Introducing Raspberry Pi-Top

Lead Image © lineartestpilot, 123RF.com

Fresh Pi

The Pi-Top kit comes with everything you need to build your own Raspberry Pi laptop.

Innovative projects arise from truly original thinking and can result in products that have not quite ever been seen before. Three-D printing, for example, is proving to be that kind of innovative tech tool, previously matched only by Meccano, Erector Set, or Lego, but with the added advantage that the finished gadget is a productive tool, and not a toy.

The Raspberry Pi-Top project, or Pi-Top as it is mostly known, is another such project [1] [2]. The Pi-Top (Figure 1) project is aimed at the constructor market – a place where experimental ideas and an entrepreneurial approach have thrived. A learning environment and a desire to make computers accessible to anyone are strong driving forces.

Figure 1: The Raspberry Pi-Top.

Unlike other netbook-style laptops out there, such as the Google Chromebook or the Microsoft Surface, the Raspberry Pi-Top focuses on teaching people how to start making – without strong patents or proprietary hardware and codebases that stop users from experimenting and adapting products.

This kind of constructor and experimenter market came together back in the 1950s and 1970s in the shape of Practical Electronics [3] in the UK and Popular Electronics [4] in the US, for example. The General Public License [5] also encourages this kind of maker mindset. It's the most successful software license ever, which empowers the different versions of GNU/Linux software that run on the Raspberry Pi and inevitably the Pi-Top.

Details

The Pi-Top funding launch took place on October 14 this year, where various pledges reserved early product releases (Table 1). After a visit to Indiegogo's London offices, it was decided to launch Pi-Top there [6]. Most of the promises made during the funding phase seem to have been delivered. (See "What Comes in the Pi-Top Kit?" for more information.)

Table 1

Pi-Top Launch Pledges*

Product

Pledge (US$)^

Pi-Top without Rasp Pi B+

$249.00

Pi-Top Kit (Pi-Top+Rasp Pi B+)

$285.00

Any one HAT

$75.00

HAT bundle (Home Automation+Robot HATs)

$399.00

*Crowdsource funding ends November 13. Estimated delivery, May 2015.

 

^Shipping: $35 UK/Europe, $45 US/Canada, $55 rest of world.

 

What Comes in the Pi-Top Kit?

  • Injection-molded case
  • 3D printer STL files compatible for all 5-inch+ print bed sizes
  • PCBs – Power management, HDMI to LVDS bridge, and keyboard and trackpad controller
  • Electronics breadboard
  • Battery
  • Keyboard
  • Trackpad
  • 13.3-inch HD LCD Screen
  • WiFi adapter
  • Acrylic slice
  • Wiring
  • DC wall plug
  • Build instructions
  • Online and integrated lesson plans

In the future, the roadmap should look something like this:

  • The user should get free hardware and software innovation lessons as time goes on (Figure 2). The Pi-Top team will be building new content for Pi-Top users. (See the "Interview with Jesse Lozano.") You can learn how to 3D print and design printed circuit boards and create your own finished products.
Figure 2: The Pi-Top team offers free online lessons.

Interview with Jesse Lozano

I caught up with Jesse Lozano, co-founder of the Pi-Top project, to find out more.

RI: Were you interested in technology from an early age?

JL: I actually got into technology in my early twenties when I began to learn software development whilst at law school. My co-founder, Ryan Dunwoody, studied Engineering at Oxford University, and he has been into technology all his life, starting out with electronics kits. I used a lot of free online resources to learn web development and Python – I found it amazing I could learn something so useful for free, and that's a big reason why we have decided to be open source and have free lesson plans.

RI: Did you take this through into later years at university?

JL: I studied law at university but quickly realized it wasn't something I was prepared to do for a career. I started learning to code about six years ago because I found it fun and then during university realized I could actually turn that into a career I would enjoy doing. Ryan, having done engineering for his degree, obviously took this interest into university.

RI: What did you do for a degree?

JL: I studied Law at Kings College London. Ryan Dunwoody studied Engineering at Oxford University.

