What is a Raspberry Pi and what can I do with it?

The Raspberry Pi is a small, credit-card sized computer. It has many functions and interfaces which you know and recognize from “bigger computers” like Dell desktop computers or Lenovo notebooks.

You can run many software applications on it, like a web browser (Chromium which is similar to Google Chrome), spreadsheets (LibreOffice Calc, which is, again, similar to Microsoft Excel).

It also has some special features, most notably the “GPIO port”, which everyday computers do not have.

In this blog post, we’ll explain in detail what a Raspberry Pi is, and how to use it.

Raspberry Pi Model 4B 4GB RAM picture from above
This is how a Raspberry Pi looks like, as an example: the Raspberry Pi 4 / 4GB

Raspberry Pi is a family of computers

The Raspberry Pi logo
The Raspberry Pi logo is well-know on the Internet, especially among computer enthusiasts

The picture above shows one of the currently most popular models of Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi Model 4 B. The individual “Raspi” family members have, as is usual with families, many similarities but also traits of their own.

Most of the software which you can get for a Raspberry Pi, and how-tos for Raspberry Pi projects work with all Raspberry Pis. For good performance, however, you might want to choose one of the newer members of the family, like the Raspberry Pi 3B+ or the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.

Beginners might even want to choose the new Raspberry Pi 400, which integrates a keyboard into the case, and reminds many people of the C64 days.

The family members, as one would expect, look different. One of the smallest family members is the Pi Zero W, and one of the biggest (and newest) the Raspberry Pi 400.

Raspberry Pi Zero W
Raspberry Pi Zero W, the $10 computer and one of the smallest Raspberry Pis (compare the size of the HDMI port and the microUSB ports!)
Raspberry Pi 400
The Raspberry Pi 400, showing the ports on the back. It is the biggest currently available Raspberry Pi model, integrating a keyboard into the case.

You can see a list of all currently available Raspberry Pi family members in our sister shop page, buyzero.de:

But, what is a Raspberry Pi, now?

The Raspberry Pi is a computer in a single-board format. This means, that all components of the Raspberry Pi are integrated on a single PCB (printed circuit board). The Raspberry Pi is the most popular computer in this format, there are also some others (for example the BeagleBone Black).

Most things are scaled down and compressed in a Raspberry Pi. For example, instead of a harddrive (or SSD), the Raspberry Pi uses a microSD card to store it’s files, applications and operating system:

Raspberry Pi Model B+ from the back, SD card slot on the right
The SD card slot can be seen on the right – it is usually located on the back of the Raspberry Pi

It does have many of the popular interfaces you will recognize from desktop computers and laptops:

  • multiple USB ports (the Raspberry Pi 4 and Raspberry Pi 400 have two USB 3.0 ports, the other models only USB 2.0 ports)
  • network port (the Raspberry Pi 4 and Pi 400 have GBit Ethernet, other models usually 10/100 Mbit/s)
  • WiFi & Bluetooth
  • HDMI port(s) to attach a monitor (monitors)
  • audio jack, to attach headphones or an amplifier

You will be able to attach all the usual hardware accessories and devices, like HDMI monitors or TVs, USB flash drives, keyboard & mice, webcams, printers, etc. You can connect the Raspberry Pi to the internet using WiFi or wired networking (Ethernet / LAN, attaching a network cable to the Ethernet port and connecting it to your router).

Special ports on Raspberry Pi

It also has some special ports which you might not have seen on any other computer you have used so far:

  • microUSB port / USB C port for powering the Raspberry Pi (using a smartphone compatible power supply usually!)
  • MIPI DSI display and MIPI CSI camera flex ports (to attach a camera and a 7” touch display to the Raspberry Pi) – these are the two thin, long black / white structures you can see in the Raspberry Pi 4 picture above
  • GPIO port – for adding extensions (often called “HATs”) and interfacing with electronics!

Please note that some models of the Raspberry Pi family do not have some features. For example, the Pi 400 does not have MIPI DSI and MIPI CSI ports, the Pi Zero W only has one USB port (and microUSB at that) for attaching USB peripherals, so the information given here is general and needs to be verified for individual models according to your needs.

Raspi Berry helping new Raspberry Pi users to get acquainted with the Raspberry Pi ecosystem
Raspberry Pi camera attached to Raspberry Pi
The picture shows a Raspberry Pi camera attached to a Raspberry Pi using a flex cable

How can I use the Raspberry Pi?

To get started, you will need some accessories. We recommend to purchase a Raspberry Pi kit (see “where can I buy a Raspberry Pi” below). Usually, you would require all of the following:

  • power supply (USB C for Pi 4 and Raspi 400, microUSB for the others)
  • HDMI (most models), miniHDMI/HDMI (Pi Zero series) or microHDMI/HDMI (for Pi 400 / Raspberry Pi 4) cable
  • USB keyboard
  • USB mouse
  • microSD card (we recommend Class 10 microSD cards with at least 16 GB storage space. SanDisk is a good brand)

The Raspberry Pi requires an operating system to run. This operating system usually will reside on the microSD card. Some stockists sell microSD cards with pre-flashed operating systems, which will make it easier for you to start.

