John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.
Raspberry Pi—the miniature computer on a tiny board that is cheaper than a movie date—has revolutionised the DIY tech scene. The ease of use and low price of the Pi has opened up the scene to a huge audience that would not ordinarily feel confident enough in their tech ability to take on the kinds of projects that we’re going to look at here.
But one thing at a time. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, “What on Earth is a Raspberry Pi?” Well, let me tell you.
What on Earth Is a Raspberry Pi?
Though there are now a few different models, the basic premise of the Pi remains the same. It is an entire computer contained in one small board. It's roughly the size of a credit card for the standard version, though the Pi Zero is even smaller!
Now, obviously this computer isn’t going to be challenging a $2,000 Macbook Pro or a water-cooled gaming PC in benchmark tests. And it typically doesn’t give you anything extra, and I mean anything; by default, these things don’t even come with a case! But at the same time, they can be picked up brand new for as little as $40 for the top-of-the-range model!
Tiny Computer, Massive Popularity
The initial intent behind the Raspberry Pi was to promote teaching basic computer science in schools; however, it quickly grew beyond that scope, spreading into many homebrew markets such as robotics and peripherals. The popularity is such that it has become the third best-selling general purpose computer ever—and the best-selling British computer!
The exact features you get with a Pi depend on the model. The lower cost Pi models have more modest specifications, but the option to have things like Wi-Fi included on the device will set you back a little more. Couple this with the wide range of open source Linux operating system distros that can be downloaded for free to run on your Pi, and you have the basis for a vibrant community of DIY gadgets.
What Do You Do With It?
But what to do with your shiny new Raspberry Pi?
Here are five projects you could tackle. Please note, this article is not going into detail on what to do for each project, if you decide to have a go at one of these ideas, please seek out a detailed tutorial. There’s plenty of them around!
But without further preamble, let’s get into the projects:
- Miniature Computer
- Home Theatre Device
- Retro Gaming Machine
- Home Automation Centre
- Literally Anything You Can Code or Build
1. Miniature Computer
Let’s start with the basics. A Raspberry Pi is already a self-contained computer in its own right. All you need to fully realise that potential is inputs (keyboard and mouse) and a display.
Now, you can settle for simply hooking up a USB hub and connecting all the necessary peripherals to your Pi, or you could get creative. The easiest route to take would be to buy a premade case, plonk it on your desk, and away you go. If you want to take it a step further, however, you could make your own enclosure for the Pi. And the beauty of making your own housing is that you can make it however you like.
People have made desktop computers, laptops, tablet computers, and even built their Pis into other devices, such as monitors and keyboards. Really, the only limit is your ability to make a cool case!
Just remember the Pi’s input/output limitations, especially if you’re using a Pi Zero, which only has a mini-HDMI out and one micro-USB socket. You may need adaptors and USB hubs, depending on your intended use and the model of Pi you have.
2. Home Theatre Device
Building a regular computer out of a Pi is cool and all, but most of the work is pretty much done for you. For something that requires a little more involvement regarding the software itself, why not try a home theatre device?
Back in the day, this would be called a home theatre PC. But a HTPC would typically be a bulky affair that took up a lot of space and made quite a bit of noise. These days, HTPCs have all but been replaced by Google Chromecasts and Amazon Firestick; however, those devices only stream video content. There are still those of us who like having our media locally.
With the help of a Raspberry Pi and a ready made media-centric Linux distro (though you can always customise Linux yourself if you have the skills), you can create a compact device that can not only replicate the functionality of a Firestick-like device, but also much of what a home theatre PC could do, such as store local video files. Great for playing all those backed up DVDs from your old collection.
3. Retro Gaming Machine
Perhaps one of the most popular uses for the Raspberry Pi is as the brains of a retro gaming system. There are Linux distros available that are put together specifically for the purpose of playing emulated games of yore. These include MAME emulation for playing classics like Pacman and Space Invaders, right up to more recent classics, such as Sonic the Hedgehog and the original Mario games.
As far as the physical form goes, you can simply put your Pi in a small ready-made enclosure, but why limit yourself? Raspberry Pis have been used to power all manner of retro gaming systems, from full-sized arcade cabinets to handheld systems to tiny novelty desk gadgets.
If you want to push yourself further than a pre-made case, but you don’t quite have the confidence to build something from scratch, there are kits available for things like handheld gaming devices and desktop arcade cabinets.
4. Home Automation Centre
It feels like home automation is a thing that’s been coming for decades, but with the improvements in cost and capability of consumer technology lately, we’re finally seeing the smart homes that sci fi films have been promising us.
Not simply for closing your powered curtains or switching the lights off using your phone, home automation is proving to be a serious money saver. Having things like heating controlled by clever algorithms rather than a dumb timer has saved many people a serious chunk of change in their utility bills
So obviously, there’s a vibrant community around home automation using the Pi.
Fair warning, however, this is a little more involved than the previous projects. Those projects could, in theory, be setup with little more than an initial installation of the OS and away you go. Home automation will require you to get more hands on, and you may even find yourself getting involved in similar DIY tech products, such as Arduino, though you don’t necessarily have to. It all depends on what you’d like to accomplish.
5. Literally Anything You Can Code or Build
Pis have found themselves as the brains of DIY robots, slideshow picture frames, smart lighting, and a host of other projects you wouldn’t think to find a whole computer inside of. In all honesty, using a Raspberry Pi to power something like a slideshow picture frame is a little like putting a supercharged racing engine into your granny’s little runabout. It works fine, but it’s not really using the engine to its full potential. A Raspberry Pi in a project like that is most definitely overkill, but it’s so small and cheap that it still makes economic sense. Especially with the Raspberry Pi Zero.
If you’re looking to get into making things with the Raspberry Pi, the only practical limit is your technical ability. And with the wealth of information you can find online these days, there’s no reason your technical ability needs to remain a limitation.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 John Bullock
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 29, 2017:
Thanks for checking, John. Probably if it's outside your experience, it's way outside of mine, lol.
Alfred Amuno from Kampala on December 29, 2017:
Quite a number of possibilities listed here, which makes a good case for the little boards.
John Bullock (author) from Yorkshire, England on December 28, 2017:
Hi Kari, thanks for the kind words. It is possible to chain Pi's together as far as I know, but it's a bit out of my scope of experience. I did find a pretty detailed article on Lifehacker talking about it though.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 28, 2017:
I know about raspberry pi and I have always wondered what you would use it for. (I'm not a tech person.) These ideas are nice to know about. Is it true that you can connect the pi's to get greater computing power?