Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Disposable Personal Computer is Finally Here

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 1, 2015

zx80My first computer was a less-than-$200 Sinclair ZX80 my dad picked up from a trade show. It had 1K of RAM and one of the cheapest CPUs of the era. He knew I was interested in computers, and it was the cheapest machine there, I guess. (BTW, in that picture to the right, that’s not actually venting on top. Those were just decorations made to look like venting.)

My dad joked that at this rate, if they got much cheaper they’d be able to make them a prize inside cereal boxes.

Well, we never quite got there, although the next generation of that computer – the Zx81 (distributed here in the U.S. by Timex, becoming the Timex / Sinclair 1000) – ended up selling for even less. In fact, that kinda launched the big price-wars for “home computers” of the era, eventually going for a bargain-basement price of $50. Adjusted for inflation, that was about $120 in today’s currency. Pretty dang cheap, still.

And short of used computers, you really didn’t get much cheaper than that for a long time.

But the guys at Raspberry Pi shot for a lot less.  Following in the footsteps of the old hobbyist tradition of the original Apple 1 board and the Altair kits, their solution requires some assembly. It’s just a board, containing all the key components of a computer with plugs for anything it might be used for. Like a Micro-SD slot for secondary storage. USB ports to plug in a keyboard (hey, at least the TS1000 and the VIC-20 came with a keyboard!). That kind of thing. But they got the original price down below $40. Some models under $30. VERY impressive. And they’ve been improving the line over time with several models.

1957ComputerVs2015For their latest model, however, they decided to focus not on making it more powerful, but making it cheaper. Lots cheaper. Like… a $5 computer. The Raspberry Pi Zero costs about as much as the cheap 3-foot HDMI cable you’d use to hook it up to a TV (not including the mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter), and half the price of a cheap USB keyboard you’d plug into it. When you can get a full computer for the price of a Big Mac, the era of disposable computers has arrived.

And while it wasn’t put inside a cereal box, they did tape them up onto the cover of their official magazine, MagPI, for free with the magazine. Close enough.

This little $5 computer would put my home computers of the 1980s to shame. Actually, it’d put my PCs from the 1990s to shame, too. It’s got a 1 Ghz CPU, 512 megs of RAM, mini-HDMI, a microSD slot, micro USB slots, and a size of about half that of a credit card. It’s no-frills, lacking built-in ethernet or a graphics processor. When all is said and done, as a general purpose computer, you’ll probably be out another $30 for a powered USB hub, cables, a microSD card, and a cheap keyboard and power supply. Oh, yeah, and might want a case. And that doesn’t include a monitor to plug it into.

But the point is … you don’t necessarily need all that. So what can you do with the thing? What would *I* do with the thing?

Honestly, I don’t know. I want one. I want a half-dozen. But I have absolutely no idea what I’d do with them. My initial reaction is to load up a Commodore 64 emulator and pretend its 1983 all over again, but once I did that, it would maintain my interest for about ten minutes.

Something like this isn’t really for use as your general desktop computer, like the old days. Unless you are in a place where $5 is a lot of money, I guess, and a full-fledged modern PC is beyond your price range. But here, for me, this is a computer for where having a computer isn’t the objective – you need something more than just a programmable controller (like an Arduino), but something tiny and cheap and dedicated to a particular purpose: The brains of a mobile robot. The core of an arcade or console emulation system. The brains of a “smart” appliance or home automation. Or just a really simple and straightforward computer to learn to program on, like we had back in the 80’s. Some people have turned other models of the board into a dedicated server for Minecraft or a media server. Someone even turned it into a wall-mounted calendar running Google Calendar.

As far as gaming on the Raspberry Pi, it doesn’t look like a lucrative market. While games development is certainly possible, and there are a few dozen games out for it (all free, at least at the Raspberry Pi store), the main focus of Pi-powered gaming seems to be emulation. As a fan of retro-gaming, this is a worthy cause in my book. With the deluge of mobile games and a lackluster market for microconsoles, I don’t yet see a big niche for making games for the device, or making a gaming system with the Raspberry Pi as the core. But I’d like to. Just because I’m dumb that way.

Incidentally, the picture above and to the right (not mine, just a meme that came out this weekend) compares the installation of the first municipal computer in Britani with the Raspberry Pi Zero. In 1957, the Elliott 405 had about 16 k of RAM (on a rotating drum) with a smaller, faster drum containing a 1.2 k cache for the processor. Secondary storage was a reel-to-reel tape which held about 1.2 megabytes on a 1000-foot spool… about the capacity of a “High Density” 5.25″ floppy diskette.  Depending on the configuration, it probably cost around 100,000 pounds, or $275,000 in U.S. Dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $2.3 million in today’s dollars. The $5 Raspberry Pi zero is tiny, has 512 megs of onboard RAM, and for $10 can slot a 32 gig microSD that can hold more data than  27000 thousand-foot reel-to-reel tapes.

Cool, huh?

Filed Under: Tech - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • William Barnson said,

    My son, Jay, is the greatest son a dad could have! Our memories together are priceless! I was fascinated by his early explorations with computers and continue to marvel at his expertise in programming and journalism. Life is an adventure and Jay is way out in front of the crowd.