How to get set up and use everyone's favourite tiny computer
The Raspberry Pi computer was designed to get more people into computer sciences but it’s also hugely popular with DIY modders and robotics enthusiasts. The Pi can run your smarthome appliances, it can power remote control vehicles, and it can be a media centre to stream all your favourite content. We recently reviewed the 64-bit Raspberry Pi 3 and the verdict is that the newest model is a capable computer in its own right too.
Whatever you want to use the Pi for, you’ll need to buy a few items and download the right files so it all goes smoothly. There are a lot of different Pi boards, operating systems, and peripherals out there so we’re here to simplify the process and give you the tips to get your Pi up and running perfectly. If you’re getting started with the Raspberry Pi, this guide should be all you need.
We’re going to assume you’re buying the latest and greatest model: the Raspberry Pi 3. The older models are the same size but are much slower and lack integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. There’s also a smaller Pi Zero that’s good for some DIY projects but not as powerful a computer.
The Pi 3 itself costs around £30. A case for the Pi is optional but recommended to keep it clean (this one is our favourite). The Pi doesn’t actually have its own storage; there’s no hard drive. You need to buy a micro SD card if you haven’t got one lying around. At least 8GB is best but larger cards can be used. This will be where you install the operating system and keep all your own files when using the Pi. After that all you really need is a power supply, HDMI cable, keyboard and mouse.
If you want to keep things very simple, you can buy a starter kit for around £50 that includes the Pi, a case, the power supply and the micro SD card with NOOBS pre-installed.
Your Raspberry Pi needs an operating system and there are a few available. The best for most people is Raspbian, a flavour of Linux specifically designed for the Raspberry Pi. We recommend this operating system and it’s easy to install. Just download the latest version (Raspbian Jessie) and unzip the contents onto a formatted micro SD card. We recommend SD Formatter 4.0 for emptying your card and getting it ready for the Pi.
If you buy the starter kit then the SD card will come with NOOBS, which is an easy setup wizard that gives you a number of operating systems to choose from. When you start up the Pi you can select Raspbian or any other OS to install it. NOOBS is for noobs and it’s great. If you want to download NOOBS and put it on an empty SD card, you can get the files here.
So you have all the bits and bobs you need including a micro SD card containing Raspbian or another operating system. Now it’s time to start plugging everything in. Slide the SD card into the card port on the underside of the Pi. Make sure it’s all the way in.
The Pi has a bunch of ports on top for things like camera modules but around the sides you’ll find very familiar options for USB, ethernet, audio, and HDMI. Connect the Pi up to an HDMI monitor and plug the keyboard and mouse into the USB ports. This is what it should look like if you aren’t using a case to hide everything:
Now all you need to do is connect the power supply to turn it on. The Pi doesn’t have a power button so you have to turn the plug off at the mains or remove the power cord from the Pi itself. Obviously save what you’re doing if turning it off. The Pi will immediately start up upon receiving power and go through its normal booting process. If you’re using NOOBS, a simple menu will ask which OS you want to install. The installation process can take a while but you don’t need to do anything. Go and have a coffee. And some raspberry pie.
Once installed, the operating system will launch normally. In previous versions of Raspbian, the Pi would launch to a command-line interface by default and you had to type commands to enter the more familiar graphical user interface (GUI) that feels like Windows and OSX. Now the GUI is default so you’ll see a desktop with icons and menus before you know it. There’s even a recycle bin. Congratulations, you’ve put together and turned on a Raspberry Pi. Let’s get acquainted with the software.
Jessie (the different versions of Raspbian are named after Toy Story characters) is a very friendly OS and comes with useful software to make the Pi 3 a practical computer straight away. The menu at the top is much like the taskbar at the bottom of a Windows desktop and it has its own Start button of sorts where you can access installed applications. Also on the taskbar you’ll find the time and a handy eject button for safely removing USB drives. Always use it!
Folders and icons all work the way you would expect from other operating systems so you can right click for more options, to create new folders, and to open files in different applications. Keyboard shortcuts like alt-tab work here too. The learning curve is not very steep.
