Tutorial #3: Starting out with the Raspberry Pi

I have been playing around with the Raspberry Pi 2 for a year now and I can’t even remember the count for the number of times I have changed the OS. The beauty of the Pi is that you are never short of any options for there is always someone creating something new for it. The best use for the Pi will always be the maker projects should you partake in them for it certainly brings in a different form of satisfaction. 

Generally, there are 2 ways that an OS can be loaded on to the memory card. The ones aimed at new users (like the Raspbian NOOBS installer) have a simple extract to memory card approach. The slightly advanced way of installing the OS is to write the image to the SD card. On Linux and Mac OS X, you can do so directly using the dd command but doing so on Windows requires a few more tools. You would do well to keep the following handy:


While the first is used for SDCard specific formatting, the second allows you to write the image on the SD Card. One experience that I would like to share is that if you frequently have the SDCard ejecting itself when writing the image, then the fault solely lies with the fact that you are using a cheap card writer for there is nothing wrong with the Win32DiskImager utility.

Having covered the installation process, here are a few general purpose things that you can engage your Pi in:

1. A fully functional PC

The Pi can function as a desktop replacement, should you choose to use it as such. However, it requires considerable patience considering the hardware on offer and more specifically the speed of the SD Card in use. Having said that, it is a good platform to mess with and can be used to learn Linux, programming or to introduce someone to the world of computing.  The debate over an ARM v6 and v7 OS will always rage on and Raspbian admittedly offers a better starting experience. However, Ubuntu MATE for the Pi certainly offers a more mainstream experience akin to a normal Linux desktop. It comes at a cost though for it is significantly taxing on the Pi hardware and for this reason, you may choose to move to a lighter desktop like LXDE, thereby creating a Lubuntu OS. Previously, I used to install Ubuntu MATE and then switch to LXDE desktop using the following commands which should be familiar to anyone remotely conversant with Linux:
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get -y upgrade && sudo apt-get -y dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get -y install lubuntu-desktop lxde
sudo apt-get remove --purge ubuntu-mate-core ubuntu-mate-desktop
sudo apt-get remove mate-*
sudo apt-get autoremove
However, I recently came across a site which gives you the choice of Ubuntu flavour out of the box (https://ubuntu-pi-flavour-maker.org/). It is certainly a very convenient option, especially when dealing with Bluetooth and WiFi with support for some of the functions that come built-in with Raspbian. My recommendation would be to go with Lubuntu.

2. Media Centre

The Pi GPU has remained constant over the generations as we come to the Pi 3, but it is still a capable one for it supports hardware decoding for H.264. That makes it a very capable media centre or HTPC. My experience with high bit rate Full HD streams on the Pi 2 has been choppy to say the least so I won’t really consider this to be a very good HTPC option when you take in to consideration the fact that H.265 seems a better compression option when you are starving on space. The Pi 3 should be more capable on this front in dealing with high bit rate H.264 streams and should you use it a media centre, you won’t be short on options. Having said that, the only real option that you have is to use some derivative of Kodi or Plex if you are in to that ecosystem. 

For me OpenElec and OSMC offered the best stepping stone in to the Media Centre world. I say so because Kodi is immensely customizable and you can’t go wrong starting with either.

3. Retro Arcade 

Emulation has always been a grey area when it comes to legality but you can always re-live your childhood nostalgia using them. The most common option here is RetroPie that uses RetroArch as the back-end and Emulation Station as the front end. The same combination is put to use by some others like Recalbox which is significantly more user friendly. These are supposed to be the most optimised for the Pi but unfortunately and I couldn’t get my Xbox 360 controller to work reliably across all emulators, though in fairness I have been using the test versions. Other options include Lakka which does a different take by being based on Libretro thereby imparting a much more fluid UI and PiPlay with which I haven’t spent much time to comment on. I would recommend Recalbox as the first option, failing which you may try out Lakka.

This article just glosses over some prominent uses for the Pi but as you can see, you will never be short of things to do when dealing with any iteration of the Pi. You can easily swap OSes by using multiple SD cards (easy option) or using something like BerryBoot (a bit more difficult option with a slower SquashFS file system).  With the Pi, the force is always with you.


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