The $25 computer that could help change the world

Key-drive sized PC could help in poor areas and school districts, as long as they have monitors

Unless you’re a hardcore gamer like me, you’ve probably never heard of David John Braben. Even among gaming circles, he’s no Sid Meier.

But he has worked on some mighty impressive titles, including the classic trading sim, “Elite.” In more modern times, he’s worked on “Roller Coaster Tycoon 3” and games based on the lovable Wallace and Gromit.

Today however, he is doing something a little more serious, such as creating a fully working computer for $25.

This amazing little device is the size of a key drive, runs a full version of Ubuntu Linux and has a USB port for attaching a keyboard. It’s part of his Raspberry Pi Foundation that is trying to educate more kids about the hardware of computers, and put the fun back in computer science. At just $25 a pop, each kid in a class could probably be issued one to take home.

The device looks like a thumb drive and has a USB port on one end and an HDMI port on the other. You plug the HDMI port into a monitor and the USB into a keyboard, and you are good to go.

In a lot of ways, this is a better solution than the E2 Green PC that was being designed for $100 to ship to Africa and poorer nations around the world. That PC could be wound up like a clock, though reports are that it was pretty flimsy. Presumably a thumb-drive computer would be a bit more rugged.

The system specs are surprisingly good for a computer that costs the same as dinner at a moderately fancy restaurant. It will pack a 700MHz ARM11 processor, 128M of SDRAM and a SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot for storage. The fact that it’s running Ubuntu Linux means it will have all the basic functionality available on that very mature flavor of the OS, including e-mail, Web surfing and all basic computer functions.

Of course, one main disadvantage to the Raspberry Pi model compared with the E2 is that that the Pi has no monitor. You can get a good-sized HDMI monitor starting at about $150, but someone who is forced to use a Pi for its affordability probably wouldn’t be able to afford a monitor. Heck, the HDMI cable will cost more than the computer.

In terms of the monitor itself, a person in Africa or a struggling school district probably can’t pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an HD TV to drive the $25 computer. Most old monitors don’t have HDMI inputs, so finding a way to see what the computer is doing might be tricky. I suppose given the size of the device, the only two choices of display were HDMI and DisplayPort. An older VGA connection would have been perfect, but far too large to fit in the space allowed.

Even with some slight disadvantages, the Raspberry Pi is a fantastic example of new technology created by a man used to thinking outside the box. If these new cheap computers can be used to rekindle student interest in computer science or to help bring technology to areas of the world that are sorely lacking in so many advantages, so much the better.

My only wish is that we see more projects like this moving forward. We’ve advanced to a point where almost anything is possible, even a $25 computer that fits in your pocket.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Mon, May 23, 2011 Eric Texas

Assuming there is no composite output, if ya'll are paying more than 25 dollars for a HDMI cable, you're seriously getting shafted. I've never paid more than 7 dollars for a 6 foot cable. Even a standard HDMI output to DVI cable would work in this scenario (Don't look now but they are signal compatible, just no audio). So, why wouldn't a low cost solution be possible with cheap monitors as long as they have DVI input?

Mon, May 23, 2011

Wonder if it comes with Apache? Server in a pocket anyone?

Thu, May 19, 2011

$25 computer. Interesting. Has anyone heard of a $50 iphone 3gs. I know that the iphone must come with a 2 year plan, however, it is only a matter of time until technology gets there. iPhone 3gs was $200 only a year ago. iPhone 4 is $200, but iPhone 5 comes out in the fall. I'd anticipate apple will get to the market sooner than anyone else. They are currently trying to get their SIM card down millimeters in the UK. I think people think the idea of a very cheap computer is abstract, but in looking at the technology industry from a whole, it is obvious the Apple of the world will come to market much sooner with the best product. Just my opinion.

Wed, May 18, 2011 Tom St. Louis

A quick glance at the 'proposed' specs shows a composite video output, as well as the hdmi, so it could conveivable use any standard TV with a video input or an RF modulator. Also the pictures show packaging more like a deck of playing cards, which is quite reasonable for portable use, and still fits in most pockets. Actually, considering the capabilities of the cheapest phone, the whole idea is not so far-fetched. After all, the latest CPUs are basically a system on a chip, with video and I/O built-in. All it really took was somebody to organize the project and get development money. This is not to lessen the achievement -- kudos to Rasberry Pi Foundation.

Wed, May 18, 2011

Concur with all the people that said not taking advantage of legacy glass VGA monitors was a design flaw. I have half a dozen piled in my living room alone, that I can't even give away. They work fine, and I can't bear to trash working equipment- that just ain't being green. I'd wager that any town in north america, you could run an ad asking for glass monitors, and fill up a truck in a day, for free.

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