To change settings, use Preferences from the main menu. In here you can choose to automatically log in (the default user is “pi”, password “raspberry”) and now there are extra keyboard options. In here you can also modify the main menu to choose which folders apps appear in and the shortcut icons along the top.
There’s a bunch of great software already included in Raspbian Jessie that means you can get some work done out of the box. LibreOffice is pre-installed, giving you powerful and user-friendly programs for creating documents, spreadsheets, presentations, vector drawings, and databases. This suite is compatible with Microsoft Office files and it’s entirely free. Huzzah! The whole suite is designed to be familiar to users of Microsoft’s products so most people will be right at home.
Another new addition in Jessie is Claws Mail, a brilliant mail client for those who prefer everything to come through a standalone application rather than logging into their emails through a browser. It’s fully featured and does everything you would expect Windows Mail to do. You can connect all your common email protocols like Gmail, Hotmail, iCloud etc.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to help more people learn programming so it should be no surprise that Raspbian comes loaded with great software and languages. There are a bunch of tools for different languages including Scratch, to help kids learn programming visually. Languages like Python work without having to install anything. Just run IDLE and start creating Python scripts. BlueJ and Greenfoot are two pre-installed options for working with Java.
Explore the menus further and you’ll find various useful apps and even Minecraft.
There are a number of ways to install software packages but the best is to use Raspbian’s own archives. This means you can simply type a command into the terminal (found in the main menu) and the application will be installed. It might seem scary to use the terminal if you’re not used to typing commands but it really streamlines the process of finding files and putting them in the right place.
APT (Advanced Packaging Tool) takes care of things for you. With an internet connection (so APT can actually get the software you need), you can type commands to have it install new software or even update what you already have. The first thing to do is make sure your Pi has the latest package list available. To do that, type the following into the terminal and press enter:
sudo apt-get update
This checks for updates to software. If any are available, you can type “upgrade” instead of “update” and it will automatically install any new versions of apps installed.
Installing new apps is very easy. For example, to install the game Beneath a Steel Sky, simply type:
sudo apt-get install beneath-a-steel-sky
To know exactly what you need to type after “install”, it’s best to search Google for the software you’re interested in. Alternatively you can use the apt-get command to search through the archive for a keyword:
sudo apt-cache search beneath
sudo apt-cache search steel
Both of these searches will find Beneath a Steel Sky. If you’re new to the command line, it’s probably easier just to search Google for the correct term to use. You can also uninstall these packages by typing “remove” instead of “install”.
So you have a decent desktop computer. You can check your email, write documents, browse the web, and even get some serious programming done. But the tiny Pi is just asking to be used in creative ways. How about turning it into a media centre for watching/listening to your favourite content? If you put NOOBS on another SD card you can choose to install OSMC, a user-friendly media centre. This will let you connect to the Pi with iOS and Android apps and stream online content to watch on your TV. It even works with Apple’s AirPlay. Store all your movies on the SD card and you’ve got the ultimate entertainment box. Who needs a Chromecast or Apple TV? If you want to install a media centre within your Raspbian operating system, a good one to try is Kodi.
Another popular use for the Raspberry Pi is turning it into an amazing retro gaming console. Several emulators are available for the Pi that will play older PC and console games including NES, SNES, Master System, Mega Drive, and PlayStation games. Our favourite is RetroPie, which supports a huge number of retro games consoles. The easiest way to play it is install their own image onto a blank SD card but you can also install RetroPie on your Raspbian operating system.
By connecting to other boards like the GrovePi, you can connect your Pi to motors and sensors to make it into a DIY gadget. You could make a custom weather station that tweets local conditions or a home security system that emails when someone enters your room. With some wheels and sensors you could even make a robot. If you can think of it, you can probably make it. We recently made a working Weasley clock from Harry Potter.
This clock points at where I am or what I'm doing and it's made from a Raspberry Pi and Lego pic.twitter.com/kzyNtAQN79
— Kylo Jen (@GeneticJen) April 27, 2016
Good luck! The Pi might be a tiny computer but it’s capable of great things.