberry Pi is a fairly simple process to follow. However, if you’re new to computers or have never had any experience with setting one up, then you may find it slightly trickier. There is a straightforward guide to follow on the Raspberry Pi website tailored to beginners.
To start off with you’ll have a small circuit board, which is the Raspberry Pi itself. You need a couple of cables to run the Pi, which can either be sourced separately by the user or purchased in a starter pack bundle from the distributor. These cables are:
• Power cable (which has the same port as a BlackBerry charger)
• HDMI cable
You will also need an SD memory card to manage software and media on the Pi, and a USB-powered keyboard to control the Pi.
Raspberry Pis run on the Linux operating system, which is very basic and can be downloaded from the Raspberry Pi website. The default version of this OS is Wheezy.
Once I’d downloaded the software, it had to be transferred onto the SD card the Pi runs from. Unfortunately, this isn’t as straightforward as drag-and-drop. Files cannot be directly transferred to the memory card which holds the system directly due to the way it gets formatted when Raspmbc is installed. To transfer a file you need to use a file transfer protocol; details of how to do this are available on the Raspberry Pi website, but it can be achieved using software called ‘Windows Disk Imager’ for Windows, or ‘Terminal’ for Mac.
After some time testing the Raspberry Pi system with the default system Wheezy, I decided to install the user-created software Raspbmc. Raspbmc is a media player-based operating system that can do a whole host of tasks including playing videos, mp3s and even live TV via the web. Installing it took about 20 minutes in total from start to finish and most of that was the time it took to download the software onto the Pi, so there could be an improvement with a faster internet connection.
The standard way to play an mp3 or HD video from this OS is with an add-on called Omxplayer. However, I found installing this a complicated process to follow and I wouldn’t advise trying to install it unless you have some programming knowledge. An alternative method is detailed under ‘Playing HD Video’ below.
Once set up, the Raspberry Pi can be connected to a television or monitor by a standard HDMI connector. If you do not have a HDMI monitor and only have a VGA connection, you can buy a HDMI to VGA converter for about £15. The Pi is turned on by a simple on/off switch and has a speedy startup time. Once on, the software is controlled by simply using a USB keyboard. It’s worth noting that the keyboard must be plugged in to the Pi before the device is switched on, as it won’t pick the input up if it is inserted afterwards.
You can also play audio from the Pi using a standard auxillary cable. The volume can be adjusted via the Pi itself, but from our experience the output doesn’t go particularly loud. A basic audio amplifier connector such as this one sorts that problem out though.
Setting up a Raspberry Pi isn’t as simple as just plug in and go, but there is a step-by-step guide on the website and you don’t have to be a technical genius to get the device up and running. There’s a forum available that can prove useful for discussing issues with other users, and I would also suggest visiting YouTube tips and advice. It’s a shame there are no dedicated support channels to go through, but as the Raspberry Pi is intended to be used for experimentation, this is probably understandable.
Playing HD Video from the Raspberry Pi
When I received our first Raspberry Pi I was venturing into the unknown, so I just followed the instructions on the Raspberry Pi website that outlined standard setup procedure. This involved installing the default system version Wheezy. However, I wanted to use the Raspberry Pi as a media centre from which I could play videos on a loop, which Wheezy was unable to do. After consideration I decided to go with the user-created ‘Raspbmc’ instead, which replaces Wheezy as a different version using the Linux OS. This was largely down to Raspbmc’s easy-to-use layout. Using this system would enable me to create a media centre that could play videos, pictures, mp3s and other media. This was simple to install and can be downloaded for free from the software’s website (raspbmc.com), which also provides clear installation instructions.
Before I installed Raspbmc I decided to buy another SD card to back up the initial installation just in case something went wrong and I needed to go back to my previous installation of Wheezy. The good thing about running everything off an SD card is that if I did decide to switch back to my backed up installation, all I’d have to do is swap memory cards around. Nice and easy.
Once installed, Raspbmc is very easy to use and we used this technology at the TFM&A event in London this February. We had several separate Pis powering several different monitor screens. To do this, we stored the different videos on different memory cards for each Raspberry Pi.
If you want to use your Raspberry Pi simply as a media centre then I’d recommend installing Raspbmc. However if you want to e.g. surf the web or play games, I would suggest installing Wheezy.
What’s right about it?
The Raspberry Pi is around 90% cheaper than a laptop and considerably smaller and lighter, making it ideal for playing video content and other media. The Raspberry Pi is very efficient and will easily play the full HD videos at ease with little or no heat given off from its tiny processor.
Whilst testing the Raspberry Pi I discovered that the Raspbmc software can be controlled from other devices such as an internet-enabled smart phone or PC, rather than by peripherals connected to the Pi. This can be done by accessing the system via the IP address when the Pi is hooked up to to an internet connection via its Ethernet port. Simply obtain the IP address of the Pi from Main Menu > Settings > System Info, and then navigate to this IP address in the web browser of your phone, tablet or PC. A remote control screen should appear on your device, which will give you the ability to control your Pi just like a remote control would. Using this method when running Raspbmc allows you to control all options, including skipping tracks, changing volume or changing the video on screen.
What’s wrong about it?
There are some negative points about the Raspberry Pi, but the positives far outnumber them. It lags a little bit and is nowhere near as powerful as a normal computer, as it only has a very small processor. However, for its extremely low price it will happily play full HD videos seamlessly, and for a computer the size of a credit card it performs very well.
The other thing to watch out for is that the basic Raspberry Pi doesn’t include any cables or a case – it’s literally just a circuit board for the computer to be built around it. This isn’t a huge issue, as you can buy the Pi with a case and cables included as a bundle from most distributors.
The one thing that really does let down this great piece of technology is that there is no customer service from the developers; the extensive forums help to compensate for this, but it would be nice to have an official source to talk to.
Should I buy it?
The possibilities for the Raspberry Pi are endless. Ideas on the website forum range from using it to develop a CCTV system to building a remote controlled helicopter. We could speculate for days on the different opportunities the device presents for businesses, but the beauty of the Raspberry Pi is that its designed for users to be creative. And there is an entire community being built up around this concept.
Raspberry Pi is a registered charity and the Raspberry Pi is extremely reasonably priced for what it can do. Even if you’re just using the Pi as a media centre like we did, the device is a very cheap alternative to larger laptops and could solve a multitude of problems for business users. We’ve used our Raspberry Pis to play videos many times since the event and I would definitely recommend them as a more practical alternative to laptops.
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