Read our article about choosing the right operating system for your Raspberry Pi.

Using the Raspberry Pi Imager

To get started, once you have all accessories, you will need to put the operating system on the microSD card. We recommend to use the Raspberry Pi Imager for this, you can download it here:

Before you start, make sure that you do not need the data on the microSD card anymore (or have a backup!) – it will be overwritten and can’t be recovered after you’ve written the OS or chosen to erase the card.

Insert the SD card into the computer you are running. Don’t worry, it will only be written to, once you click on “Write”.

Start Raspberry Pi Imager:

The Raspberry Pi imager allows you to choose the Operating System and the SD card

Click on Choose OS to select an operating system. If you scroll down in the list, you can also use a custom image (.img file) to write to the microSD card.

Click on Choose OS in Raspberry Pi imager to see a selection of operating systems
Raspberry Pi Imager showing the operating system selection screen, allowing tu use custom image (.img) files.
Raspberry Pi Imager allows you to also Erase the SD card or use a custom image (.img file)

Raspberry Pi Imager has the big advantage that you don’t need to go to any website to obtain the operating systems for the Raspberry Pi – it downloads them for you. Read more about the different operating systems available for the Raspberry Pi here.

Raspberry Pi imager shows which Raspberry Pi version the operating system is compatible with.

Once you’ve selected the OS you would like, click on “choose SD card”, and select the SD card writer / SD card:

The Raspberry Pi Imager allows you to select which device you’ll write to.

Make sure that you’re selecting the right card reader to write to, so that you do not delete anything by accident! I recommend to remove all removable drives and storage devices you do not currently need from your computer to avoid overwriting the wrong SD card.

Finally, click on Write:

Raspberry Pi imager ready to write
Once you’ve selected the operating system and the SD card, the write button will appear

You will be asked, whether you’re really sure:

Raspberry Pi imager asks whether you want to continue
Safety first: Raspberry Pi Imager asks you whether you are sure that you want to continue

Once again, check that you’re writing to the right SD card, and that you do not need the data on it anymore. Then click “yes”.

Raspberry Pi imager writing image to SD Card
Raspberry Pi imager starts to write the image to your SD card

Project ideas for the Raspberry Pi

Once you’ve put the operating system on the Raspberry Pi, it’s time to explore its capabilities. Here are some things you can do with a Raspberry Pi:

  • block online ads in your network using Pi Hole
  • stream and play back media files using LibreELEC (it’s own operating system!)
  • Edit documents and create spreadsheets using the LibreOffice Suite
  • Surf the web using Chromium (which is very similar to Google Chrome)
  • Learn how to code using Scratch or Python
  • learn electronics / physical computing – learn how to control your own LEDs, make buzzers buzz, and have the computer react to push buttons.
  • Create file and print servers, host your own web site in your local network
  • and much more – we will be exploring some project ideas in this blog.

The Raspberry Pi was created to make learning computers fun, cheap, and safe. If anything goes wrong with your operating system, you can simply reinstall the SD card.

What is PiCockpit?

Our mission is to make your Raspberry Pi even easier to use, by simple web-based tools, allowing you to control and monitor your Raspberry Pi. Check out our homepage for more details:

How much does a Raspberry Pi cost?

There are different models of Raspberry Pi, with different price points. The recommended retail pricing (RRP) ranges from $5 for the cheapest Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi Zero, through $35 for many popular models (including the Raspberry Pi 3B+ and the Pi 4/2GB), up to $70 for the newest model, the Raspberry Pi 400 (unit only).

Where can I purchase a Raspberry Pi?

Raspberry Pi Trading (the company behind Raspberry Pi) has a network of so-called Approved Raspberry Pi resellers. You should watch out for this logo, which they carry:

Approved Reseller Logo
Raspberry Pi approved reseller logo

These vetted online (and some physical) stockists are a good choice for solid pricing & good advice and experience concerning the Raspberry Pi. You can check out our sister site, buyzero.de (an approved reseller, of course!) buyzero.de is a good choice when you’re located in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For other countries, Raspberry Pi (the company) has a list of resellers for many of the products they sell.

Are all Raspberry Pis credit-card sized?

No, in fact some popular models like the Raspberry Pi Zero WH and the Pi 400 have different sizes. See above for pictures of these models.

The credit-card sized form factor is, however, what is most typically associated with the Raspberry Pi computer platform.

Raspberry Pi Model A+
The Raspberry Pi model A+ / 3A+ is yet another form factor in the Raspberry Pi family

Conclusion: Raspberry Pi is fun

A Raspberry Pi is a small computer, which has many possible applications and can replace traditional computers for many use cases.

You can use it to play videos on your TV, to surf the Internet, and to build cool gadgets and electronics projects. Many people and companies also use the Raspberry Pi as small servers (for printing / file storage / backup / DNS servers …).

One of the most cool applications for the Raspberry Pi is Pi Hole – this allows you to block online advertisements in your network.

What are you looking to create with the Raspberry Pi? Comment below, and I might be able to point you in the right direction for getting started 🙂

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