ARMing For the Future

singleboard_computers
Image taken from edn.com

For some time now I’ve been itching to get my hands on a Raspberry Pi single-board computer. Unfortunately, retailers like Saturn and MediaMarkt would shrug my inquiries off with a “we’re expecting them soon”. To my dismay the “soon” seemed like it would never come. Surprising, since the computer geek culture is constantly expanding and the demand is definitely there. Finally, after months of waiting, the Pi arrived to Austria. I quickly armed myself (pun intended) with a RPi 3 model B, a Pi-compatible power supply (5.1 V, 2.5 A) and a mate black case. The rest I already had since I collect various adapters, SD cards, etc. as a hobby. Always handy, it seems. Without further ado, though!

Get your geek on!

Contrary to my expectations, getting a Linux distribution to boot on the Pi was a bit of a hustle. Raspberry Pis don’t have a typical BIOS like laptops or desktop PCs. The firmware is extremely minimal, enough to control the on-board LEDs, hardware monitors and swiftly proceed to booting from a flash drive (SD card, USB stick), or a hard drive. Therefore, one doesn’t actually install a Linux distribution on the Pi. Rather, it’s required to *dump it* onto a disk and plug that disk into a port on the Pi to get it working. There is a fine selection of dedicated distributions out there already – Raspbian, FedBerry, etc. Major projects like FreeBSD, OpenBSD, openSUSE, Fedora and Debian provide ARM-compliant images as well. It’s just a matter of downloading an image, putting it onto an SD card (8-16GB in size, preferably) and we’re ready to go.

Pushing the limits

Not everything is as smooth as it may sound, however. Some of the distributions like FedBerry suggest desktop environments and utilities that are clearly too much for the Pi to handle. Even the top-of-the-line Pi 3 model B is not strong enough to run Firefox smoothly. Part of the problem is the GUI-heavy trend in software design, the other part being the still evolving design of the Pi. At the moment we’re at 1 GB RAM. That’s quite modest per today’s standards. With increasing hardware needs, more care should be taken in regards to the board itself also. Both the CPU and GPU will quickly overheat without at least a basic heat sink. I like ideas such as this, which try to provide the extra add-ons to turn a Raspberry Pi into a full-blown computer. Personally, I use minimalist tools such as Vim/Emacs, Openbox, Dillo so the limitations aren’t really there for me.

IoT for the future!

Truth be told, ARM-powered devices are everywhere. Though it’s a resurrected platform, people have not forgotten about the merits of RISC. Raspberry Pi is not the only Pi, nor is it the only single-board computer worth attention. With such an overabundance of almost-open-source hardware, one can do anything. Pi Zero computing cluster? Check. Watering device sensitive to solar light intensity? Check. Minecraft server? Check. NAS for the whole family? Check. It’s there, it’s cheap, it just needs a bit of geek – namely you!

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2 thoughts on “ARMing For the Future

  1. Oh, man, I love the Raspberry Pi 3 (and the Pi Zero W). I frequently write about them, work up projects and give talks at the monthly SanDiego.js meetup.

    I’m working up an FM transmitter, one to monitor a closed ecosystem, one to control a tank and a second to drive it, there’s one inside my 3D printer (and I plan some mods to that), I’m working on a wearable re-breather for the desert with one as a control circuit, I’m doing some 3D design in Autodesk Fusion 360 today to build a chassis for a Pi-based supercomputer as well.

    Note that you can VNC and SSH into your Pi, even when headless.

    The board runs about 95 degrees Fahrenheit when it’s working hard, I wouldn’t necessarily call that overheating, to be honest. (I recently ran a program with the Astro Pi Hat that displayed the temperature while placing it on the air conditioner vent to monitor the ramp-up and ramp-down heat transfer and build-up.)

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    • Thank you for the comment. That’s quite some interesting things you use your Pi for :).

      I was aware that one can run a Pi in headless mode via SSH, but I wanted to test its capabilities as a desktop computer explicitly.

      The matter of heat resistance of the Broadcom ARM processor is somewhat debatable, I think. According to the official statement from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, as long as the Pi is used per standard expectations, overheating should be a non-issue. However, in case of concern, one can always mount heatsinks onto the GPU and CPU, just in case :). They’re relatively inexpensive.

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