The Raspberry Pi is an amazing little computer for the price and it will no doubt spawn thousands of cool ways to use this $38 marvel. Rather than just review the Pi like everyone else we wanted to go one better so we created our own Linux distro specifically built for the Raspberry Pi.
There are a small number of Linux releases available for the Pi but they’re either function-specific like raspbmc or they’re focused in a particular direction like the education/programming focus of the new official Debian Wheezy release. Don’t get us wrong – the official release with its HFP support for the Pi’s BCM2835 CPU is fantastic. However it uses the LXDE desktop environment and as a long-time fan of Xfce I personally wanted to see if we could get something more rounded up and running. APC piLinux for Raspberry Pi is the result.
As with most distros the first time you boot up and type
startx will be the slowest as it sets itself up on the SD card. If you haven’t yet make sure you follow the instructions in ‘Resizing your SD card‘ to get full value from your card’s storage.
We’ve given the Xfce4 desktop a simple APC blue background image and customised the taskbar to include our own APC ‘Start’ button called ‘Applications’. We’ve also included a CPU monitor. This will be important because let’s face it 700MHz isn’t a lot of clock speed to play with and some apps like web browsing will smack into the CPU performance end stops. The CPU monitor gives you a quick visual on the CPU load – if it’s a solid blue block ease up a bit on what you’re doing and wait for the CPU to calm down again before doing the next task.
The four blocks on the taskbar will allow you to run four different desktops. That means instead of cluttering all of your open apps onto one desktop you can move them across four and spread out a bit like having four monitors but without using up all that desk space.
You’ll find the full list of apps available in the ‘Applications’ menu. If you’re coming from a Windows background think of this as the old Windows ‘Start’ orb. You can do everything from here including making changes to Xfce such as changing the background image or other features of the desktop environment.
Adding external storage
Adding more storage to the Pi is pretty simple. If you have a USB flash drive or external hard drive just plug it into an available port on your powered USB hub. APC piLinux will automatically find it mount it and launch the Thunar file manager to give a look inside. Not only that you should also get a desktop icon for your new drive. So far we’ve had numerous flash drives and USB hard drives plugged in and working perfectly. Just be aware that some USB powered hubs may give the Pi problems and make sure your hub’s power brick has the juice to run your peripherals. Also remember to unmount your drives before removing them; in Thunar right-click the drive in the list on the left and select ‘Unmount Volume’ from the context menu that appears. This just ensures that any delayed writes to the drive are performed before you remove it so you don’t lose any data.
If you’ve played with any of the UserOS Linux distros I built for PC User you should find this one pretty similar to use. Even if you haven’t if you can use Windows you should be able to drive this one.
Getting internet access should be as simple as plugging in your Ethernet cable before you boot up. APC piLinux has DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) connectivity so it will automatically interact with your network router grab itself an available IP address and be ready to go. However just be aware that this is probably the toughest thing you’ll get the Pi to do because it’s so CPU-intensive. It’s even more intensive than H.264 video decoding because the CPU can offload that to its GPU to handle whereas everything web-based has to be done by the CPU itself.
Again the first time you launch Iceweasel will be the slowest and it will speed up a little after that.
Try it out
ARM processors are quickly becoming a viable alternative to traditional x86 processors. The Raspberry Pi won’t have the legs to outpace an Intel Core i5 chip but to get a whole computer for $38 isn’t bad going. APC piLinux aims to turn your Pi into a general-purpose computer so if you get hold of one why not give it a spin?
CPU/GPU memory allocation
The Broadcom BCM2835 CPU is unusual because it comes with a fixed 256MB cache of RAM that you can manually allocate on bootup between the CPU and GPU.
Load the SD card with APC piLinux on it into your Windows computer with Windows Explorer and you’ll see the 64MB partition. Inside you’ll see four ‘start.elf’ files. These are the bootloaders that control that memory allocation when the Pi boots up each time.
We’ve set the default split to 192/64MB (CPU/GPU) because the GPU requires 64MB of memory for the video buffer in order to play back 1080p video. If you’re not interested in video you can gain a little extra speed by selecting a 224/32MB CPU/GPU split. To do that delete ‘start.elf’ make a copy of ‘arm224_start.elf’ and rename it ‘start.elf’. When you’re done plug the card back into your Pi boot up and it’ll tell you the changed RAM split.
APC piLinux for Raspberry Pi: App list
Here’s a quick rundown of the apps built into APC piLinux.
You also get access to Debian Squeeze’s 25000+ app repository through the Terminal-based apt app. Just plug the Pi into your home network and you’re away.
- File manager – Thunar
- Word processor – AbiWord
- Spreadsheet – Gnumeric
- Web browser – Iceweasel
- Media player – Omxplayer
- Disk Editor – GParted
- Image viewer – Ristretto
- BitTorrent client – Transmission