Kyle Schurman
Mar 6, 2012

Raspberry Pi and Cotton Candy: Working with mini computers

In the area of the computer market that involves high-end users and gamers -- the enthusiast market -- new products receive names and mascots that provide an adrenaline rush, much like the products they represent: Fallout, Half-Life, FirePro and GeForce, for example.

When it comes to the other end of the computer market, the names are a bit different. Meet the Raspberry Pi and the Cotton Candy, two entries in the newest category of computing, the mini-computers. So do these cute names reveal computers that aren’t powerful enough to be anything but a toy?

The mini-computers still are looking for a set place to exist in the computing market. They may work well as point of sale devices, for example, according to some industry experts. Those who’ve developed the mini-computers want people to use them as they would any other type of small, less powerful PC. Think Netbook, but even smaller, and with no built-in keyboard or screen.

Seeing the market move toward this smaller form factor really isn’t a significant surprise. After all, computers have been getting smaller and smaller ever since the first computer appeared.

What makes the idea of mini-computers work well now is the advent of the silicon on a chip (SoC), which can handle many aspects of running the computer on a single chip. The SoC in the Raspberry Pi, for example, contains the functions of a GPU, a CPU and memory.

No longer do computing systems need to rely on a motherboard with numerous chips to handle individual aspects of operating the machine. The SoC design has been proven to work in a variety of consumer electronics products, so the idea of the mini-computer should work.

By working with an SoC design, fewer components are needed to operate the computer, allowing manufacturers to spend a lot less on each machine. The Raspberry Pi carries a suggested price of only $25, for example.

These two mini-computers are running the Linux operating system, which is decidedly not the most user friendly type of OS. There’s a chance that choice could lead to less acceptance of these units among the portions of the market at which they’re aimed, although the ability to run a mobile OS, such as Android, over the top of Linux may help remove some of the stigma associated with Linux.

Another potential problem that these mini-computers could have is the inability to make use of cellular networks, at least for now. You’ll have to use the Raspberry Pi and Cotton Candy with WiFi networks instead.

Obviously, these SoC designs aren’t going to be able to provide the power or feature sets that a traditional desktop or laptop computer will have. So the tradeoff for these mobile, tiny computers is that you won’t be running any of your most powerful Windows software on them anytime soon.

However, for most people, today’s newer computers have far more power than any of them will ever use. With the Raspberry Pi, if you plug in a TV or monitor and a full sized keyboard, you can have plenty of computing power to check e-mail, use the Internet and use simple software packages with ease.

In fact, the hope of the Raspberry Pi group, which is based in Britain, is that children will be able to use this mini-computer in school as a way to learn how to write programming code, gaining access to the required hardware for a low price. These small computers could offer a means by which to bridge the digital divide. If the Raspberry Pi can truly fulfill such a noble purpose, its sugary-sweet name may reveal a model that could help develop the next generation of computer enthusiasts from all walks of life. As smartphones and computers move towards packing more into less, mini-computers are instead taking a minimalist approach that offers highly affordable digital access.