what is raspberry pi

Everything You Need To Know About Raspberry Pi

Last updated on October 6, 2019 Views: 547 Comments: 0

The humble Raspberry Pi may have started out as an educational tool for kids, but its flexibility and broad capabilities soon attracted interest from hobbyists and digital makers of all ages, the world over.

Today, depending on your coding abilities and your interests, you might use one of these tiny computers as a WiFi router, a media center, to support your home network, for gaming or even as the basis of a security surveillance set-up.

Whatever your uses, though, it’s important to remember that any device that connects to the internet needs robust security in place. Without this, hackers can easily get into other computers on a public WiFi network, for example.

To be sure that no one is spying on what you’re up to, it’s wise to ensure that your connection is encrypted at all times. The best way to do that is by using a VPN.

In this article, we’ll answer questions like “What is the Raspberry Pi?” and “How does the Raspberry Pi work?”. We will also discuss how a VPN can keep you protected in these situations, and what you need to look for in a VPN.

What Is Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer – about the size of a credit card – that can be plugged into a computer monitor or a TV screen.

These were originally invented to help people learn more about coding and computing in general, particularly in the programming languages Python and Scratch. They’re available at low cost; you can buy one online for $35.

You can use a Raspberry Pi for anything you might usually use a laptop or desktop computer for. That includes playing and creating games, accessing the internet, streaming video and running Office-style applications for purposes such as word processing and creating spreadsheets.

More excitingly, you can program it however you like and use it to communicate with the outside world. This means that digital makers and innovators use their Raspberry Pis for all kinds of robotics, electronics, data collection, photography/video, and computing projects.

The Story Behind the Raspberry Pi

In the mid-2000s, computer scientists at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory were becoming increasingly concerned that the number of students applying to study the subject was falling each year. Even those who did apply tended to have less experience and understanding of programming, compared to applicants just a decade before. The Computer Laboratory poured time and resources into trying to figure out what could have gone wrong along the way.

The researchers concluded that a number of issues, including changes to the education system, all played a part in the decline. However, one important factor was simply that, unlike in the mid-90s, young people didn’t have access to home computers that they could program easily themselves.

This seemed like an issue that could realistically be fixed, so the team set out to find a way to address it. They decided to design a small and, importantly, a cheap type of computer that children and adolescents would be able to get hold of easily and use to experiment with programming.

By 2012, they had created the Raspberry Pi. Resembling a small circuit board, this model fit the cost requirements while being an entirely functional, programmable computer, compete with HD multimedia capabilities.

How Does the Raspberry Pi work?

Asking what you can do with a Raspberry Pi is a bit like asking what you can draw with a pencil. As the creators point out, the possibilities are theoretically infinite, but obviously that depends on your personal skill level when it comes to coding.

The whole point of the Raspberry Pi is that it’s programmable, so you can use it for just about any purpose you like. You’re limited only by your coding prowess and whatever external equipment you’re able to get your hands on.

That said, there are some common themes and popular applications that crop up again and again. Let’s take a look at some of these.

Example Projects With Raspberry Pi

Creating a Media Center

You can use your Raspberry Pi to stream HD video content directly from Netflix, Hulu and so on, or by using Kodi in order to create a“Raspmc” or media center.

If you haven’t come across it before, Kodi is a free, open-source software created by the non-profit XBMC Foundation, which you use for home entertainment. It lets you turn any computer, tablet, phone or so on into a digital set-top box. You can stream files from online, local storage or your home network, and because you’re not limited by licensing arrangements, you can include any apps or add-ons you like.

Originally, Kodi was created for use with XBoxes, but it’s since grown far beyond that. Thanks to a global army of software developers and translators, you can also install it on all kinds of other hardware, including Amazon Firesticks, smartphones and, of course, the Raspberry Pi. It works with pretty much any operating system and you can customize it however you like with add-ons and builds.

In fact, setting up a Kodi media center is now one of the most common uses for a Raspberry Pi. You can get hold of Kodi builds in the form of disk images and there are a number of different types, including the popular OpenElac and OSMC. Bear in mind that setting your media center up this way means your Raspberry Pi will need to be used exclusively for this purpose; if you want to keep using it for other things at the same time, you can choose to install Kodi on Raspbian instead.

