What do a Subway sandwich and a computer have in common?

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That’s right, you can get either one of them for $5!  Introducing the newest member to the Raspberry Pi family, the Pi Zero.  As you can see by the picture above next to the deck of cards, it’s quite a bit smaller than a foot long sandwich, but that doesn’t stop it from packing quite a punch!  The tiny new SOC (System On a Chip) computer is just that- a full fledged computer capable of running Linux with a desktop environment.  Granted, it’s not the snappiest performer in that capacity but still super cool that it can pull it off!

 

Here are the specs (gratuitously lifted from raspberry pi’s website):

  • A Broadcom BCM2835 application processor
    • 1GHz ARM11 core (40% faster than Raspberry Pi 1)
  • 512MB of LPDDR2 SDRAM
  • A micro-SD card slot
  • A mini-HDMI socket for 1080p60 video output
  • Micro-USB sockets for data and power
  • An unpopulated 40-pin GPIO header
    • Identical pinout to Model A+/B+/2B
  • An unpopulated composite video header

 

So- on to the gotcha’s.  With a $5 computer, yo’re gonna to have to make some minor investments in additional hardware to make it functional.  Here’s the list of absolute must have’s to even get up and going:

  • MicroSD Card (preferably 8gb or bigger and class 10 or faster)
  • Micro USB power source capable of providing at least 1A at 5v
  • Micro USB to USB Type A Female converter
  • USB Wi-Fi or ethernet adapter (make sure it’s supported first)

You can technically get up and running with this much hardware, however you have no video out and would have to rely on pre-configuring the OS to somehow get on the network and allow SSH to get in.  Not very functional but a working minimal config once you have it set up the way you want.  Raspberry Pi has taken the Spirit Airlines approach to the Zero.  They give you only what you need to work (the Bare Fare), allowing you to decide what extras you want to pay for and which ones you skip.  In order to configure your Zero initially, you’ll need a couple more things:

  • Mini HDMI to HDMI cable (or Mini HDMI to HDMI converter with an HDMI cable coming out of it)
  • USB Hub for mouse, keyboard and wired or wireless network connectivity
  • Keyboard and Mouse

This will get you connected to a Monitor/TV that has HDMI inputs so you can see what you’re doing.  It also provides for an input method via the keyboard and mouse.  At the end of this article, I’ll post a list of some of the essential hardware, how much I paid for it and where I got it.

 

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One of the reasons I bought one of these is it’s ability to serve as a very capable media center device.  In one of my earlier posts, I talked about something called OpenELEC.  It’s a Linux distribution that includes Kodi which is an open source home theater software package also based on Linux.  The OpenELEC package combines the Linux OS and Kodi into an interface that’s very well suited to a TV and remote control.  Best of all, it runs on the entire line of Raspbery Pi’s!  I’ll be posting soon about one of the other alternatives to OpenELEC called OSMC.  The concept is the same, however OSMC includes a full raspbian Linux OS that isn’t as hands off as OpenELEC is.  As a result, it’s much more easily configured and customized without having to learn all the in’s and out’s of the underlying OpenELEC OS components.

 

Architecture-and-Source

The reason that the Zero can pull this off is mainly due to it’s built in hardware video decoder.  The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) has discreet hardware functions dedicated for video encoding and decoding (recording and playback).  This means that video playback such as 1080p at 60fps doesn’t rely on the processor to decode and display the video stream, slowing other operations down.  It’s all done in hardware- very similar to the Playstation 4, XBox ONE, or any other gaming platform that has dedicated graphics hardware.  All that’s left for the diminutive Zero to do is render the on-screen menus, take care of assorted housekeeping and perform other OS related stuff.

 

Pibow_Zero_1_of_3_1024x1024There are a number of “cases” for the Zero out on the market now.  I use the term case rather loosely because as you can see to the left, it’s mainly two layers of plastic sandwiching the Pi Zero between it.  There are also quite a few 3d designs that “makers” can download and print on their 3d printer. Others can be bought in brick and mortar stores like MicroCenter or ordered online from websites like Adafruit, Raspberry Pi’s swag store, or Pimoroni (a popular “maker” website based in the UK) to name just a few.  You don’t technically need a case, but it’s a good idea to keep shorts, static discharge or any other molestation from occurring to your sweet innocent little computer.  With the tiny form factor this device affords, you can easily slap a case on it, connect it to your living room TV and attach it to the back of your set via 2 way adhesive tape- nobody would even know it’s there!

 

As of this writing, I’m not aware of any MicroSD cards that are bigger than 512gb.  Granted that’s a LOT of storage but that comes at a fairly steep price- about $400 on amazon.com.  I’m sure as higher density chips come out that price will fall, but the better bet would be to cobble together some 4TB hard drives in a desktop computer and use it for network storage of your multimedia files.  This is what I’m doing and it works perfectly!  I have multiple Raspberry Pi’s throughout the house on each TV that can play back my entire collection of movies, pictures, music and any other multimedia I choose to host on my media server.

 

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There are also a number of other things that any of the Raspberry Pi family is capable of doing, including interacting with the physical world via it’s GPIO pins.  The Zero doesn’t come out of the box with the 40pin header required to use the GPIO, however it’s easily soldered onto the board.  I have a couple Pi 2’s that have temperature sensors hooked up to them and I track the temperature via MRTG graphs.  I also hope to set up an animated Christmas light display using a SainSmart 16 Channel relay board that is controlled by the Pi turning on and off each individual circuit.  It could also be used for home automation in that regard.

 

I could go on and on about all the things that these little buggers can do, but this article is focused on the Zero.  Below I’ll list some of the hardware (with prices and source) that you’ll need in order to put the Zero into service.  Add it all up and you’ll have to purchase at least another $16+ worth of hardware to really get some use out of it.  Granted I went as cheap as I could find online and I didn’t factor in any shipping or tax so your total could very well be north of $20.  For that, you can almost get a Raspberry Pi B+ that has full size HDMI, built in Ethernet and 4 full size Type A USB ports as well.  But c’mon- look how small this thing is- you can hide it in a can of Altoids and have room to spare for cripes sakes!

 

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There are a number of remote control apps that allow your phone/tablet to serve as the remote control for Kodi.  What’s really cool is that Kodi also supports the CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) standard which allows you to control some devices via the HDMI protocol.  This means that in a lot of cases, you can simply use the remote that came with your TV to navigate through Kodi without any additional hardware needed!

 

 

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One thought on “What do a Subway sandwich and a computer have in common?

  1. I forgot to mention- most TV’s have at least one USB port which could be used to power the Pi- making for an even more condensed solution to deploy. In this case all you would need is a USB Type A to Micro USB cable connected to the TV and to the Zero’s Micro USB power port.

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