Getting Started With The Raspberry Pi
Getting started with the Raspberry Pi is easy, inexpensive, and quick. First time users with little computer experience can have an inexpensive, fully functional, real computer setup in a matter of minutes. This article walks you through the beginning steps of what you need, what to buy, and the basics of getting started with the Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi Overview
The Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized computer used in many of the same ways as a desktop or laptop computer. Its original design was for use as a teaching tool. With millions sold to date, it has become so much more than it was originally designed for. It uses very little power (< 3W), so it is used "off grid" more easily than conventional computers. Since it consumes less power, the Pi is also used in some places to replace computers which must run 24 hours a day.
The Raspberry Pi has basic interface connections built-in, so it is ready to go right out of the box. It also has something which most computers do not have: General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) pins like a microcontroller. This may excite some people and scare others. If GPIO pins are not something you are interested in using, do not worry. You do not have to use the GPIO unless you want to. This article will not discuss using the GPIO pins.
Detailed information about the Raspberry Pi is found on Wikipedia’s Raspberry Pi article. Read it if you are curious. However, you only need to know what I tell you below to begin getting started with the Raspberry Pi.
Before You Begin
PCs have various options for human interface devices. Laptops have everything built-in. But the Raspberry Pi requires you to use specific devices. On today’s model “B+”, in the most simple form, you will need:
- Monitor with HDMI input
- USB Mouse
- USB Keyboard
- Ethernet cable
For my tests, I used a K400r Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard with Built-In Touchpad for both my keyboard and mouse. It works flawlessly with the Raspberry Pi. None of my LCD monitors have HDMI inputs, so I used a TV instead. The Raspberry Pi requires a power supply too, which is included in some kits.
Buy the Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi Model B+ is available from many places for $35 (USD) or less. I bought the Raspberry Pi Model B+ Starter Kit for about $70 (USD). The kit is a great way of getting started with the Raspberry Pi. The starter kit includes:
- The Raspberry Pi computer
- Power supply
- Several Operating Systems (OS) to choose from are included and ready to go.
The manual in this kit is outstanding. It has an overview of all the included operating systems. It tells you how to install and configure them. It has a Linux reference. It even tells you how to get started with the Raspberry Pi GPIO ports for people who want to control things with their Pi. I strongly urge you to buy the kit and get the manual with your first Raspberry Pi.
Assemble the Raspberry Pi
In the picture above, I snapped the Raspberry Pi into the bottom of the case. After you snap the circuit board into its base, it is time to put on the top cover. There are many types of cases for the Raspberry Pi. The one that comes with the Starter Kit has a hinge joint and a snap to hold the top on. The clear case is difficult to photograph, but it looks nice on the assembled Raspberry Pi.
The SD card with the Raspberry Pi logo, included in the kit, is actually a microSD card adapter. Inside the adapter is an 8GB microSD card. Remove the microSD card from the adapter and insert it into the back side of the Raspberry Pi. The connector on the back of the Pi is a click-in, click-out type. Seen in this picture, this case has four spots for rubber feet (included with the kit) and also has keyhole slots for hanging it on a wall or on a piece of equipment.
Setup the Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi Starter Kit’s microSD card contains a program called ‘NOOBS‘. NOOBS helps you set up your Operating System (OS). Using NOOBS is about as easy as getting a soda from a vending machine. NOOBS offers a selection of free Operating Systems to install. The really neat thing is that the installers are already available on the microSD card. The hard work has been done for you!
Power on the Raspberry Pi for the first time. After a minute or so, NOOBS comes up on your monitor. Now you are ready to choose which OS to install. I suggest you start with Raspbian. Raspbian is the mainstream OS for Raspberry Pi. In my opinion, it is good to stay with the mainstream distribution until you know what you are doing. This makes it easier to find help and get support. Besides that, Raspbian is nice and intuitive to use. Click the box next to Raspbian. At the top of your screen, click the Install button to load the OS.
But what if I change my mind? When I was getting started with the Raspberry Pi, I read the manual and all of the on screen information. Even then, I was hesitant to click the Install button the very first time. The great news is that NOOBS stays resident on your microSD card even after you install an OS. When you boot up your Pi, you can hold down the Shift key on your keyboard to get back into this screen to change or add an OS later.
After you click the Install button, NOOBs automatically expands and installs the chosen OS onto your microSD card. Then your Raspberry Pi boots up for the first time. This whole process takes a few minutes. At certain times, you will see a great deal of text scrolling on your monitor. This information can usually be ignored. It is mostly useful as a gauge to see that something is happening on your Pi.
Using your Raspberry Pi
When your Raspberry Pi boots, you see an LXDE desktop session. It looks similar to what you may know from Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX, or other Linux (X11) graphical desktop environments. You will probably find the desktop works just like you expect it to. LXDE is built to be easy, light weight, and fast. Most desktop actions are quite snappy, even on this tiny, low power computer.
Double click icons on the desktop to launch the programs. There is also a menu system in the bottom left corner of the screen where you can find other programs, set system preferences, and even Logout of you Raspberry Pi when you are finished. Feel free to poke around the menu system. Make sure to try the different web browsers under the Internet category. There is an application called the Pi Store with lots of goodies you can download too.
So there you have it. Getting started with the Raspberry Pi is really easy. Go buy one now to start learning and having fun with it!