Should you give a Raspberry Pi for Christmas?

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

~ Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, 1885

A proverb I often heard as a child. Essentially the meaning is that teaching someone to do something has more value than doing it for them.  If you believe that this proverb is true then you’ll probably also appreciate the reasons why the Raspberry Pi happened.

We live in a society dominated by the use of appliance devices.  Things like toasters, fridges, microwave ovens, tablet computers, smart phones and games consoles.  They all do things for us and we just take them for granted.  Imagine what might happen if, one day, we arrived at a future where nobody was left who knew how to repair them or make new, better, replacements.  It sounds like the plot of some dystopian science fiction novel but the honest answer is that our technological progress would go backwards.

The comfort zone we experience as a result of all of our lovely appliances is like a beautiful walled garden that coerces us to believe nothing of value exists outside. To make a rather crude analogy to the proverb, our appliances give us a fish but they do not teach us how to fish.

If you think back to the early days of motoring. The first production car in Britain was the mighty Morris 1000. My grandfather used to drive a traveller (with the wooden back). The great thing about those early cars was that it was possible for one person to understand everything on them, they were a pleasure to work on. If you look under the bonnet of a modern Audi you’ll understand the point I am trying to make.  It’s incredibly complex, you need special tools, branded parts, the list goes on.

A next gen console and a brand new tablet pc are like the modern Audi. A Raspberry Pi is more like a Morris 1000, it’s not as fast or powerful and the garden is not as pretty but there are no walls that confine you.  It will also give you a fishing rod and show you the best places to fish… so to speak.

What I mean by that is that the Raspberry Pi forces you to learn in a stealthy way.  You need to possess the knowledge required to do things with it, so the act of trying to use it for a particular purpose will teach you all sorts of things about computers.  Knowledge which could one day lead to something bigger.  Especially if you’re young!

So here is my advice to anyone thinking about buying one for themselves or as a gift for a loved one:

It can easily be reset to a clean state.

This is one of the unique features which make it great for giving to young people to experiment with.  If the worst should happen and they really screw up the install of the operating system then it’s easy to wipe the SD card and reset to a clean install.  This is one of the reasons it’s so great for educational use, you can be free to experiment without worry.

The Raspberry Pi online community is massive.

Over two million of them have been sold worldwide now.  So that means there are a lot of experienced people out there who are willing to help you. The official forums are here and already contain a huge wealth of searchable knowledge.  You can create an account and leave posts there asking other users for help.  There is also an IRC chat channel on Freenode called #raspberrypi which has about 400 users on a daily basis.

Give yourself time to learn.

If you struggle to do something… stick at it, be persistent.  Search the Internet, post on forums and watch a few YouTube tutorials.  If you find yourself thinking “it should just work” this is coming from the walled garden appliance mentality.  Instead think “it doesn’t work yet, because I just need to find out more”.

Avoid Christmas day misery.

Ensure you’ve got all the peripherals you need, you may already own most of them.  The minimum is 4 GB SD card, keyboard, mouse, TV/Monitor and a phone charger with a micro USB connector (like a Blackberry, Android or an Amazon Kindle one).  The Raspberry Pi uses an SD card for its hard drive.  So make sure you have one to use and install the OS onto it before Christmas day (see here).  Avoid buying preloaded ones as these often come with software that is out of date and can cause your Pi to not boot.  It’s especially a good idea to get everything out of the box and boot it up once to test it before you gift wrap.  That way you have an opportunity to sort out any issues before Christmas day arrives.  If you want to use it over wifi you’ll need a USB wifi adapter like this.

Finally, here are some of my personal favourite uses of a Raspberry Pi to give you a flavour of what you, or they, could be doing instead of downloading apps, watching cat videos or playing the umpteenth Call of Duty!

Teddy bear space jump

XBMC media server for your HD TV

Retro arcade cabinet

The bird box

A quadcopter with Raspberry Pi Camera

A door opened by a dog bark

Patching an old Apple IIe

So if you want one just head over to the Raspberry Pi home page and there is a link on the right saying BUY A PI.  This site also has some nice starter kits and bundles.  Merry Christmas!