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Friday, 5 May 2017

PIXEL on a PC


Now, you can pretend that your old pc, laptop or Mac is a Raspberry Pi.

So, how can you run the same programs as on a Pi? And why would you want to?


In fact, there are some very good reasons why you might want to do run make a PC look like a Pi. But first of all let's see how it works.

PIXEL

Last September, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released a new version of their Raspbian operating system which includes a new desktop environment called PIXEL. Now, to get slightly technical for a moment, Raspian is a version of Debian Linux for the Raspberry Pi and PIXEL is a modified version of the LXDE desktop that runs on Debian.


There are versions of Debian for PCs and LXDE, will run on any version of Debian, so it follows that if you bundle, the PIXEL desktop, the apps that come with the Pi, with Debian Linux for the pc, you can end up with a system that runs on a PC but looks identical to PIXEL and Raspbian on a Raspberry Pi. And this is just what the clever folks at the Raspberry Pi Foundation have done.


While pretty much all of the Pi apps are on the PC version, it is not 100% the same, because the Raspberry Pi Foundation only have a license to distribute Minecraft and Wolfram Mathematica for the Pi hardware. Consequently, those two apps are missing from the PC version. The rest is there though, so you can program in Python, Scratch and Java, and the office productivity apps are there, too. Of course, being Linux, you can easily install other software - often for free.  


But what about the hardware incompatibility? Of course, a pc, laptop or Mac doesn't have the GPIO pins and so you cannot program them. However, included with this release of PIXEL, is a SenseHAT emulator. This displays a software version of the SenseHAT accessory, complete with LED display, joystick and sensor emulation, so that you can run Python programs that read or control the SenseHAT as if it were really there.


Currently, the PC version of the operating system is in beta and will only run from a USB drive, SD card or a DVD. However, a proper installable version is promised for the future. I should mention that it works on Macs, too.


Ok, that´s how. But why?

Running PIXEL of a PC. Why?

Why would you want to run the Pi’s operating system on a PC? There are some very good reasons.


Firstly, Raspbian with PIXEL is a simple and complete Linux distribution that is good enough for many purposes. As I mentioned before, it contains all of the programming tools for Python, Scratch and Java than you will find on the Pi, and it has the Libre Office productivity suite. Being Linux, of course, you can extend it with other programs and, if you wish, customize the way that it looks.


The second reason for using PIXEL on a PC is its familiarity. Anyone who has used a Pi will already be comfortable with a PIXELated PC. The desktop is exactly the same as on the Pi, so students will have a consistent experience. As mentioned earlier, the only real difference is that the two missing programs, Minecraft and Mathematica. So, except for these two programs, a student will be able to easily transfer their work from school to home, or from one machine to another, whether they are working on a Pi or a PC.


The final reason could be extremely important. PIXEL and Raspbian will run on very old hardware. There is a photo, on the Raspberry Pi website, of PIXEL running on a 10-year old IBM Thinkpad. If a PC or laptop has at least 512 megabytes of ram, PIXEL can use it. This means that neither schools nor students need to dump their old hardware. You can re-purpose your old Windows XP laptop that might struggle with later versions of Windows, or even the heavier-weight versions of Linux, with the lightweight PIXEL/Debian combination.

It works!

I have tried this out for myself. I downloaded the software from the Raspberry Pi web site, followed the instructions and ran PIXEL on a laptop that used to be an XP machine and must be, at least,12 years old. It was fairly tedious loading it onto the USB stick but you only need to do this once, of course. Also, it takes quite a long time to boot up. Once up and running, however, it was perfectly happy on this ancient hardware. When the real, installable, version is released, I expect things to be better. I expect that the boot time will be much shorter as this is likely to be due to the slowness of my USB drive rather than the software itself.


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