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Mar 03 2012

The launch of the Raspberry Pi – haven’t we been here before?

Yes. We have. But not for a long, long time and that’s why I’m looking forward to receiving mine, once production can keep up with demand. At £21.60 + VAT for a “model B”, you can’t really argue about value, even though you have to provide your own keyboard, monitor, SD cards and a case.

According to the charitable foundation behind the Raspberry Pi, it has come into being because:

Eben [Upton, a Cambridge University lecturer] had noticed a distinct drop in the skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year when he came to interview them. From a situation in the 1990s where most of the kids applying were coming to interview as hobbyist programmers, the landscape in the 2000s was very different; a typical applicant now had experience only with web design, and sometimes not even with that.

A number of problems were identified: the colonisation of the ICT curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on.

Single board computers were all the rage amongst hobbyists in the late 1970s / early 1980s. I have my own rare example, purchased from an internet auction site a few years ago when I was feeling nostalgic – a 1979 Compukit UK101.

Practical Electronics Magazine - August 1979

Practical Electronics Magazine - August 1979

The UK101 wasn’t the first single board machine (the Science of Cambridge MK14 and the Ohio Superboard II – of which the UK101 was a pretty close clone – predated it) and it wasn’t the last either. How I wish I’d invested a few pounds in a Sinclair ZX80 – good examples sell for hundreds these days!

Comparisons are odious – but that’s what I’m going to do anyway.

1979 Compukit UK101 2012 Raspberry Pi ‘B’
Central Processor 6502 ARM1176JZFS
Clock speed 1MHz – stepped down from an 8MHz crystal 700MHz
Graphics Processor No dedicated processor, but 1Kbyte VDU RAM Videocore 4 GPU
RAM 4Kbytes – expandable to 8Kbytes on board using 0.5 Kbyte 2114 RAM packages 256Mbytes – included in package with CPU and GPU. A “system on a chip”. No expansion capability
Operating System Machine code monitor and I/O utilities in ROM Fedora Linux on SD card – other ARM11  compatible distributions should be possible
Programming Language Microsoft BASIC (8K in ROM) Python – but presumably any other language capable of running on Fedora Linux (Wikipedia is suggesting that an implementation of BBC BASIC is already available, along with C and Perl – I am sure there are other languages that will run too)
Monitor output UHF to TV RCA video and HDMI
Power supply 240V AC mains transformer – 9V DC Micro power 5V USB
Interfaces Cassette interface (CUTS) – 300 baud (often modified to run at 600 baud), RS232 possible as an enhancement, as was an 8” floppy disk controller USB 2.0 and Ethernet
Audio None Via HDMI or 3.5mm jack socket
Designed in UK UK
Supplied as PCB and kit of parts – assembly required Pre-assembled board
Launch Price £219 + VAT from Compshop Ltd. £21.60 + VAT from RS Components or Premier Farnell.

I really hope that the Raspberry Pi succeeds in its aim of reintroducing the fun of programming to novices. One potential mark of success would be the return of the “listings magazine” – which provided not only source code, but also useful articles on how to program and reviews of new hardware.

I get all misty-eyed when I think of the hours I spent typing in programs from the long gone “Computing Today” and learning how modify code written for a different BASIC dialect to work on either the Sharp MZ80K I had, or the RM 380Z and Commodore PETs the school acquired when I was in sixth form.

It’s unlikely that a listings magazine would work in print form today, but I look forward to seeing some novice-friendly web equivalents appear.

In the meantime, I’ve just rescued my UK101 from the attic. Now, where did I put my computing magazines?

UK101 program 03-03-2012

I can still remember how to program in BASIC!

5 comments

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  1. Andy J

    Hi Michael,

    The standard machine was configured for 1MHz, but if you had faster 2114s (cannot recall if you needed faster PROMs also), you could run at 2MHz easily. Mine did, at least. The standard display was 16 rows x 48 characters, but as each pixel was scanned on both video frames, you could, with a careful rewire of the Display generator clock signals, and a careful piggy back to double the video RAM from 1k to 2k, get a 32 line display, which worked very well with the 32 line CEGMON. I seem to recall stepping up the tape baud rate from standard 300bps to 600 was reliable, but 1200 was tempramental. There were some useful extension PROMS: BASIC5, BASICX, TOOLKIT2, I recall, and there may have been one more in my collection. The plug-in sound card with the AY-3-8910 was a fun project too.

    Regards

    1. tim

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the additional information.

      Tim.

  2. Michael Wills

    Hi,

    nice to see peoploe linking the old era of 8 bit with the Raspberry PI – I certainly want one and I had an early machine then – a Microtan 65 also a 6502 machine.

    Just a point of fact on the Compukit – it did use an 8MHz crystal (needed for generating the video clock rate) but the CPU ran much slower, I think perhaps it was 1MHz! Emphasises your contrast even more though.

    regards,
    Michael

    1. tim

      Hi Michael,

      Yes – you’re absolutely right! I think it was 1 MHz on the CPU (it was certainly less than 8 )… I shall wade back through my stack of old magazines and check.

      Tim.

  3. Andy Cobley

    I had a UK 101 and A Science of Cambridge MK14. Thats why I’m looking forward to a Raspberry Pi !

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