What Is a Raspberry Pi?

The little green $35 computer explained

You've seen it on the news, your friend has one, and you're sure it's not food. You've been told, "It's a $35 computer that fits in your pocket," but you're not quite ready to believe that. So, what is a Raspberry Pi? As improbable as it may seem, the Pi is an inexpensive mini-computer, but there's more to the story.

We'll explain what this little green board is, why you might want one, and how it attracted such a huge following.

A Visual Introduction

Let's start with a picture of the most recent version, the Raspberry Pi 4.

Raspberry Pi 4B

When people tell you the Raspberry Pi is a $35 computer, they usually forget to tell that you only get the board for that headline cost. No screen, no drives, no peripherals, and no casing. That strapline is impressive, but it can cause confusion.

So What Is It?

The Raspberry Pi is a micro-computer initially designed for education. It has all the components you would see on a normal desktop PC—a processor, RAM, HDMI port, audio output, and USB ports for adding peripherals like a keyboard and mouse.

Raspberry Pi 40 pin GPIO

Alongside these recognizable components is one of the key parts of the Pi—the GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) header. This is a block of pins that let you connect your Raspberry Pi to the real world, connecting things like switches, LEDs, and sensors (and more), which you control with some simple code.

It also runs a full desktop operating system based on Debian Linux, called Raspbian. If that doesn't mean much to you, consider that Windows, Linux, and Apple OS X are all operating systems.

The PC Comparison Ends There (Maybe)

The comparison to a normal desktop PC pretty much ends there. The Raspberry Pi is a low power (5V) micro-computer. It's powered by a micro-USB power supply similar to a smartphone charger and offers computing power akin to a mobile device.

Computer Motherboard
Pasieka / Getty Images

This low power setup has always been perfect for programming and electronic projects. Still, it could feel a little sluggish as a day-to-day PC.

However, the latest Raspberry Pi 4 offers greater performance than ever before on a Raspberry Pi, and it's being marketed as a potential desktop replacement. That may not be true of all versions of the Pi. You may want at least 4 GB of RAM to take advantage of it as a desktop PC.

That said, we aren't talking about a full desktop workstation. The Pi is roughly equivalent to a mid-range Chromebook. So, if you can get by with a Chromebook as your main PC, you may be able to use a Pi as your primary desktop.

What Is It for Then?

The Pi wasn't designed to be an office PC, and it doesn't run Windows. It doesn't come in a case, and you probably won't see it replacing PCs in an office anytime soon.

The Pi is geared toward programming, electronics, and DIY projects. It was initially created to tackle the decreasing number of students with skills and interest in computer science.

Student learning to code on desktop computer at home
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However, as its popularity and visibility have increased, people of all ages and backgrounds have formed a huge community of enthusiasts that are eager to learn.

What Can I Do With It?

If you want to use your Pi to improve your coding skills, you can use one of the supported programming languages (such as Python) to create programs. That could be anything from simply printing "Hello world" on screen, up to more complex projects, like making games.

If you are interested in hardware and electronics, you can enhance this programming by using the GPIO to add switches, sensors, and real-world physical inputs to talk to this code.

Raspberry Pi LED project

You can also add physical outputs like LEDs, speakers, and motors to do things when your code tells them to. Put these together, and you can make something like a robot in no time.

Moving away from programming, there are a large number of users that buy a Pi as an alternative to other devices. Using a Pi as a KODI media center is a popular project, for example, taking the place of more expensive off-the-shelf alternatives.

No Experience Necessary

You probably think you need some prior programming or electronics experience to get along with this little green board. That's an unfortunate view that we imagine has put off thousands of potential users.

Computer programmers may have the ideal job for regulating anxiety.
People Images / Getty Images

You don't need much history with computers to use a Raspberry Pi. If you use a PC or laptop, you'll be fine. Yes, you will have some things to learn, but that's the whole point.

The masses of resources and community support is almost a guarantee that you won't get stuck. If you can use Google, you can use a Raspberry Pi.

Why Is It So Popular?

The Raspberry Pi's popularity and ongoing success are due to its accessible price and incredible community.

At $35, it has attracted a range of users from school children to professional programmers. Still, ​the price isn't the only factor here.

Other similar products that have tried to cash in on this market haven't come close, and that's because the community around the Raspberry Pi is what makes it special.

NanoPi 2 board

If you get stuck, need advice, or are looking for inspiration, the internet is bustling with fellow users offering help in forums, blogs, social networks, and more.

There are also opportunities to meet in person at Raspberry Jams, where like-minded enthusiasts come together to share projects, troubleshoot, and socialize.

Where Can I Get One?

Here are some of the main stores to buy one:

UK

With the board being developed in the UK, there are a lot of Pi shops in the UK. Key Pi superstores like The Pi Hut, Pimoroni, ModMyPi, PiSupply, and RS Electronics will have them in stock and ready to post.

USA

In America, electrical superstores, like Micro Center, will have a good stock of the Pi, as will Newark Element14 and maker stores like Adafruit.

Rest of the world

Other countries have Pi shops here and there, but popularity isn't as strong as the UK and the USA. A quick look on your country's search engine should bring up local results.

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