Tiny Linux computer punches above its weight

$25 Raspberry Pi technology demonstrator is a fully functioning, self-contained computer

$25 Raspberry Pi technology demonstrator is a fully functioning, self-contained computer.

At a glance, there's not a lot there to see. Despite the absence of an outsized cooling fan, the Raspberry Pi looks a little like an older-model graphics card, with the usual tangle of wires and plastic mounted on a green circuit board.

On closer inspection, however, the true nature of the credit card-size device becomes clear -- the Raspberry Pi is actually a fully functional Linux computer, complete with an Ethernet port, USB and an HDMI output. According to the British nonprofit that administers the project, owners just need to plug in a keyboard and attach the device to their TV to start using it.

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The Raspberry Pi Foundation said that the original idea of the device was to improve computer science education by offering a cheap, flexible platform to budding programmers. On an "about us" page, the group said that present-day applicants to university comp-sci programs have less experience than they used to. In part, they added, this is due to a lack of the kind of highly programmable devices -- like Commodore 64s and Amigas -- that the previous generation cut its teeth on.

However, the Raspberry Pi seems destined to have an impact far beyond the educational sector. One of the first production runs of the device in the U.K. reportedly sold out after a single day on the market, with a distributor saying that orders reached 700 per second at one point.

The economics of the $25 computer are compelling enough, but its use of open-source technology adds even more potential applications. A developer of an encrypted communication app designed to sidestep online censorship told the BBC that he can use Raspberry Pi for tiny, cheap servers meant for activists in countries that restrict freedom of speech. Gizmodo UK lists several clever consumer uses, including smart TV and network storage.

Regardless of the exact use to which Raspberry Pi is put, it's clear that the tiny Linux computer will have an impact far beyond its size in diverse parts of the computing world.

Jon Gold wonders if you could turn one of these into an NES if you wanted to. Email him at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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