Raspberry Pi: The duct tape of computing

The Raspberry Pi is in many ways the duct tape of computing. I’ve come to find it indispensable in the lab – its a GPIO-to-internet box that’s also powerful enough to host and compile complex Git repositories. Furthermore, its native toolchain can directly target most ARM-based embedded projects. As a result, I’ve retired most of my JTAG dongles: why carry around a USB adapter when I can get a fully fledged development environment and JTAG-over-GPIO (via openOCD) that I can SSH into?

The Raspberry Pi is also cheap enough that I can afford the convenience of a new module for every project, rather than attempting to extract the board from the unruly tangle of wires that inevitably sprouts from its GPIO headers.

And it’s available enough that I can count on getting a new one almost anywhere in the world. This last point is crucial: the friction-free supply chain for Raspberry Pis mean I can do design in Singapore, demos in the USA, and development in China on the spur of the moment, without spending an arm and a leg on courier fees.

Like duct tape, the Pi isn’t perfect for everything – its strength comes from its versatility and availability. The turnover rate of new Pi models can be frustrating; they’re almost but not quite perfectly cross-compatible between models. The form factor and connector layouts are also a bit clumsy, and there are situations where I’ve wished for more I/O capability. They also have a tendency to fail at the worst times, which is why, whether I’m walking into a big demo, or venturing out to Burning Man, I’m sure to pack a spare Pi plus backup copies of the SD card image.

If the Pi is the duct tape of computing, Arduinos are like Scotch tape – great for light applications around the home; and the industrial SOMs are like specialty adhesives – perfect for their intended application, but too specific for the toolbox. And so, despite being designed originally for the education market, the Raspberry Pi’s versatility and ubiquity has earned it a place in this engineer’s toolbox, right next to the duct tape.

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