My Own Little Slice of Pi
So I got a new
toy tool a few days ago. Actually, a couple of them, and the first precipitated the second. You see, I acquired a new keyboard. The keyboard I had was … less than awesome. Keys were pressed, strokes registered, but it all felt … well, lackluster is putting it tactfully. The keystrokes were short, the action blunted, the sound muffled. It felt as though I was trying to type through sand. I was always pulled out of what I was doing to make sure I was still doing it. Yes, those are my fingers pounding plodding away. Gosh, I sure hope those electrons know where to go.
Anyway, it was … uncomfortable. Not a state in which to try to write. Enter Das Keyboard. It’s a little spendy- okay, it’s more than a little spendy. At $160, it’s more expensive than the second acquisition, but the keys are a dream. It utilizes mechanical keys. They have substance. They have haptic response! They strike like the very hammer of Thor! (Also, it’s Germish. (Is it German? Not really, but it’s kinda like German: it’s Germ-ish.) Actually, it’s made in China and sold by a company in Texas.)
That last may be an exaggeration, but you do know you’re typing. You know when every key strikes home, and all the while you hear a delightful clickclickclickclick of rattling keys. Well, it’s delightful, assuming you go in for such things. I might just be weird. One “downside,” if you want to consider it such: the Das Keyboard is heavy, at something around three solid pounds. Personally, I appreciate the mass, as it means my furious digits aren’t going to scoot the thing around on my desk. That makes me happy, though it will affect the second of my new tools.
So I have my new keyboard, I’ve typed on it. I love it with all the loves. But it’s not portable, exactly. I mean, I could start carrying my laptop around again, but the things old. And heavy. And cranky. And heavy. And needs a new battery. And heavy. (Did I mention it’s heavy?) I have zero interest in deliberately increasing the mass I carry around when I leave the house to write (no’gonna happen for a while, admittedly, what with the infant in the house) or when I travel. It’s this last that is the issue. I want to take my new keyboard with me when I go places that are farrish away (road trips, flights, cons, etc.), and that requires something to do the heavy lifting of electrons in a useable format.
Enter Raspberry Pi. The RPi, as it’s known among aficionados, is a single board computer designed in Great Britain as an educational tool to enable school children cheap access to programming tools. The original Raspberry Pi rocked a hefty 256MB of RAM stacked on top of it’s blistering 700MHz processor. It carried no onboard storage memory (still doesn’t, in any configuration), but read from a SD card slot on the credit card sized circuit board. The power is through a 5V microUSB port, which acts as the on/off switch. That was a few years ago, and the RPi has gone through a few iterations.
My slice of Pi (I never get tired of that. Never.) is the newest version, released just last month, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B. Gone is the single core processor. Now we’ve got a quad-core 900MHz beast, with a full gigabyte of RAM, and not one, but four USB ports. The 10/100 ethernet port is still there, but we now have a microSD card slot, and the 3.5mm jack can carry video, though I’d much rather use the HDMI port for video. All in something the size of a credit card. Well, sort of. You see, the it’s got chips, and pins, and port and such. I’d say it’s the size of a deck of cards. Maybe two, depending on the case you put it in. Also, it’s still $35.
Of course, that’s for the card, without any “accessories,” like input devices, or, I dunno, a monitor. Regardless, many people have such things lying about. Heck, most televisions these days have at least two HDMI ports.
The RPi is designed to run Linux, so it’s a little different in feel than Windows or OS X, and a little more hands on. Fortunately, the RPi community is … robust. The Raspberry Pi is doing its job of providing a low cost platform in an education setting. On the other hand, it’s also used to run robotics projects. Heck, the RPi has been to space, and that’s more than I’ve done. It’s tiny, it’s light, it’s cheap, and it’s all kinda of versatile.
Why do I care, Dave, you may ask. Well, I’ve loaded mine with LibreOffice, GIMP, Icedove (the open source version of Mozilla Thunderbird), and Calibre. I can write, manipulate images, format ebooks and check my email. I can do everything I need to do on the RPi. Just as much as I can on my desktop, or tablet, but with fewer distractions. All for about $60. I splurged a bit and picked up a 2TB USB drive for external storage, but that still gives me a computer for about $150, as I had all the other parts already.
Now, a caveat. When I said it’s a little more hands-on, you may have to learn a little bit about Linux and how to navigate around the guts of the thing using the command prompt. While the GUI would mount my external drive just fine when I plugged it in, I was unable to write to it. At first. I didn’t have permission, and that took a couple of commands in a terminal window. I also had to set the RPi to send more power to the USB ports, so the drive would actually initialize. That required I dive into the /boot/config.txt file (again, from the terminal) and add a line of code. While none of this was difficult, it did require some time to find the correct commands. Not much, but some. This is not an effortless project, though I’d call it low effort.
And, right now at least, I’m dependent on my location possessing a monitor with a HDMI port. I may in the future (likely will: this thing’s fun to tinker with) pick up a smallish tablet screen so I can take this with me anywhere. I’ve also seen reports of folks running their RPi from a device battery charger, though I’m wary of that without further research. While I don’t intend my slice of Pi to replace my desktop, it’s going to see a lot of duty as a writing box. In fact, I may get another in the near future for use as a media server on my home network.
It’s astonishing. This setup is better – by leaps, if not by bounds – than the one I took to college as a freshman. And far, far more portable. I’m excited.