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Hands on ... Raspberry Pi

As a school pupil in the 1980s and early 1990s I found myself in the first wave of classroom computing.

My clearest memory of those early lessons was the "controlled drop", a pseudo-scientific method the teachers had of dropping our flaky BBC micros in the hope of reseating dislodged memory chips.

Nowadays schools are full of reliable Windows PCs that run faultlessly for years without the need for tinkering or dropping.

But something has been lost along the way. Children at school no longer learn how to write programs or operate the text-based command line. Instead, they learn spreadsheets and web design without the faintest idea of what's going on inside their machine.

The Raspberry Pi, a minimal PC that retails for £25, aims to show what's going on under the skin. The educational machine arrives in a plain cardboard box the size of a deck of cards and doesn't have a screen, a keyboard, a power supply or even a case.

Most PC accessories work with the Pi, so a keyboard and mouse can be borrowed from another computer or picked up at the supermarket for less than a tenner. A TV makes a suitable screen – both HDMI and older composite connections are supported.

Raspberry Pi runs a special version of the free Linux operating system. This behaves much like familiar Windows or Mac systems but doesn't support common software or games.

Initial demand for the Raspberry Pi has been incredible. The first 10,000 units sold out in seconds and more than 350,000 orders have been taken to date.

There's no doubt much of this demand has been stoked by media reports that the Raspberry Pi is a cheap way to get internet content such as YouTube on to a TV. While projects are under way to make that happen it's not a cost-effective solution. Adding storage, Wi-Fi and some sort of remote control takes the Raspberry Pi beyond the cost of much more capable media streamers.

While I love the thinking behind the Raspberry Pi, I remain sceptical that it will spark a revolution in IT education. Programming can be taught just as easily on any PC – the specs of the Raspberry Pi are broadly equivalent to a mid-1990s computer, so any old PC found in the attic could do the same job.

At the same time, children who have an interest in hardware would be better off with an Arduino (reviewed here in February), which is cheaper and easier to learn.

Raspberry Pi (£25)

Positives: A noble effort to reintroduce programming to children.

Negatives: Only cheap if you have a screen and peripherals.

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