TeleRead stalwarts may remember that I adopted a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B as a test bed to try out this tiny but popular ultra-cheap one-card compact computing solution. Initially, I wasn’t impressed, although later I had some better experiences with the hardware. My initial disappointments were based chiefly on the shortcomings of Raspberry’s preferred Raspbian OS. This version of Debian, as I reported previously, offered “painfully slow load times” when using Google Docs and when executing most browser-based tasks. That basically led me to abandon the Raspberry.
Until now. Because Raspberry has whipped up a new desktop environment for Raspbian and its associated hardware called PIXEL, “which now officially stands for ‘Pi Improved Xwindows Environment, Lightweight’.” And improved it certainly is. Not only does the new OS front end look far slicker than older versions, with a fully overhauled Windows-style interface and drop-down menus, it’s also far faster. It’s bigger too: “the uncompressed image is over 4GB in size,” so the days of running your Raspberry with a 4GB micro SD card are over. Given that 8GB now seems the bare minimum buy for most micro SD card users, I doubt this will worry many. And NOOBS, the easy-loading OS installer for the Raspberry, loads up Raspbian with Pixel just fine.
To my delight, the Raspberry engineers have backgrounded the ageing Epiphany web browser, and instead are “including an initial release of Chromium for the Pi. This uses the Pi’s hardware to accelerate playback of streaming video content,” and includes an h264ify extension which “forces YouTube to serve videos in a format which can be accelerated by the Pi’s hardware.” YouTube runs just fine on this variant of Chromium, but so, more importantly, does practically every other browser-based Chrome app and platform I’ve tried on it so far, including Google Docs, the Hangouts extension, Google Drive, TuneIn Radio, and Evernote. As a result, my Raspberry has a new lease of life as a productivity tool, and seems to run LibreOffice at about the same speed as Windows 10. Setup for WiFi and Bluetooth is infinitely easier as well. Fiddling around under the hood with a terminal window and Linux commands is in fact now cut to a surprising minimum.
Yes, there are still issues. My Raspberry crashes far more often than I would like, though I suspect this is more down to the Pi 2 B’s limited hardware than the OS. There are some problems with syncing Chromium to my regular Chrome account. But those are really quibbles set alongside a solution that has basically resurrected my Raspberry. And, As Chris Meadows reported earlier, we now have the Raspberry Pi 3, an upgraded model which offers onboard WiFi and Bluetooth, plus a faster CPU. With Raspbian plus PIXEL on board, that should be a killer combination. And users of older models, like mine, can still upgrade with the latest OS.
And e-reading? Well, not only can I write in Google Docs while background streaming audiobooks from YouTube or TuneIn, I can also use browser-based e-reading apps like Kindle Cloud Reader. And the tiny Raspberry serves up content to massive monitors and HDMI TVs just fine. No sign of the rumoured Android support, okay, but in any event, at $35 for the Pi 3, it’s still a steal, even in these days of ultra-cheap Android tablets. The Raspberry just got a whole lot juicier.