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A linux computer for how much?

27 November 2015

As someone who has spent a significant six-figure sum on computers and peripherals over the past four decades, I was gobsmacked when I read the tech wires this morning.

My fist "home brew" computer cost me over $1,000 to build and had a trivial amount of memory, a puny 1MHz 8-bit processor and no peripherals to speak of.

My first decent CP/M computer cost nearly $10K and it only had floppy disk drives and a slightly faster 8-bit processor.

An IBM PC was about $16K if you wanted one with any sensible amount of storage and a colour display.

And even more recently it has been possible to dump $5K on a decent high-end PC with nice big LCD and a grunty graphics card suitable for gaming.

So what's with this new Raspberry Pi Zero?

A 1GHz ARM processor, half a gig of RAM, full 1080p video output and a bunch of other features for the princely sum of just four UK quid.

Seriously -- that's one hell of a lot of bang for your buck (or UK pound).

This is a computing device that is orders of magnitude faster than the original IBM PC with a vastly superior video output and with an amount of RAM that would have taken a mortgage to afford back in the 1980s.

What's more, it's *tiny*.

Built on a circuit board that is just 65mm x 30mm in size, this is not only a perfect example of how prices have fallen but also how much more compact our processing power has become.

The Pi Zero is a bit of kit that nobody should be without -- even if you have absolutely no use for right now. Unfortunately, as was the case with the original RP, demand is already outstripping supply.

If you're into "the internet of things" then this little board could be a game-changer. throw a tiny Wifi dongle in one of the USB ports and it can become a tiny but powerful node on your home-network with almost all the processing power and capabilities of the original RP.

In fact, the potential applications for this NZ$10 computer are mind-boggling and I'm compiling a long list of things I'd like to use them in.

Of course as a long-time embedded systems guy, I have built a lot of small intelligent devices using other far less capable processors. The Atmel and PIC chips have been around for a long time now and can be had for just a few cents each -- so why would you use a comparatively expensive Pi Zero instead?

Well the benefits of the Pi Zero are many, in certain applications.

The much greater computing power is obviously one such reason. The ability to run Linux is another. But the single greatest bonus must be the fact that there are a more development tools available and it becomes practical to use higher-level languages and RAD systems to reduce the time spent cutting and debugging code.

So, when they catch up with demand, I'll be ordering several of these -- even though I know they'll probably sit on the shelf for quite a while until I find the time to do something with them.

What applications can users think of for a device with these specs at such a low price?

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