Pi three ways

My name’s Andrew and I have a Raspberry Pi addiction.

I’ve played with a lot of IT kit over the years, and set up a number of servers for a variety of reasons. File servers, media servers, web servers; from do-it-yourself bare bones solutions held together with scripts and bits of string, to complete vendor solutions that work flawlessly straight out of the box.

None have come close to the perfect storm of adoption, usability, and economy that the Pi represents. It’s terrific fun and I wish I’d jumped on the bandwagon sooner.

Mobile phone-class CPU boards are nothing new – see for example the BeagleBoard – but they’ve always taken a fair amount of effort to be productive. The high profile and huge community around the Pi makes it much more accessible. It even has an 80s-style magazine, MagPi, that reminds me of fun times typing in programs from computer magazines as a child.

Now I’m addicted to the Pi, the two biggest problems I’m faced with are:

  • What is the correct pluralisation and collective noun for more than one Pi? “A bake of Pis” looks horrible. “A bush of Raspberries Pi” is arguably wrong. “A transcendence of pien” sounds pompous. Suggestions welcome. Until then, I’ll go to lengths to avoid referring to the Pi in the plural.
  • How many is too many? I have two, I’m about to order a third, but I could make an argument for one in every room in the house. And maybe one in the shed, one in the car. One for every television. One in each drawer?

Here’s three ways I’m using the Raspberry Pi collection I’m assembling.

The print server

Pi in a Cup

Pi in a cup. For ages I’ve been using a big old clunky PC running Linux as a print server. It was never really called on to do much else, and so it represented power-hungry overkill for the occasional bit of printing.

With minimal tweaks, I got Raspian installed. It took longer to pick the correct printer from the list in CUPS than it did to get everything else set up. And now I have a low power, ultra quiet server and a whole drawer of space reclaimed. And yes, that is an HP TouchPad USB charger powering the Pi…

The media server

I am a huge fan of the original Apple TV: it’s the first device that really made home media make sense on the TV. Back in 2007 I wrote “Apple TV looks like a gorgeous little box”, and it wasn’t long before I bought one. But I soon found it limiting. I wanted to play the high resolution backups of all of my DVDs, but the Apple TV wasn’t powerful enough to do full HD playback. So I “fixed” it with an upgrade in August 2010.

As I wrote later in 2012:

“The AppleTV has been upgraded with a Broadcom Crystal HD chip in the internal PC Card slot – which normally has a wifi card in it. I figured it was worth sacrificing wifi, since with the size of HD video you really want to be using a fast wired network anyway. In order to make use of the HD chip, I have XBMC installed on the AppleTV.”

Sadly, this has always been bit of a hacked-together solution, even with the polish that the FireCore folk provided with aTV Flash. Occasionally something random would get bit-rot, and I’d have to reinstall. It took ages (at the time) to find the right build of XBMC for CrystalHD hardware support. The AppleTV itself also permanently runs warm, which suggests a fair waste of electricity somewhere.

Just a week ago, I got this cryptic error whenever I tried to use XBMC:

XBMC error

I didn’t have time to debug the problem or rebuild the AppleTV. Raspbmc to the rescue! Easy to install, and with the MPEG2 and VC-1 license keys to unlock the codecs, the Pi has more than enough guts to take over XBMC duties. And in a PiBow case it looks fancy, too:

PiBMC

The only downside is that I can’t easily download and watch movies from the iTunes store with the Raspberry Pi, so I’ll need to keep the AppleTV on standby. Movie studios and content distributors take note: I’ll happily pay for downloadable movies on the Pi. Please make this happen.

The home automation server

This requires a longer post, but what happens when you combine an RF transmittersmart sockets with RF receivers, and a Raspberry Pi?

pi@raspberrypi ~ $ tdtool –on 80
Turning on device 80, all study lights – Success

I’m still working out how best to make use of this. Ideas include automatically turning on the lights when it gets dark (querying sunrise/sunset information via HTTP?), or tweeting “hey Pi, turn on the lights please”. Maybe using a webcam to detect motion so lights don’t turn on unnecessarily. What else could I do?

More on that another day …

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