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.

33 thoughts on “My Own Little Slice of Pi

    1. Yeah, I saw that, and then I read an article decrying it as, basically, advertising hype. I don’t know nearly enough to comment either way. I can get by just fine using Raspbian, so that’s what I’m doing, at least until something better comes along.

      1. It is really aimed for IoT devices using Windows 10, not for pseudo-desktop use like a lot of Pi fans would try to use it.

        Honestly, i think most of this IoT thing is going to fall flat on its face.

        1. Why would I want my stuff to talk to each other? And if they can talk to each other (presumably via wireless connections) how do I then prevent them from talking to everything else in the world? I’m going to have to be convinced that IoT is going to be useful, then that it’ll be not harmful. Suppose the bathroom scale has a heart rate monitor, and then calculates (however inaccurately) BMI or “actual” body fat percentage. Then give it a wireless connection. Why wouldn’t that data end up with my insurance carrier, or Nanny Gov’t?

        2. I’m looking to switch to debian stable or something for personal use, precisely because Windows 8 was built for Microsoft’s gimmick faction, and is a little bit too terrible for me.

          10 would need to really consider the business market for me to lose my disenchantment with Windows.

          This hardware sounds like what I’ve been wanting for years.

    2. It will also run different distros of Linux, which sounds interesting. Can’t recommend Ubuntu since they changed their interface and started phoning home.

            1. 🙂 Giggle, giggle, giggle. Hmmm, ya know, there are a lot of Oriental markets in north Amarillo . . . And I’ve got to go to town soon . . .

      1. How would I stop him from punning? And why should I want to? There’s not enough pi in the world! And I am (un)fortunately untrained in battle-clowning…

  1. That’s timely. I was considering getting one as a game server for the grandkids. Minecraft, it is, now.

  2. I’ll add a second enthusiastic “heck yeah” for the Das Keyboard. I got one because 1) I need to stop looking down at the computer screen (laptop is my primary ‘puter) and 2) I learned on a manual typewriter and i still tend to pound. Read Marko Kloos’s recommendation, bought the beast and have been very happy ever since. I also really like having 10-key available. The downside is that it and the rollerball won’t fit on my desk’s keyboard tray, so the rollerball is now up on the desktop. Took a bit of getting used to but it works. Oh, yeah, and since the keys go klikity-klikity, people (and cats) know when you are working and when you . . . aren’t.

    1. If there’s one recommendation I can give to writers, it’s to get a good keyboard. Something with mechanical keys. For one, they last something like three to five times longer. Considered long-term, they’re not going to be more expensive than three or four cheaper keyboards over the same timeframe. And honestly, they’re fun to type on.

  3. I love the RPi. My wife doesn’t because it requires a larger learning curve than she’s willing to bend to, but I agree, it makes a great writing tool. I save my files to Google Drive, and when I managed to screw up my SD card, I just reburned an image onto it, and lost nothing. It takes some getting used to, and it’s got it’s quirks (I still haven’t found a browser I’m wild about), but it’s super versatile. My twelve year old is using it to play old Nintendo games, and my six year old is happy to play Minecraft on it.

    1. I actually appreciate the limitations of the browsers. The less I can distract myself with, the better focused I can be on just writing.

      1. There is that aspect… I just hate Google telling me that I’m using an old browser that doesn’t support the brand new interface that they’ve slapped on Google Drive. They’re starting to sound like Microsoft: “We’ve made changes. Real ones! You have to buy a new computer so we can show you!”

      2. It’s not all bell and whistle issues. Newer browsers have the advantage of being more standards compliant, like HTML5.

  4. Those keyboards are known as gaming keyboards, and they tend to come with a choice of four styles of keys, with varying amounts of click, travel, and firmness. They were developed for life-critical use, such as blasting the other guy in DOTA, but obviously also find use in relatively trivial pursuits such as writing.

  5. Once you start with a Pi, you end up buying more. Because you can do so many things with them – such as combination WIFi extender/NAS box (using that handy dandy 2 TB drive or a friend). I’m up to 4 now – 3 original Bs plus a Pi2 and I may buy more

    1. Oh, yes, the original ones are great for little servers, NAS, home automation, all kinds of things. And I’ll bet they get really cheap in the next six months. I picked up some for $30 just after the Pi 2 came out.

    2. This is my fear. Pi might be inexpensive, but monitors aren’t. Yes, you can hook them to a TV, but they seem to beg for a touchscreen.

      1. The extra ones you use as servers. No screen, no keyboard. Just Network and flash card and whatever you want to connect to it (e.g. web cameras, hard disk etc.)

  6. As for powering the Pi from device chargers, it’s generally not a problem. Most modern device chargers put out at least 1A of power to charge modern phones/tablets, which is more than the Pi needs (although an external drive may take a bit more power.

    I use Pis to run electronic signs at conferences, and what I do is use the USB jack on the TV/Monitor to power the Pi instead of using an external power brick. I’ve run across a couple TVs that didn’t have the ommph to do this, but it works almost all the time.

    since hotels are now far more likely to have LCD TVs with HDMI inputs, this means that a couple short cables and a long keyboard entension cable gives you a good system anywhere.

    although you do get a few odd looks carrying a real keyboard around 🙂 the good news is that the good keyboards are also durable so you don’t have to do much to protect them.

    i also spend money on good keyboards. I have an old, IBM keyboard that I prefer to use. I was told to take it home from my current job because people two rows away were complaining about how loud it was (everyone near me was fine with it 🙂

    David Lang

    1. The IBM had great keyboards. So did the early Dells. That said, I went wireless with a fairly inexpensive Logitech. It solved some issues. At home I have the extra fun of a computer I pieced together. This means old BIOS and fiddling with the settings to recognize USB keyboards. Ran into one cheap model that worked under Windows XP but not under Linux, and on the same machine.

      I agree that if you’re going to spend hours typing it’s good to get a robust keyboard that’s comfortable to use. That said, I’ve rigged supports under keyboards that were so flimsy they bowed while typing. They did the job. I can’t see myself shelling out as much as a C Note for a keyboard.

  7. I read this earlier in the day, but didn’t post a comment because I love gadgets, and if I checked the comments box, it would be like a little blinking light saying “Buy a Pi, Buy a Pi!”
    But now I have no choice, because I’ve just finished reviewing Scott J Robinson’s book “The Space Between (Tribes of the Hakahei Book 1).” EXCELLENT book, and the first of a series.
    Why put it up as a freebie, though? I’m guessing that will prompt sales of the later books in the series, but is it really that more effective than making the first book KU? Who knows the answer to that? Dorothy?

  8. It’s funny. When I first started to use my laptop, I had a hard time getting used to the tiny keys, but now, I can’t stand using big key keyboards. It just feels like my fingers will fall in between the keys.

  9. “And, right now at least, I’m dependent on my location possessing a monitor with a HDMI port”

    Or you could get an HDMI to DVI adapter.

    1. I should have more explicit: at this point, I need to ensure any place I take my RPi getup will have a monitor. In the future, I expect I’ll put one together, as small (5-14″) screens are more-or-less readily available. Screens, enclosures, adapters, all kinds of niftiness, really. It’ll be a fun project for later. When the budget allows.

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