RI: Did you get any work experience at university that helped you along the way toward the Pi-Top?

JL: Whilst at university, I did a range of projects and work experience. I ran a large student legal magazine, worked in several law firms, and interned at the City A.M. newspaper whilst studying Law. Having a lot of commitments/deadlines and having to balance it all definitely helped prepare me for the workload of running Pi-Top with Ryan. Ryan … uses his degree in a much more applicable way to Pi-Top!

RI: How did you become involved in the Pi-Top project? Did you think of it yourself or did someone else approach you?

JL: Ryan and I met at an event about nine months ago and started talking about Raspberry Pi; he was at the time working on a solar-powered Raspberry Pi project. I was coding software for the Raspberry Pi, and we decided to work together on his solar project. It was whilst we were developing the solar-powered project that we started to realize a lot of the technology we were developing could be used to make a laptop, which would solve the issue of not being able to use the Pi as a mobile device. It didn't take long for us to decide to go full time on a Raspberry Pi laptop. Pi-Top essentially came to us because we had a need for an easy-to-use Raspberry Pi that was mobile, and it made sense to package that as a laptop. We have spent eight months developing the idea and going through a lot of product iterations.

It was when we started using Pi-Top to teach people how to make hardware that we saw how useful Pi-Top makes the Raspberry Pi – one huge advantage for the classroom was that it didn't have to be a dedicated IT room, Pi-Top brings Raspberry Pi learning anywhere, which meant it was really easy to teach with the Pi-Top.

RI: Thank you, Jesse.

  • The Raspbian operating system used in the Pi-Top will be upgraded and reach the next version. Although you can try other GNU/Linux-based operating systems, you might find that Raspbian has all of the drivers and libraries you need. Because Raspbian also has the built-in programming tools, you can start learning to program as soon as you have built your Pi-Top. Although you have many languages from which to choose, one of the easiest for beginners is Python. Keeping it simple is recommended.
  • There will be no compromising on quality. This sounds fair enough and fits in well with the open source hardware and software business model. You can enjoy using Raspberry Pi with a fully integrated laptop keyboard and track pad with extra ports.

Additionally, the next generation of Pi-Tops will undoubtedly be more sophisticated. An improvement in appearance is promised, which has been taking place since the first prototype was produced.

Here are some basic facts about the Pi-Top: The final case design was printed on a 5-inch+ bed-sized 3D printer and came in roughly 30 percent thinner than the previous prototype. The 13.3-inch screen should satisfy most people.

You shouldn't have any problems building your Pi-Top (Figure 3). It offers easy access to the Raspberry Pi and other components inside the case by way of a clear sliding panel (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Pi-Top components.
Figure 4: Sliding panel for access to components.

HATs

Some sophisticated Pi-Top HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) boards are currently available, but there's not much choice. This will change as time goes on, and a wider range of HATs will be offered.

The HAT specification created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation opens up a huge range of added functionality. Right now, Pi-Top has a home automation HAT (Figure 5) that is packed with sensors so you can retrieve information from the environment around your Raspberry Pi. The HAT gives you access to several outputs, including motor drives and a relay switch, so you can use the data you have collected to control your environment. It has a seven-segment digital readout and a buzzer. With these components, you should be able to practice and learn how to use data collected by sensors to create automated devices.

Figure 5: Home automation HAT on a Raspberry Pi.

Pi-Top also has a robot HAT (Figure 6). The idea was to create the easiest and most accessible and compact Raspberry Pi Robot in the world. The Robot HAT sits on top of the Raspberry Pi inside your Pi-Top. You can code it using Python and the Pi-Top lesson plans.

Figure 6: Robot HAT on a Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi users traditionally have had to settle for small screen sizes if they want a mobile Pi. Pi-Top solves this problem with the LCD HAT. The Pi-Top solution creates an HDMI to LVDS bridge PCB that allows the Raspberry Pi Model B+ to connect to any LCD screen that has a single-channel LVDS interface. The LCD HAT will make it easy to make displays and a range of mobile devices.

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