Within the last decade, we have seen the undoubted rise of the single-board computer as technology advanced so quickly that companies such as the Raspberry Pi Foundation began to produce high-powered (for the size) devices capable of seemingly so much more than than the sum of their parts.
As they landed on an unsuspecting world we discovered there was plenty of interest and talent out there, not just among academics and geniuses, but in the general public. There was suddenly a keen interest in these new devices – spurred on in no short measure by the cheapness – and what they could be used for.
Whizz forward less than ten years and we are already on iteration 4 of the Raspberry Pi, and while the price has begun to creep up towards the $100 of late, the hardware it is packing – 8GB memory, multiple graphics outputs, wireless networking and so much more, mean it is now rapidly becoming viable as a desktop computer alternative to spending thousands on a PC – certainly if all you want to do is things like browse the net or use it for work.
The Pi community is now so mature you just need to buy one, download an OS image from the net (and there are literally hundreds, from Windows like desktops to full-on arcade gaming setups), flash it to a MicroSD card, and boot it up and you are away, never needing to get nerdier than that.
But where’s the fun eh?
There is so much more you can do with a Raspberry PI – a quick google reveals too many to mention crazy projects, from automating your plant-watering regime to fashioning new controllers for Guitar Hero. It almost seems a waste to just use it for word processing! What may be confusing you at this stage though is that any kind of Pi search will invariably bring up mentions of the Arduino as well. So what’s the difference, are they the same thing? Can you do the same projects. Let’s dig deeper and find out.
What is a Raspberry Pi?
For something with such a relatively short lifespan in technological terms – the first Pi was released in 2012 we have seen several iterations and massive strides in the power of the subsequent Raspberry Pis, but what actually is it.
The Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer powered by an ARM chip and developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, initially with the aim of promoting teaching computing in schools and developing countries. It was decided that to gain any traction in these areas a computer would need to be as inexpensive as possible, and also require the bare minimum of configuration. The result was the $35 Raspberry Pi – an astounding achievement.
Even to this day, the Pi Foundations’ aim is to keep the base models of each iteration as affordable for the masses as possible, and when you compare them to the price of a ‘norma’ PC you can see they are performing an admirable job.
What the Foundation perhaps didn’t foresee was just how popular the single-board microprocessor would become with Makers and DIY project builders. It’s unlikely they predicted it being used as a tool to run home security systems, power arcade machines, or even water your plants. It is this level of flexibility that has enabled the masses to take it to their hearts, coupled with the ease of just copying a pre-configured operating system onto an SD card and set-up is then virtually complete.
I currently have two Pi’s within touching distance of where I am writing this article – one is controlling OctoPrint which runs my 3D printer and the other – a Pi 3 Model A is connected to my MisterFPGA retro gaming system and simulates a Roland Mt32 midi device from the 90s to provide orchestral music from games of yore – just like back in the day. To buy a real MT32 second-hand on eBay these days would cost hundreds. This setup cost me about $40. And it’s great.
More than 30 million units have been sold worldwide making it one of the most popular British computers ever. The majority of Pis are still made in a factory in Wales, with the extra required these days being made in China.
Check out our best Raspberry Pi Starter kits right here.
What is an Arduino?
Unlike the Raspberry Pi which is a microprocessor, an Arduino board is a microcontroller. It doesn’t operate as a full computer. You can’t install an Operating System on it and nor would you want to as a microcontroller excels at specializing in a single task using code that is compiled and upload to its chip.
An example of how I used an Arduino Pro Micro for example is to convert the signal for a retro joystick from the 90s into something that can be connected via a normal USB port and read by my PC. This uses code by a chap called DaemonBite that is uploaded to the Arduino and then converts all my inputs into outputs a modern OS can understand. For the cost – the Pro Micro costs around $5, it is a great way of building your own simple projects and getting a real sense of achievement. Hot-glue it into a case you have 3D printed for yourself and you can sit back and smile at creating your own hardware for yourself, and probably saving yourself about $40 in buying a converter from eBay – which realistically will probably contain exactly what you have done!
That is just one example of how I have used Arduino’s in the past. Another would be where I soldered on a gyroscope sensor and, using code on the internet, turned it into a hat-mounted TrackIR style device for flight sims that tracked my head movements and moved the image on my monitor according in Elite Dangerous.
Then I got VR and never used it again, but one cost me about $6 the other considerable more!
Can you add things to a Pi or Arduino?
You certainly can. Both ecosystems allow you to connect things to the onboard pins to provide extra functionality. For the Pi they are called Hats (sit on top obviously) and the Arduino has Shields (sounds tough!). So many options exist for both, from audio amplifiers, screens, more type of monitoring sensor than you can dream of, a camera for the Pi that turns it into a smart home security system, Really, the actual board itself is just a jumping-off point these days.
Here are some of the best accessories you can get for your Pi right now
Should I get a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino?
This totally depends on your project. Likely they will have very different needs. If you are looking for something that needs actual computing power – say a media server or something to run retro emulators on, then you are going to need a Raspberry Pi – get the latest, most powerful model you can afford.
If you are looking to use a board for a specific, single-minded task, that is more actual code-orientated, then an Arduino of some form or other is ideal. Simply carry about a little research on the type of Arduino you need – there are lots, all offering different features and coming in at different prices and, most importantly, go and have fun in your new Maker hobby.