Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The power of PI

The raspberry PI is the new £16 or £22 computer that has a lot of people talking.
The first 10 boards from the initial production model run were recently auctioned off on eBay as a publicity stunt, and gathered thousands of pounds each, but will this new system be any good for gaming?

If you haven’t heard of this before I’d suggest having a look over on the official site, as this really is an interesting little piece of hardware.
The computer is sold as the bare board only, a strategy not done since the early days of home-computers. Although many dedicated third party case designs have already been produced.
As can be seen from the photo to the right, the PI board is smaller than an iPhone and just a little taller with all the interfaces attached.
It will run a variety of Linux operating systems and has already been shown to handle relatively processor intensive games like Quake 3. Obviously it would be silly to expect this to run your modern PC games or to compete with a PS3 or 360.

The PI has two release models as specifications below:

Model A
Model B
Target price
GBP £16 (USD $25)
GBP £22 (USD $35)
Broadcom BCM2835 (CPU + GPU + DSP + SDRAM)
700 MHz ARM1176JZF-S core (ARM11 family)
Broadcom VideoCore IV, OpenGL ES 2.0, 1080p30 h.264/MPEG-4 AVC high-profile decode
Memory (SDRAM):
128 MiB
256 MiB
USB 2.0 ports:
2 (via integrated USB hub)
Video outputs:
Composite RCA, HDMI
Audio outputs:
3.5 mm jack, HDMI
Onboard storage:
SD / MMC / SDIO card slot
Onboard networking:
10/100 Ethernet (RJ45)
Low-level peripherals:
8 x GPIO, UART, I²C bus, SPI bus with two chip selects, +3.3 V, +5 V, Ground
Real-time clock:
No clock or battery
Power ratings:
500 mA (2.5 W)
700 mA (3.5 W)
Power source:
5 V via MicroUSB or optional GPIO header
85.60 × 53.98 mm (3.370 × 2.125 in)
Operating systems:
Debian GNU/Linux, Fedora, Arch Linux

So what are the intended markets?
The original intent for the PI is to provide an easily affordable teaching aide for schools thorough the UK, with each pupil in every computing class getting a PI as part of their course-work. 
If this lofty goal is achieved you would expect a massive user-base to build for the system in a relatively short space of time.
The biggest commercial area of interest so far seems to have come from people who wish to use the board to build various forms of sealed controller or hand-held units.
Although I doubt Blackberry or Apple have much to worry about. Most interest is squarely routed in the computing and electronic enthusiast's communities.

But how well will it work as a base for Retro Gaming?

There is no doubting that much of the Raspberry PI community, as well as the hardware itself, has a Retro feel to it, as can be seen from the retro-styled cases to the left.
But how much of this will translate to retro related programs is still unknown.

Although the PI is primarily aimed at hardware hacking and low to mid level programming enthusiast, with a huge biast towards teaching it is relatively simple to port existing emulators across to the PI, and apparently quite a lot of thought and word has already been done in this area by the existing user-base.
This user-base has also shown some interest in producing games orientated programming development applications, but generally shows more interest in providing generic compilers and editors to encourage well-rounded programming, as well as hardware, skills.
This may even lead to a new generation of bedroom assembly programmers...

The machine is more than capable of producing good quality of native games software, but I don’t see the bedroom-coder aspect becoming all that big, at least not for a while, although the potential is there. But as a platform for emulating older home-computer and consoles, as well as MAME machines, I think this definitely has potential.

There are already commercially available open-source hand-held machines with similar specifications available for emulation gaming, but they are much more expensive.
The PI could easily be modified into a hand held deice, or simply use its native video output to play retro-games on a modern HDMI TV, something a lot of the original hardware often struggles with.

I think we really just have to 'watch this space.' The Raspberry PI really is a blank canvas, both software and hardware wise. Hopefully the user-base will grow, and a good foothold in education will only serve to increase the umber of people who may stick to developing for the PI. If this project takes off, I think it has the potential to soar very high indeed!

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