A couple of weeks ago the tech supplies retailer Maplin sent us a Raspberry Pi microcomputer with 16GB Noob SD Card to review. As we have already been playing with a BBC Microbit we bought from Maplin a few months ago, it seems like a useful thing to compare the two. The photos here are all relating to the Raspberry Pi, please see previous Microbit articles for images of that device. Both devices
were developed in order to encourage people, especially children, to learn to code in the way that those of us who grew up in the 80s had more exposure to since computer systems such as the Oric and Atari had options to program in your own games. In today’s world were computers have an intuitive user interface where you never see the code behind it, this skill was being lost. The Raspberry Pi enables users to code in simple languages, for example Scratch which was developed by programmers at MIT as a ‘my first computer coding’ experience for kids.
Firstly the devices are about the same size and as such are great little bits of kit as they don’t take up masses of storage space when you aren’t using them. The Microbit has a micro USB port that you connect to for power and data transfer, and that’s it for ports. By comparison, the Raspberry Pi has a lot more options to connect different things, including USB, Ethernet and HDMI. The 16GB Noobs SD Card was a really useful add-on as it allows you to save stacks of extra code and projects. The Microbit connects to your desktop or laptop computer, whereas the Raspberry Pi is a computer. This means the Raspberry Pi requires that you have a keyboard, mouse and monitor to use with it. You have a wider range of things you can do with it in some respects, but it is also a bit more complicated to get started with.
The Microbit has a built in simple LED display, thermometer and accelerometer, whereas for the Raspberry Pi those are an add on you can buy. These features allow you to conduct activities such as programming little routines with kids such as turning a fan on when the temperature reaches a certain level. Both devices have drag and drop programming as well as text based, so are ideal for children to learn to code on. Microbit has drag and drop and Python which you code on your computer, then send the hex file to the Microbit which runs that code. The Raspberry Pi has drag and drop, Python, Scratch and a few other programming tools. You program directly onto the Pi using a keyboard plugged into the device.
Both devices have a range of add-ons that you can buy separately which improve the range of activities you can do with them, including bread boards (jargon for a re-useable circuit board) which enable you to make up simple circuits including elements such as fans, lights and motors.
So far we have used the Microbit for more practical activities such as making traffic lights and a wind turbine, while the Raspberry Pi has been fun for programming simple games. The capabilities of both devices go well beyond these activities, so they lend themselves to growing in complexity as the age and confidence of the user increases.
The Microbit was easier to get started with, as we had some issues formatting the SD card for the Raspberry Pi. Younger kids will need a large amount of adult support in using both devices, but older children will increasingly become independent as they use them. Both Microbit and Raspberry Pi have supportive websites featuring help and project ideas, and both have keen followings of people happy to share their expertise and enthusiasm for the devices. If you are not a confident programmer/techy person yourself, I would recommend spending plenty of time alone with the device you have chosen figuring it out and becoming familiar with it before you attempt to use it with children under about 10 years old. You can imagine the scenario “What does this do? Why isn’t it doing anything? What if I poke this bit” etc… while your blood pressure slowly rises and the kids get bored while you try and figure it out. Kids in the target age range of 10 and up will likely fly rapidly way ahead then ask you to go away and stop being so uncool because they can do it without you because you were born before everyone had the internet and therefore clearly don’t know anything about anything.
In conclusion, both devices are good fun and very useful. We bought the Microbit in store along with an expansion pack containing the breadboard, and were able to plug it in to our laptop and start playing with it out of the box by following instructions on www.microbit.co.uk
The Raspberry Pi arrived through the post in good time and in great condition, without excessive packaging. As we already had a spare mouse, keyboard and monitor we were able to hit the ground running with it, but be aware that you will need these things to be able to do anything with it. Instructions and project ideas were easy to find for it on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website www.raspberrypi.org. The device is great fun and essential kit for anyone wanting to support children in learning to code, or just as a fun project for themselves.
I’d love to read comments from friends who are using these devices to see what your ideas for them are!
NB We were sent the Raspberry Pi to review by Maplin. All opinions, information and images are my own and that of the hubster (and the kids) who conducted the product trials. I just interviewed him and said ‘wait, what was that in English?’ every so often.