Although ostensibly intended as a compact computer that can be produced cheaply in order for students to learn programming basics, the Raspberry Pi has developed into something of a phenomenon. But rather than build a retro gaming centre or NAS box, how does it measure up performing basic desktop tasks?
After all, there may be times that you need to check your email or browse the web. You might want to use your Raspberry Pi to make notes of what you’re doing (perhaps keeping track of your progress using the programming tools, for instance), or use the web browser to carry out some brief research.
Performance wise, a Raspberry Pi isn’t going to be able to handle web pages with active content and may struggle with video feeds, but on the whole it can make a useful desktop PC, if set up correctly.
Preparing for Pi PC
Along with the Pi itself, you’ll need a few extras. To use the computer as a desktop PC, you will need a keyboard and mouse, items you may have avoided using if you’ve been accessing the device via SSH.
You’ll also need to install your preferred Raspberry Pi operating system, such as Raspbian, although there are several alternatives of varying degrees of suitability. Also consider a hard disk drive and other storage if you’re planning to try using the Pi as a standard desktop long-term.
Our guide to the cost of a Raspberry Pi should give you an idea of what you will need for this configuration, and how much you may need to spend.
Optimising Your Raspberry Pi Desktop
After installing your preferred operating system for the Raspberry Pi, you will need to optimise it for desktop use. The following configuration steps apply to Raspbian.
First of all, you will need to determine how much memory you wish to apportion to graphics. You can do this on the first boot of your Raspberry Pi or in the configuration menu later on, accessed by opening the command line and entering raspi-config. Next, head to the Advanced section, where Memory Split is the third option in the menu.
Choosing the memory_split option, you should see that it is set to the default 64 MiB – 128 MiB is more suitable for running XBMC and watching HD video, while 32 MiB is perfect for low-intensity desktop tasks such as word processing and email. You can also drop as low as 16 MiB.
You might also opt to change the boot_behaviour option so that the Pi boots into command line rather than the X desktop. This is only advisable if you’re comfortable using a command line-based word processor or text editor.
Best Apps for a Desktop Pi
With your Raspberry Pi desktop computer up and running, you will no doubt want to use particular applications. Office, email and web browsing apps are all available for the Pi. Some are included – but would you want to use them?
For standard office tasks, head to the Pi Store and install LibreOffice, a version of the popular Open Office fork that has been configured for the Raspberry Pi. Including a word processor, spreadsheet tool and presentation software, LibreOffice will complete your Raspberry Pi desktop!
Meanwhile, should you fancy kicking back and playing a game, you can take a look at our lists of top games from the Pi Store. The first includes FreeCiv, while the second features the Quake clone OpenArena.
Conclusion: The Raspberry Pi is a Desktop Computer Too!
I was asked recently why I find the Raspberry Pi so fascinating. After all, it doesn’t run popular MMORPGs, it can’t easily be used as a portable computer and it’s not ideal for things like multimedia production. When I pointed out the possibilities such as retro gaming and building a compact media centre, my friend confidently reminded me that standard desktops and laptops and even phones can do the same things.
Then again, standard computers and phones cannot be the key element of a low budget space program. The price of the Raspberry Pi alone is reason enough to buy it – this computer is just as versatile (if not more) than a standard desktop, laptop or even a phone.
Using it as a desktop is just another demonstration of its flexible nature.