Programmer Gifts - Pi For Xmas
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Tuesday, 15 December 2020

The holiday season is a good time to learn about computers - you have the time. But where to start? Our advice is to ignore the pudding and go for a Pi.

There has never been a better time to get involved in computing and the reason is the Raspberry Pi. This remarkable hardware can get you started in a whole different way of using computers. It is also a safe and cheap way to simply learn about programming. You can do this for the unbelievably low price of $5 but I'd advise spending just a little more. The $5 miracle is the Raspberry Pi Zero. It is a complete computer that you can program using Python, C, Java etc and you can use it as the basis for custom hardware projects. It is remarkable value but I'd advise against buying it unless you are already happy with such technicalities. The reason is that it doesn't have any network connection at all and the era of the Internet this is limiting.

If you do decide to go for a basic Zero then I'd invest in a small kit. You need a USB power supply, a micro HDMI to HDMI connector and a keyboard and HDMI monitor. Personally I'd opt for the Pi Zero W which has WiFi and Bluetooth built in. In this case you can even get away without a keyboard and and a monitor but again for simplicity it is better not to try this until you know a bit more. The W costs double the basic Zero but at $10 it is still almost a disposable computer.

For just over $15 more you can get a complete kit which includes a case, power supply, adapters, heat sink and GPIO header.

 PiWClick to buy at Amazon.

The case supplied with this kit is the sort I like to use as it can be configured to give access to the GPIO pins. You still need a monitor and a keyboard but any USB keyboard and a TV with HDMI will do the job. You will also need an SD card and I'd recommend a cheap 32GByte card.

The Pi Zero W is great for getting started with learning to program or for building clever devices, but if you want to use the Pi as something like a full computer then you need to move up to the Raspberry Pi 4. This comes in a range of memory sizes and starts at $35 with 1GByte. If you know what you want to use the Pi 4 for then buy the size that suits the task. If you don't know then by the 4GByte version as you can't upgrade later. In practice the Pi 4 with 4GBytes is powerful enough to be used as a desktop replacement. 

Click to buy at Amazon.

Again you can't just buy a Pi, you need some extras. You need a USB power supply that will source 3A, which is more than most smartphones and similar adapters produce. If you are going to use it "the easy way" you will also need an micro HDMI cable, a USB keyboard/mouse, an HDMI monitor and an SD card. You might well have some of these items already, but you can also simplify things a bit more by buying a kit.

New this year is the Pi 400 - a complete desktop machine based on a slightly faster Pi 4B in a keyboard.


Click to buy at Amazon.

The only problem is that at the moment they are in short supply and the only way to get one quick is to order a complete kit - but still good for a present. It can be used as a desktop machine with two monitors - its what I currently use - but it is an excellent development machine for IoT type applications as the GPIO connector is availalbe at the back.

So what do you do if you want to not just to learn to program but also want to find out about physical computing or the IoT? You need a selection of components, a prototyping board and some jumper wires. There are a number of different kits that supply a range of parts, but the one I personally like is this one:


 Click to buy at Amazon.

What is so good about this kit is that at $21.95 it includes a full range of possibilities. You get a lots of LEDs, LED display, small motore, power supply and a prototyping board and jumper wires. Notice that you don't get a Pi or any of the things you need for basic use of the Pi this is an add-on.

Personally I'd advise getting a multimeter as well and, given how cheap they are today, why not. This just over $10 meter isn't the best, but it is good enough for most things:


Click to buy at Amazon.

Later you will need a soldering iron, wire cutters, digital signal analyzer and more...

Finally would it be Xmas without a copy of my Pi book?

No of course not!

You can program your Pi in Python, but why not use C and get the most out of it, along with an education that is becoming rarer as things move ever upward and abstract. C is at least 10 times faster than Python. What is even better is this is the recently published enlarged second edition. However, be warned, this isn't a book for the 100% complete beginner:

FrontCover800 Click to buy at Amazon.

If you need something to get you up to speed in C then I recommend my recent book on the C language for an IoT context.

Click to buy at Amazon.

And if you are looking for something on using Linux at a fairly low level then you also need the companion volume:

Click to buy at Amazon

Finally if you really want to work in Python, Mike James' favourite language, then why not get a copy of:

pyIoT360coverClick to buy at Amazon

It shows you how to get started with GPIO Zero, the official way to work with Python on the Pi, and how to master it so that you can add custom devices. 

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 15 December 2020 )