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What is a Raspberry Pi and how does it work?

A Raspberry Pi has existed in the computing world since 2012. While many know it as a single-board computer perfect for computing beginners, it is a lot more versatile than you may think. Here’s how a Raspberry Pi works.

Charles Whitmore

Charles Whitmore

What is a Raspberry Pi and how does it work?

What is a Raspberry Pi?

Originally created in 2012 by the British computing charity, Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer. This means that, physically, the Raspberry Pi is quite small, with every processing component of the computer located on a single circuit board. The original Raspberry Pi isn’t much larger than a credit card.

The point of Raspberry Pi hardware was to create an ideal learning environment for people new to computing and programming. The Raspberry Pi is a simple computer that doesn’t have many parts, making it perfect for new learners. It’s also quite cheap to acquire, and runs on Linux. Since 2012, several other Raspberry Pi models have been made, with progressing levels of technological capability. A Raspberry Pi computer also has IoT technology, allowing it to communicate with other devices connected to the same network.

Despite the simplicity of the Raspberry Pi, it’s an incredibly versatile computer that can create simple input/output commands, allowing a surprising level of automation.

How does a Raspberry Pi work?

A Raspberry Pi has everything a computer needs to function – just in a tiny package. The GPU and CPU are in a single, integrated circuit. Other components, including a USB port, RAM, and an SD card slot are soldered on. The SD card is typically used to hold the operating system, and potentially some more files.

The physical attributes of a Raspberry Pi are tiny. It’s just a miniature computer, with as much function as a user wants. If they want to add more features like an extra USB slot, it’s a simple case of soldering one onto the circuit board.

Any Raspberry Pi model works just like every other computer. All it needs is a power source, a display, and something to input commands.

What is Raspberry Pi used for?

First and foremost, a Raspberry Pi is a low-cost computer primarily used for programming and basic computer science, or learners looking to dip their toes into coding. Due to the nature of the IoT technology in the Raspberry Pi, it can be used to communicate with other devices around a home, and even automate some processes with some smart applications of a few simple lines of code.

A Raspberry Pi is about as versatile as any computer, only this time it’s tiny and can fit in smaller spaces. For example, many advertisers use a Raspberry Pi as the processing power behind digital signs. The Raspberry Pi is ideal for displaying images and text.

A Raspberry Pi can also be configured to display real time information or data on a computer dashboard or other electronic device. This ability is perfect for anyone who needs to keep a close eye on a large number of variables. Other Pi models are better suited for some tasks, partly due to the tiny physical size.

What do you need to use a Raspberry Pi?

A Raspberry Pi is a computer, therefore it needs the same items every other computer needs to function properly. Not counting the Raspberry Pi circuit board itself, here’s what you need:

  • Power supply. Depending on which model you choose, the Raspberry Pi relies on a microUSB for power, but the Raspberry Pi 4 model and onwards use USB-C.
  • MicroSD card. A microSD card is what will hold your operating system and files. Without this, you won’t be able to use your Raspberry Pi to its full capacity.
  • Mouse, keyboard and HDMI cable. Without these, you won’t be able to input functions and commands, or see what you’re doing unless the HDMI is plugged into an appropriate screen.
  • A case. A physical case isn’t strictly necessary for a Raspberry Pi to function, but you shouldn’t really have a bare and uncovered circuit board laying around. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your computer, so put a case on it.

Raspberry Pi features

Here’s everything a standard Raspberry Pi features. For those who are computer-savvy, you’ll see that the features are the same as a standard computer. More features can be added and removed depending on the skill of the user (like a camera module), but here are the basics.

  • Central processing unit. The brains of the computer, the CPU will receive commands and execute them accordingly.
  • HDMI port. Without this, there’s no way to see what you’re doing. An HDMI port is needed to connect to whichever screen you choose.
  • Graphics processing unit. A GPU is what helps translate calculations into images.
  • Random-access memory. RAM is important for accessing real-time information. The original Raspberry Pi only had 256MB of RAM. The Raspberry Pi with the largest capacity holds 8GB of RAM.
  • Ethernet port. An Ethernet port is necessary for connecting to the internet. Access to the internet is paramount for keeping on top of software updates.
  • SD card slot. Most computers have a built-in harddrive. The Raspberry Pi, however, does not. Therefore, a built in slot for an SD storage card is necessary. The SD card will act as the Raspberry Pi’s harddrive.
  • General purpose input/output pins. GPIO pins are located on one side of the circuit board and look like a small nest of pins. These pins are used to communicate and interact with other circuits.
  • LEDs. These lights function as status indicators for several functions. There are five different lights:
    • PWR. This LED is red and indicates when the power supply is on.
    • ACT. This LED is green and indicates when the SD card is in use.
    • LNK. This LED is orange and indicates when there is an active internet connection.
    • 100. This LED is orange and indicates when the internet connection has reached 100Mbps.
    • FDX. This LED is orange and indicates when the internet connection is full-duplex, which means it can handle simultaneous data communication between two parties.

Most popular Raspberry Pi models

With so many different Raspberry Pi models created since 2012, it’s hard to pick which one you want or need. Here are some of the most commonly used models, and how they compare with each other.

Raspberry Pi 4 B

The Raspberry Pi 4 B is one of the latest versions of the tiny computer and runs on a 1.5-GHz, quad-core processor. It has an option to come with 2 or 4 GB of RAM. It also combines multiple USB ports: a mixture of USB 3.0 and 2.0, allowing a great amount of versatility. It also has dual-HDMI ports to support more than one monitor setups. It’s the perfect choice for people starting out and who just want to play around and experiment.

Price: $35

Raspberry Pi Zero W

The Raspberry Pi Zero W is minuscule, measuring up at less than three inches of circuit board space and weighing less than 10 grams. While this Raspberry Pi is far from the fastest option with just a 1-GHz, single-core CPU, it’s perfect for commanding lights, cameras and other simple electronic devices on your local network. It also comes packaged with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. Due to its size, it can only include micro USB instead of a fully sized USB. However, it does not come packaged with the GPIO pins, you will have to solder those onto the circuit board yourself.

Price: $10

Raspberry Pi 400

The Raspberry Pi 400 is the first true home computer released by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This Raspberry Pi differs from the others by being pre-built into a keyboard. The 400 has a variant of the Raspberry Pi 4 embedded into the keyboard, and even has most of the same ports. The 400 is widely used as a development PC or as an accompaniment to a Linux desktop. They are also ideal as computers to use in education — all you need is a monitor and a mouse. It’s a cheaper alternative to purchasing a full computer desktop.

Price: $200

Is buying a Raspberry Pi worth it?

A Raspberry Pi is perfect for tech-geeks who love to indulge in household automation. Due to the versatility of the Raspberry Pi computer, it can be configured to do whatever you need. Be wary, however, of the computational and performance capabilities of the Raspberry Pi. Remember that even the most high-end Raspberry Pi computers won’t have a processor speed as fast as a base Windows PC.

When it comes to security, don’t worry. Because a Raspberry Pi runs on Linux, all you need for a Raspberry Pi VPN is the Linux version of the NordVPN app.


Charles Whitmore
Charles Whitmore Charles Whitmore
Charles is a content writer with a passion for online privacy and freedom of knowledge. A technophile with a weakness for full Smart Home integration – he believes everyone should strive to keep up-to-date with their cybersec.