While this is impressive, there are inherent risks. For example, some apps and add-ons that can be added to Kodi are designed to help people stream pirated content, so may not be the most safe or reliable types of software. Be sure to only acquire add-ons from official Kodi sources.

Even then, there are security issues and vulnerabilities, so it’s wise to take extra steps to improve security on your Raspberry Pi. We’ll come back to that a little later in this article.

As well as Kodi-based media centers, you can also use a Raspberry Pi to transform a conventional TV into a smart one, or to get more out of your smart TV features. By “smart TV” I mean one with the ability to stream video from sites like YouTube and Netflix, play media from a USB/other flash storage device and allow you to control what’s happening on the screen remotely. All of these features can be achieved by combining a Raspberry Pi and a USB TV card.

Creating a media center also brings about another potential purpose for a VPN on your Raspberry Pi: unlocking geo-restricted video streaming content. Installing a powerful VPN on your Raspberry Pi should allow you to do that, but just bear in mind that you could theoretically get into some legal trouble by trying to view TV shows and films that aren’t supposed to be available in your region.

Learning to Code/Program

This was the original, primary purpose of the Raspberry Pi. The idea was to get kids into coding, using the platform’s built-in programming and coding tools. What the creators didn’t anticipate was how popular this would turn out to be with adults, too.

If you’re new to this, there are a whole bunch of software types available in Raspian that you can use to get your head around coding. For example, Scratch is a block-based programming tool that’s designed to be accessible for coders of all levels. Instead of entering complicated lines and lines of code, you can drop and drag the commands where you want them. You then export the code as a program and run it on your Raspberry Pi.

This is great because you can figure out exactly which changes bring about which effects, instead of getting lost in a maze of code, trawling through to try and figure out where you must have made a tiny mistake that’s broken your program.

You can also use your Raspberry Pi to experiment safely with electronics, using the plug-in Piface board. Or you can learn about robotics: by attaching a simple mechanical arm or other components, you can build a robot that you control with the Raspberry Pi. Newer versions even let you do this over a wireless connection.

Printing

If you want to, you could turn your Raspberry Pi into an all-purpose mini-computer,, complete with an installed office package and connected screens, keyboard, networked printers and so on. However, the processing power of such a tiny computer is limited, so yours would run very slowly. Instead, many people focus on just the printer or connected device element.

This comes in very handy if you have an old-school printer that you can’t connect to wirelessly from your main computer or laptop. By connecting your Raspberry Pi to the home network and installing print server software, you can get around this problem easily.

Here’s how: you install Samba file-sharing software and a Common Unix Printing System (CUPS) to create drivers for the printer. You then set up your Raspberry Pi so that computers connected to the home network can access the printer via this. You’ll need a USB cable for your printer too, but that’s about it.

This will allow you to print from a computer that runs on Windows, Mac OS or Linux. If you want to print directly from a phone or tablet, you can add a single script that gives you Air Print support, too. From there, you just need to download a printing app onto your Android device, or print directly using the native settings on your iOS device.

Build a Home Security System

Want to beef up the security in your home or office? It doesn’t need to cost a fortune. In fact, all you need is your Raspberry Pi, a standard webcam (or the Pi’s Camera Module), a USB storage device or high capacity microSD card, a tool called uvccapture that captures the footage from the webcam, and ffmpeg software to control the bitrate and timelapse.

With this, you can build your very own motion capture security system, keeping tabs on everyone who comes in and out of the premises. Whenever movement is detected, the webcam jumps into action and starts recording. You could even set this up to email you an alert whenever any movement is detected.

Broadcast Pirate Radio

First, a disclaimer: in the US, the UK and many other countries around the world, it is illegal to broadcast a radio show on the airwaves without a license.

However, while not strictly legal, it is possible to use your Raspberry Pi to broadcast pre-recorded audio over FM via the microSD card. In theory, that means you could use it to create a Pirate Radio station.

That said, realistically, you can only broadcast over a very short distance, so your radio potential is limited – especially in an urban environment. It’s a fun feature to experiment with, though.

Capturing Photos and Video

The built-in microSD card and multimedia capabilities mean that there are tons of interesting and creative things you can do with your Raspberry Pi when it comes to video and photography.

For example, by adding the Raspberry Pi camera module, you can capture some pretty amazing images of planets moving across the night sky.

