Sunday, January 20, 2013

Going in the wrong direction

$35 going once

XYZ is the new RaspberryPi. Replace XYZ by several small form computers that have hit the market in the past year (particularly those powered by ARM). That is the claim being made again and again.

Except that the Pi is small, and a lot of the contenders are bigger. Or dont have gpios. And we re not talking about embedded systems. We need an OS. And Python. But really, at the end of the day, they cost too much. How much is too much I hear you say...

We are already conditioned to a $35 price tag. A fully capable Linux computer with a fast GPU and gpios. And a DSI and CSI connector. You can bring more to the table, such as ADC, PWM, USB3, bluetooth or sata, but if the price is greater, then you are going in the wrong direction.

$35 going twice

To put things in perspective as to what $35 buys you, at a local retailer, an Arduino Uno (an embedded system, so in theory it should be cheaper) will set me back $35, and then I have to add a $40 ethernet shield if I want to get it on the network. I go to Barnes and Nobles, and I cant find a decent computer science book for that amount. So yes, the Raspberry Pi foundation set the bar high.

Yet, it is impossible to ignore that. And the fact is that while $35 got you a 256MB Pi model B some months back, it now gets you a 512MB Pi model B.

Sold for $25

Just as we got comfortable with the Raspberry Pi model B, we are about to get a $25 version, with a lower power consumption. For a lot of projects, the model B was already overkill, so the model A will really further increase the perceived value of the Raspberry Pi platform.

What's the deal?

Why does it matter? Because at that price level, we don't mind losing one in an experiment. That means that, no matter how young or old, we all have an opportunity to try something we would never have done if the Pi cost $100 or even $80, and even less so if we had to use a $1000 computer...

Let me illustrate. As a teenager, I almost cut short my career in technology. I was working with a friend on building a robot, controlled by an Apple ][ compatible. Even though it was not the real deal (it was a clone), that computer was very expensive to us (over $1000). But we had no other way. And all our knowledge came from books at the library or bulletin board systems. There was no world wide web. But hey, we found out that the game port not only had digital and analog inputs (for analog joysticks), it also had digital outputs (annunciator 0- 3):

Apple 16-pin DIP Game Port socket (on the motherboard)
  for II, II+, IIe, IIgs

Pushbutton 3 (GS only)  9 | *     * | 8  Ground
 Gm Ctrl 1 (Stick-1 Y) 10 | *     * | 7  Gm Ctrl 2 (Stick-2 X)
 Gm Ctrl 3 (Stick-2 Y) 11 | *     * | 6  Gm Ctrl 0 (Stick-1 X)
        Annunciator 3  12 | *     * | 5  /$C040 Strobe
        Annunciator 2  13 | *     * | 4  Pushbutton 2
        Annunciator 1  14 | *     * | 3  Pushbutton 1
        Annunciator 0  15 | *     * | 2  Pushbutton 0
        No Connection  16 | *     * | 1  +5V
                           ===| |===
                        Notch on socket
                (faces toward front of computer)

Still, we were a little concerned in hacking the expensive machine. And sure enough, during our experimenting over many weeks, we melted one of the trace on the motherboard. Smoke. Bad smell. Angry mom. Sad friend with a busted Apple ][ compatible. Well, the story does have a happy ending in that we were able to repair the computer and we both continued experimenting and going each our way in the field of technology, but I'm not sure what would have happened had we not been able to fix the computer...

That is why we need $25 computers. It wouldn't surprise me if we see $20, or even sub $20 computers... If you were thinking $60, then as I mentionned, you are going in the wrong direction.

Food for thought

Now that we've cleared this point up, makers of Raspberry Pi add-ons, you're the next contestants on the price is right.  

Are you going in the wrong direction?



Steampunk Prof said...

Well a $35 machine isn't quite true (SD card etc) but close enough. It is a great little machine and great to play with and that is the point. At that price, you can play and not worry too much if it blows up, as long as you learn why it blew up ;-) . It actually makes a great Ethernet card for the Arduino, but with bags of extra capabilities for the same price and it's cheap to go wireless too. It has helped to drive down the price of similar boards and probably helped spur others into production, all of this to our benefit. No doubt there will be the usual cliques around each machine, each saying theirs is the best, who cares really, as long as the price keeps going down!

Lee Gibson said...

Yes but the SD Card, keyboard, HDMI/TV are attainable and it is possible to use another computer to write the SD Card (Though it would be useful if the hardware allowed loading to the SD Card. I'll be interested to see what happens when the Tegra 4 takes off.

Francois Dion said...

I'm assuming that if you kill your Raspberry Pi, you can still reuse the SD card etc. So, the loss value is a grand total of $35. At any rate, SD cards are cheap: I just got a 32GB fast 30MB/s card for $28 and a 4GB for $3.99, locally.

Of course, if you send away in a hot air balloon or rocket, and lose the whole kit, then you have to add the cost of the battery pack, SD, GPS, camera and vehicule...

Now of course, if you are doing something specialized and want to bring the cost way down, then there are embedded processors and microcontrollers. For that, I've been using over the years the PIC and Atmega. They can be had for only a few dollars. I've also used TI Stellaris and launchpad (cheap!), and Propeller multicore (got a deal on a few of those bare DIP chip for only $4, wish I had gotten more). And FPGAs (in fact there is something interesting that is coming soon for the Raspberry Pi in that field). You just have to get the right tool for the job.

Still, I really favor the Pi for a lot of prototyping, since you can write the code in Python and be up and running from scratch in minutes.