Mmmmm. Pie. Wait, not that kind! I’m talking about the Raspberry Pi mini-computer and why you might want to consider throwing a Raspberry Pi in the RV before your next trip out.
You’d be hard pressed to find many people who don’t need to use a computer for some aspect of their daily lives. Keeping up with work, the news, personal investments, and – especially while out on the road – contact with our families. And while we all have our smart phones, sometimes a computer is just the right tool for the job. That’s why I think it’s smart to have a Raspberry Pi in the RV while you’re traveling.
What is a “Raspberry Pi” anyway?
Without getting too deep into the weeds, the Raspberry Pi was created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation as a low-cost, low-power mini computer for use both in education and the empowerment of the developing world. But when the hobbiest/hacker/maker communities realized how versatile it was, the humble Pi (see what I did there?) really took off.
Since releasing their first model in 2012, the Foundation has regularly released newer, more powerful models, with each new unit being sold at the same $35 price point. For a computer! And as of June 24, 2019, there’s a newer, faster, smarter model, the Raspberry Pi 4. And this, my friends, may be the perfect addition to your RV lifestyle.
Why is a Raspberry Pi in the RV a good choice?
There are several different models of the Pi out these days, some with more features than others. So which one makes sense for use in your RV? Well, since the fancy new model is now out, that’s the one we’ll concentrate on, so let’s take a look at what it has to offer!
Low Power Consumption – Power use in RVs is a big concern, especially when boondocking. Even with solar panels or occasional generator use keeping our batteries topped off, using low-power electronics can really add a lot of run-time to our activities. While the new Pi 4 draws more power than previous models, even under full load it’s only pulling about 8 Watts. Pair it with a modern, energy saving HD monitor which eats about 20 Watts and you’re saving a lot of electricity compared to the average laptop which uses about 60 Watts!
Faster Speeds – Older models of the Pi work fine for browsing, using office suites, retro gaming, and even media playback, but when you throw too much at them, they can definitely bog down. Probably the most important upgrade to the Pi 4 is processing speed. In most tests, the new model more than doubles the power of previous generations.
More/Faster Memory – No previous model offered more than 1 gigabyte of “DDR2” memory. The new Pi 4 upgrades to a faster memory architecture, “DDR4.” I’m not going to get too technical on why that’s better (there are probably thousands of super geeky studies of it online if you’re interested), but just accept that it is. Not only that, the Pi 4 is offered in 1, 2, and 4 gigabyte versions. This $35 little machine is starting to really stretch its legs!
4k Video (times 2!) – For the first time, the Raspberry Pi platform supports 4K video – and not just on one monitor, but two! Now, not all you have a 4K TV in your RV, but you can still take advantage of the dual outputs by running one to your TV for media and the other to an external monitor so you can multitask like a real digital road warrior.
Other Upgrades – There are a bunch of other upgrades to the Pi 4, but I want to get on to the uses so I’ll just bundle a couple here. USB 3.0 allows faster transfer from portable hard drives for media. Gigabit Ethernet for faster internet speeds when connected to your router with a Ethernet cable. Brand new version of the “Raspbian” operating system designed specifically for the Pi 4 model.
Using the Raspberry Pi as a regular computer
So you’ve ordered yourself one of these little powerhouses – now what do you need to get it up and running for best use in an RV? I mean, the thing looks like just a circuit board.
Additional Hardware Needs – There are ways to use the Raspberry Pi that don’t require a monitor, keyboard, mouse, or anything but an SD card with the operating system (OS) installed on it and a power cord. But those methods are for more advanced users doing more advanced things than I’m covering here (I told you this was a powerful platform!).
For the average RV-er, you’re going to need some of those extra things to do what you need to do. As you’re conducting your research, you’ll probably find that a lot of the items listed below are available for purchase bundled with the Raspberry Pi, so that can save you some money.
- Power Supply – With its upgrades, the Pi 4 does draw more power than the previous versions, so you need to make sure you’re getting the right power supply. It requires a 5V, 3A, USB-C power supply. The older versions used micro-USB plugs to power the units, so make sure you’re getting the one that’s appropriate for your model.
- SD Card – Think of this as your Raspberry Pi’s internal “hard drive.” It’s where your operating system is installed and where you can save media if you choose not to use an external hard drive of one sort or another.
- Speed – These are rated by the speed at which they can transfer data back and forth to the Pi, so buy a name brand card that’s rated as “Class 10” so it doesn’t bottleneck your system.
