It’s not something delicious to eat as its name suggests. Raspberry Pi is a low-cost computer aimed primarily at students as an educative tool. But it has several other uses too, says Geeta Padmanabhan about the small wonder

Apple appeared first. Then came Apricot, Blackberry, Tangerine... setting the trend of naming digital devices after fruits. So when a foundation supported by Cambridge University's computer lab and tech firm Broadcom planned to make and market a low-priced computer, they chose “Raspberry” for themselves and Raspberry Pi (short for Python) for their product.

Special interest

With CBSE going Python on its computer syllabus, Raspberry Pi (RP) is of special interest to us. At $35, RP's Model B has a low price tag, made possible because Raspberry Foundation has a “charitable” status and RP's aim, according to Eben Upton, teacher, system-on-chip architect and co-founder of the project, was “to promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing.” Children would use Scratch for programming, and control external devices with input/output.

RP is a small wonder. Just the size of a large credit card, it has coloured cables spouting off its sides. At 45 gm, it is so light it can be lifted off with a chunky HDMI cable. Without a case, it bares its innards, giving you the opportunity to place it in a transparent plastic box, an opaque multi-coloured one, a chocolate tin, a regular computer case — the choice is yours.

At its heart is a Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-a-chip (SoC) running at 700MHz. This relies on an ARM11 processor, which means RP won’t run x86 operating systems, whether Windows or Ubuntu. Instead, it operates on specially adapted versions of Debian or Fedora Linux. Noobs (New-Out-of-the-Box-Software), a compressed zip file that can be downloaded to an SD card, offers a choice of operating systems such as RaspBMC, ArchLInux, OpenELEC and Pidora. RaspBMC, a special version of XBMC, supports DNLA, AirPlay and 1080p video playback.

The processor

Where is its processor? Beneath the 256MB Hynix memory chip in the middle of the board. Sure, RP is not a processing powerhouse, but makers claim its “real-world performance is something like a 300MHz Pentium II”, with excellent graphics. RP may shut down when you open three or four browser tabs, but in tests using Debian distro, the VideoCore IV-GPU churned out near-flawless full-HD video. It played Quake-III at 1280x1024 with maximum textures at a decent 40fps.

Push a USB drive in, turn on Samba file-sharing in its Fedora Remix and voilà!, you get a network storage device. Just stick it on your home network, grab music, video or documents — anything else too big to fit on your notebook, tablet or smartphone. Share your data over the Internet using compact web-servers like Abyss or NGinx or set up a secure file-repository using SSH (Secure Shell). If you dread keeping data in Dropbox or Google Docs, this is how you join the cloud-computing revolution.

If you have a VNC (Virtual-Network-computing) Viewer app on your work PC, plug a Raspberry Pi into your widescreen TV. With paired-up Bluetooth mouse and keyboard you can work from your living room sofa. Can't do it? Use the set-up for apps and games. Or run VNC on RP to take control of your home computer from elsewhere in the house. Once FreeSwitch is integrated with RP, you can give your callers a menu of options — “Press 1 to leave a message, press 2 for my mobile, press 3 to know what I think of trade calls...” RP is capable of running the software. Nerds are trying out specialist distros that can be attached to RP and metamorphose it into a mini office machine, a social-media powerhouse, or even a retro-gaming arcade. RP is a low power-consumer, so, this mini-avatar can be fitted in battery-powered robots.

Since it went on sale in February 2012, more than a million RPs have been sold, and put to heart-warming uses. It now helps control a self-piloting robot-boat across the Atlantic Ocean, on BBC's Springwatch show it counted birds going in and out of bird-boxes and correlating this with temperature, in Kenya it powers cameras that help park-rangers move quickly to catch poachers hunting rhino horns. Of course, children have used it for “working” models.

RP is not a substitute for a PC. It is an educational tool, meant to empower GenNext. You could get one, tinker with it, and write a book titled Life of (Raspberry) Pi.