With a bit of Python programming, the right kind of camera mount and a breadboard to mount a button, you can also start to make your very own stop motion videos. Meanwhile, combining the camera module with a different script and taking single frames with a timed delay allows you to compile perfect time-lapse sequences.

Live Video Streaming

Connecting your Raspberry Pi to the internet also gives you a handy way to live stream video, for example to YouTube. If you have your own YouTube channel set up and the libav-tools package set up, you can stream directly using a Raspberry Pi 3 and the camera module that comes with this.

Network Storage

Another common application for a Raspberry Pi is to set up a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, allowing you to create your own local network drive in order to free up space on your main computer.

You can do this by simply connecting your Raspberry Pi to an external HDD, SDD or USB flash drive and setting this up with Samba. It also comes in handy when you’re browsing content from within a Raspberry Pi media center.

Gaming

There are a whole bunch of gaming-related uses for a Raspberry Pi.

To start with, you can use it to replicate retro games consoles like the Atari or Gameboy, using Recalbox or Retropie or to create your own arcade machine display.

For more contemporary types of gaming, you can use the Raspberry Pi to stream games from your PC to your TV, in a similar way to Steam Link. You can also run games like Doom natively. If you have more than one Raspberry Pi, you can use one as a dedicated game server for Minecraft, playing from anywhere on your home network.

A few things to consider: firstly, when streaming from a PC, you’ll need to connect both the Raspberry Pi and the PC to the router via Ethernet, in order to get the required speeds.

Secondly, if you want to set up a personal, dedicated game server to engage in a multiplayer game like Minecraft with others over the internet, you will need to use a VPN to conceal your IP address and reduce the risk of someone overloading your connection with a malicious DDoS attack.

Create Your Own Web Server

If you want to host your own website or blog, allowing you to retain total control over this, you may want to set up a Raspberry Pi as a web server.

This can be a little fiddly and there a couple of different approaches to choose from. For example, you could install Apache and the libraries associated with this, or you could opt for a full LAMP stack that incorporates MySQL and PHP as well as Apache. Setting up FTP is also recommended.

From here, you could choose to install WordPress or similar, or simply save your HTML files into the /www/ directory. Remember that you will either need to ask your ISP for a static IP address in order to put your website online, or use a service like No-IP.

Of course, if you’re hosting your own server, robust internet security is especially important. You need to make it as difficult as possible for hackers to get into your system. That includes keeping your WiFi password secret and making it tricky enough to guess that no one can bypass it with a simple brute force attack.

Preferably, you also need to safeguard your IP address to avoid the risk of being shut down by a malicious DDoS attack, too. This is another excellent reason to anonymize your IP address when online, by using a VPN at all times.

Build a Home Automation System

Home automation is a way of controlling certain technologies located inside your home from a mobile device, no matter where in the world you are.

Sometimes the term applies only to certain devices or systems you have in your house, such as your thermostat or HVAC system. Very often, though, it refers to a complete, integrated system that controls pretty much everything in your home that’s connected to the electricity. For example, that could include your lights, electrical outlets, heating and cooling, alarm system, locks, smoke detectors, surveillance cameras, and all your appliances and relevant sensors.

Typically, these are all linked into a single network that can be controlled remotely. That’s where the Raspberry Pi comes in. You can use this as a central interface for your home automation system. That usually means combining the Raspberry Pi with a microcontroller kit, some remote-controlled, radio-enabled mains adapters, and an app that lets you easily enable or disable the devices that are plugged into these adapters.

Again, security is paramount in a system like this. If your home automation system was ever to be hacked, outsiders would be able to access devices and technologies inside your home. You can imagine how disturbing and potentially dangerous that situation would become.

Moreover, when the entire system is built on wireless IoT connections, that’s a lot of potential chinks in the armor where a hacker might get in. Encrypting your connections is vital.

Monitor Your Network

Another great security measure (and use of your Raspberry Pi) is the ability to monitor all the devices connected to your home network.

This can be used to alert you when, for example, something gains or loses connection, when a server goes down or your website goes offline. It’s also a useful way to keep an eye out for potential intrusions into your network.

A common way to do this is by using an easy-to-configure, open-source tool called Nagios. This allows you to visualize the devices on your network and monitor your uptime. All you need to do is download the disk image and put it onto the microSD card in your Raspberry Pi.

