$35 computer 'Raspberry Pi' readies for launch

An ultra-cheap computer with made-in-Canada software is launching next week with the goal of rekindling children's interest in computer programming.

Software package for energy-efficient device made at Seneca College

An ultra-cheap computer with made-in-Canada software is launching next week with the goal of rekindling children's interest in computer programming.

Model B of the Raspberry Pi, which will sell for $35, is expected to begin shipping next week, said Eben Upton, executive director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the U.K.-based charity developing the computer. A $25 model will be released at a future date.

In time for the launch, a basic software package developed at Seneca College in Toronto, including a custom version of the Linux Fedora operating system and basic tools like a web browser and word processor, will be available for the devices. Users can also download other software adapted and developed by the open source software community around the world.

Chris Tyler, a professor at Seneca's Centre for the Development of Open Technology, said the computer is designed to appeal to adult hobbyists as well as children as young as eight years old through high school.

"It's cheap enough that you can pay for it with an allowance," he said.

Ultra-cheap computers

The Raspberry Pi Foundation isn't the only group that has been trying to develop ultra-cheap computers in recent years:

  • Montreal-based Datawind manufactures the Aakash, a tablet computer launched last fall. The Indian government was to buy them for about $47 and subsidize the cost so students and teachers could buy the devices for $35. However, Reuters reported this week that the Indian government is seeking new bids to make the device after user complaints about poor performance and low battery life.
  • The One Laptop Per Child Foundation targets underprivileged children aged 6 to 12, including those in the developing world and Canada's First Nations communities, with its rugged, low-power XO laptop computer.  It sells for around $200, pre-loaded with software. Seneca College is involved in adapting software for newer versions of the XO, which use ARM chips.

It's also easy to program, just like early personal computers such as the Commodore 64, Tyler said.

Proponents of the Raspberry Pi think declining interest in computer science in recent years may have to do with the fact that computers have become increasingly harder for young people to program, and they hope to reverse the trend.

The Raspberry Pi is "a device intended for playing. You can mess around with it and you don't have to worry about messing up the main family computer," Tyler said. "If you break it, you're not breaking anything critical."

The fact that it costs less than $40 instead of hundreds may also encourage parents to forgive and forget any unfortunate accidents that occur during their children's experiments.

The device comes as a 45-gram open board that fits in the palm of your hand. It is equipped with ports so you can plug in critical components that don't come with it, such as a monitor and keyboard.

Tyler said most TVs can be used as a monitor.

"In a lot of cases, you can scrounge up the devices you would need to work with this from around the house."

Future versions are expected to come with a case to protect the board.

The Raspberry Pi belongs to a class of devices that run on extremely low-power, energy-efficient ARM chips — the kind used in most mobile devices. That makes it possible to run the Raspberry Pi off four AA batteries. But it means the computer needs software designed for ARM devices rather than regular computers.

"They don't run the same kind of code as regular PCs," Tyler said.

Seneca College got involved in the Raspberry Pi project because it has been adapting software for ARM devices for two years.

The Raspberry Pi software was adapted by a team of six research assistants and tested by 25 students in Tyler's software build and release classes before its release. Another class of students is doing additional work on the project this semester.


  • The first batch of Raspberry Pi computers will include only Model B, which costs $35. A previous version of this story stated that Model A, which costs $25, will also be available.
    Feb 27, 2012 7:30 AM ET