- Size – SD cards are getting cheaper and cheaper, so it makes since to buy a larger one than you might think you need at first – especially if you intend to save music or movies to it. I would recommend going no smaller than 32 gigabytes and the sky’s the limit from there!
- Operating Systems – One final recommendation is that if you’re a total noobie at using the Raspberry Pi platform, you buy a SD card with “Raspbian” pre-installed. Raspbian is the custom operating system that the Raspberry Pi Foundation created for the Pi. There are many other operating systems that you can try out once you’ve found your feet, but start with Raspbian.
- Mouse & Keyboard – You’re going to want to be productive on your Pi, so you need a way interact with it. Luckily for you, there are a variety of options available and most are pretty cheap!
- Corded USB – You can use any old USB mouse and keyboard but you may not want to have the cords laying around getting in your way. Plus, there are only 4 USB inputs on the Pi, so you might think about saving them for something else. You can always add a USB hub into the mix for additional ports, though.
- RF Transmission – Turning now to the wireless options, we have RF keyboards and mice. They’re cheap and very common. Basically, the mouse and keyboard each have USB dongles which you plug into the Pi and then work wirelessly using radio frequency signals. These work great and the only downside is that you’re taking up additional USB ports on your Pi, but this may or may not matter to you.
- Bluetooth – Bluetooth is great and your Pi can connect to up to 7 Bluetooth devices simultaneously. The later Raspberry Pi models all have Bluetooth built into them, so all you need are the mouse and keyboard, but the earlier models require that you purchase a USB Bluetooth dongle in order to use them. That’s not too bad, though, because they’re cheap and will only take up a single USB port.
- Monitor – Just connecting your Raspberry Pi to the TV in your RV (if you have one) is a great way to use it as a computer, but sometimes you’re going to be working at a table across the room or maybe the kids want to watch TV while you’re working, etc. In that case, you’re going to need a monitor. Which one you pick is up to you – they come in an infinite variety of sizes, resolution, and quality. Remember – your Raspberry Pi supports 4K resolution, so you can go as fancy as you want, but I suggest you look into energy saver models so you’re not drawing so much power from your batteries when boondocking.
- External Hard Drive – Having an external drive isn’t required, by any means, but it’s nice to have for a few reasons. You can find them in much larger sizes at a lower cost per megabyte than with SD cards, so if you want to have movies or other large files saved, it’s a better option – plus you can move it from one computer to another with ease.
Using the Raspberry Pi as a regular computer
So now you’ve hooked everything up, powered up your Pi, and when it boots, everything looks different than your regular computer’s desktop! How do I “computer” on this thing?
Raspbian and the other operating systems customized for the Raspberry Pi are all based off an open-source OS called “Linux.” Don’t let that scare you, though. While you can get very deep and geeky into your Pi’s OS, by default it boots into a user friendly, graphical desktop, much like you’d find on any Mac or Windows computer. Once you click around the menu for a little while, you’ll feel more than comfortable with using it. Remember – this was originally designed for kids and folks who are less than computer-literate, so you’ve got this!
I’m not going to delve deeply into how you navigate around the desktop – it’s fairly self-explanatory and there are a million tutorials online. Instead, I just want to point you to a few of the programs that are included in the operating system that will let you do anything you can do on a more “standard” computer.
- Office Software – Raspbian is bundled with an office suite called LibreOffice. To be fair, it isn’t the powerhouse that Microsoft Office is, but it’s more than capable of handling most of what you can throw at it unless you are some kind of MS Office power-user-savant. You can open, modify, and save files in the standard Microsoft Office formats, so you’ll never have to worry about being incompatible with your work documents.
- Web Browsing – Chromium is Google’s open-source web browser. It works great and allows you to sign into your standard google services so you can easily access your email and other web based accounts.
- All The Rest – In addition to the two heavy lifters listed above, Raspbian also comes preloaded with an image viewer, PDF program, music and video players, and all the normal things you expect from an OS. Because it’s still meant to be educational, there are a lot of software programming utilities installed, as well. And, of course, there are tons of other types of software that you can install on top of all this.
So What Are You Waiting For?
With the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, this mini-computer has really come into its own as serious competitor to your old laptop for use in your RV. And it can do so much more! In upcoming articles, I’m going to be showing you how you can use it as a full-blown media center, a retro gaming arcade, and many other things – making your RV the command center of your life, whether you’re a digital nomad or just want to stay in touch with the grand kids.
Any additional questions about using a Raspberry Pi in your RV? Suggestions for other uses? Things you love or hate? Leave me a note in the comments!