The Benefits of Using a Raspberry Pi

The primary benefits of using a Raspberry Pi are that they are very small and portable, cheap to get hold of and robust. In other words, they’re reliable and don’t break easily. It helps that there are no moving parts or fans to worry about, too. What’s more, they’re quiet and very energy efficient, consuming very little electricity considering the computing power they offer.

Most importantly, you can do so much with them, add all kinds of extensions to the basic computer… and since there’s an enormous, international community of enthusiasts, there will always be someone out there willing to offer support and advice if you run into problems.

Just be aware that there are, inevitably, security vulnerabilities when using a Raspberry Pi. After all, you’re coding it all yourself, so unless you’re a total cybersecurity whizz, you probably aren’t a match for potential hackers – at least, not on your own. That’s why it’s vital to install additional security measures if you plan to connect your Raspberry Pi to the outside world.

How to Turn Your Raspberry Pi Into a Wireless Router

Another compelling use for your Raspberry Pi is turning it into a router for a second WiFi network, on top of your primary network. That might be because you run a small business, for example, and want to let your customers sign into the WiFi without giving them the main password, or because you want a way to exchange files securely with your colleagues.

Setting up your Raspberry Pi as a router or hotspot is actually very easy – you can do it in under 10 minutes. Check out this Instructables guide, which has easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions.

Protecting your Pi Router with a VPN (PI VPN)

As we’ve seen, using a VPN is an important way to encrypt your connection and preserve your privacy when using a Raspberry Pi. That’s even more important when you are using yours as a Pi Router.

If you set this up correctly, you can ensure that all the internet traffic that connects to your Pi Router runs through the secure VPN connection, no matter what device you use to connect to it.

In fact, if you’re traveling or regularly need to use public WiFi, you may want to use a Raspberry Pi to create a portable, DIY VPN travel router. This means that you only need to connect to the WiFi connection once; all your own devices can then connect to the Pi VPN router, through which your connection is secured.

How to Set Up a VPN with Raspberry Pi

To incorporate VPN protection into your Pi Router, you first need to have a subscription to a reliable VPN service. It’s important that you opt for one that’s based on OpenVPN for this.

For a step-by-step guide to setting up a Pi VPN, see here or here.

What Is OpenVPN?

OpenVPN is an open-source encryption protocol. Anyone can develop or customize it for use in their own VPN tools. That’s a major reason why all the leading VPN companies use it – and it’s also what makes it possible to implement it in your homemade Pi Router.

OpenVPN uses up to 256-bit encryption via OpenSSL and also allows you to share private and public keys. As such, its level of security is second to none. You can view some of our favorite VPN options for OpenVPN here.

We Recommend: NordVPN

Not only is NordVPN built on an OpenVPN implementation, its security features actually go beyond the standard level of encryption this entails. Impressively, it does this without sacrificing on performance, so you still get great loading and streaming speeds when you use it. It works with Netflix and iPlayer, too.

Plus, there’s strong DNS leak protection to ensure that your connection really is encrypted from end to end, even if your connection dips for any reason.

NordVPN is a firm favorite with DIY programmers looking to turn their Raspberry Pi into a VPN router, so there’s a lot of documentation out there if you get stuck trying to set yours up. The company also has excellent 24/7 customer support, including a live chat feature, so if you need any help you can get in touch with their tech experts at the drop of a hat.

Even better, you can test it out to see how you get on with a free, three-day trial as well as the industry-standard 30-day money-back guarantee.

Conclusion

When you’re tinkering away with computer equipment like a Raspberry Pi in the safety of your own home, school or workplace, it’s easy to forget that these can offer a direct link to the outside world.

Anything that connects to the internet creates a potential security risk for the rest of the network; it’s like opening a window. That means that you always need to be thinking about how you’ll protect yourself at the same time.

One of the reasons that Raspberry Pis are so great is that they offer a blank canvas to experiment with programming any way you like. At the same time, that also means that these miniature computers don’t have the pre-loaded security features you might take for granted when using a conventional desktop computer or a mobile device.

In order to incorporate these safely into your home networks or use them to route WiFi internet traffic, you need to take steps to ensure that your connection is properly encrypted. Using OpenVPN technology is an excellent way to do that while still getting the most you can out of your Raspberry Pi.

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