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Big things come in small sizes

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The hottest computer on the market isn't a $1,000+ decked-out gaming machine. It's actually a bare bones circuit board the size of a credit card. And it costs just $25.

Meet the Raspberry Pi. What's it good for?

For starters, you hook the Pi to an HDTV or digital monitor using HDMI. It can display high-definition videos, browse the Internet, play games or work on spreadsheets.

Sound great! Is it for you, though? Well, it depends.

First, let's look at a bit of history.

The low-cost Raspberry Pi is the brainchild of Eben Upton. In 2006, he was teaching computer science at the University of Cambridge. He found that computers were too expensive and too hard for ordinary users to program.

So, he set out to make a low-cost programming computer. His charitable foundation is working to get Raspberry Pis to kids all over the world. He hopes this will create a new generation of programmers.

Upton expected to sell 10,000 units, tops. So far, it has sold more than a million units and counting. It isn't just schools who want it. Computer programmers and hobbyists around the world are going crazy for it.

So, how can it improve your life?

At a basic level, you can use a Raspberry Pi as a media computer. It's also a capable second PC or a computer for kids. It runs the Linux operating system, which is free and very secure.

There are two models. The Model A ($25) has 256MB of RAM and one USB port. Model B ($35) has 512MB of RAM and adds a second USB connection and an Ethernet port.

Both flavors have an HDMI connection, an audio jack and an RCA video jack. You can add a USB hub to connect a keyboard, mouse and USB Wi-Fi.

The Pi is powered by a 32-bit 700 MHz ARM processor that's roughly equivalent to the performance of a Pentium 2 chip. Upton says the multimedia performance is between a Playstation 2 and Playstation 3.

To make the Pi operational, you need to supply a 5 volt micro USB power supply. An Android smartphone charger should do the trick. Just be sure to read the label. It needs to provide 700mA or better at 5V. Otherwise the Pi will behave erratically (or won't work at all).

The Pi has no internal storage; it boots from a standard SD card. You can buy a card pre-loaded with a compatible operating system or make one yourself by downloading a compatible operating system from the Raspberry Pi website. Of course, you can also hook up an external hard drive.

You should buy a case for the computer. It could get fried if it comes in contact with liquids or conductive metals. Or you can make your own, if you're so inclined. Some people have used LEGO!

Cases, power supplies and other accessories are available from a variety of third-party vendors. The two official U.S. Raspberry Pi sellers — Allied Electronics and Newark — also sell accessories and bundles.

You can use the Raspberry Pi for basic computer functions. Or you can take it to the next level with your own programs.

If you're considering buying, definitely check out the Raspberry Pi website for more information.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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