Why Buy a Raspberry Pi?

3 minute read

If you want to build a small embedded hardware project, automate things in your household, or just purchase a cheap computer for its possibilities, you should turn to the Raspberry Pi.

Picture buttons that automate anything, mini-PCs that can control your appliances, and DIY gadgets to amplify your life.

Picture a small arcade button that triggers your Internet connected smart toaster to tell your open source voice assistant that it should activate the remote fish feeder… you can do all that with a Raspberry Pi. In fact, you can build all those things with a Raspberry Pi computer at the center of the operation.

Why Pi?

If all you wanted to do was open your garage with a custom clicker remote (not the strongest of examples, mind you), why would you even buy a microcomputer such as a Raspberry Pi? If a full computer isn’t required, why wouldn’t you just purchase or build an Arduino-like microcontroller?

Hang on, let’s step back for a minute.

Microcontroller vs Microcomputer

Raspberry Pis are microcomputers.

Arduinos are microcontrollers.

Computers normally have memory for fast caching (RAM), a central processing unit (CPU), and some kind of storage device. To output pixels to a monitor, you’ll also need some kind of graphics processing unit (GPU).

A microcontroller has all of those (bar the last one), albeit in very small amounts. They are normally cheaper than fully-fledged computers. As Patrick Di Justo (2015) has explained it: “A microcontroller is a simple computer that can run one program at a time, over and over again.”

For the rest of this post, when I say “computer” or “microcomputer” I am referring to the Raspberry Pi, and when I say “microcontroller” I am referring to an Arduino-like board (as defined above).

Anyway, the Raspberry Pi Foundation seems to have perfected the engineering process, and in doing so has produced cheap computers that are just more useful than microcontrollers in every way.

  • IO. 40 GPIO pin slots, even on the model that to me looks to be on par with an Arduino Uno (which has just 14 pins).

  • Linux. Microcontrollers are designed to run one piece of code until power is cut. With a computer, you can run as many services as you want, which is highly useful even in the most embedded projects.

  • My favorite: Wireless. Nearly all of the latest Pis include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. That’s enough to make me ditch the idea of microcontrollers.

  • Price. You get all these goodies, and you can still purchase a Raspberry Pi Zero with wireless connectivity for as low as $10.

Here’s when you may NOT want a Raspberry Pi:

  • When space is a major issue. Remember that garage clicker I mentioned? As I envision the size, it might not be the best idea for a Raspberry Pi.
  • Price in bulk. We will later learn that the Pi Zero (the really small one) has some profit margin related buying issues surrounding it, and that the industrial alternative can get pretty pricey.

Wrapping Up

You should use a Raspberry Pi to make your life easier if any of these things move you:

  • Power. If you want to stack multiple projects, or run a few services (such as GPIO [General Purpose Input Output] + Bluetooth + a web server + a SSH [Secure Shell] server) that use some computing power, the Raspberry Pi is your friend.
  • Power. The power consumption of the Raspberry Pi is negligible.

If you plan to use a dirt cheap microcontroller, chances are you would benefit more from a stripped-down operating system running on a small $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W. Here’s how:

  • Wireless. Pretty much all of the latest-gen Pis include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No more extra modules, and no feature left behind.
  • Linux. You can do anything on a PC, they say. Raspberry Pi computers run Linux, I say. Why complain?
  • Price. Pis range from $10 to around $35 for a bare board. See “Wireless” to remind yourself of why this price is worth it.

What’s Next?

Up next will be a post to help you pick one of the latest Raspberry Pi models.

References

Quote

Justo, P. D. (2015, December 04). Raspberry Pi or Arduino? One Simple Rule to Choose the Right Board. Retrieved from https://makezine.com/2015/12/04/admittedly-simplistic-guide-raspberry-pi-vs-arduino/