Budding computer hackers/scientists are about to get a welcome gift, albeit a bit late for Christmas 2011. The non-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation (RPF) is nearing the release date of its surprisingly powerful and remarkably affordable Raspberry Pi line of bare-bones machines that have been developed in an effort to broaden kids' access to computers in the UK and abroad. How affordable? The figure above was no typo. Read on to learn just what US$25 will get you when these nifty, fully-assembled, credit-card sized computers go on sale next month (sorry, case, monitor, keyboard and mouse not included ... we did say bare bones).

Early models of the Pi will be offered in two versions. The first, Model A (US$25), will sport 128M of RAM but no Ethernet port. Presumably, most of these will end up in educational use. The second, Model B (US$35), will have a larger production run and offer 256M of RAM along with 10/100MBit networking capability. Both are powered by 700MHz ARM11 CPUs and include hardware support for OpenGL ES 2.0 and Blu-Ray caliber (1080p30 H.264) playback.

Video, HDMI and audio outputs, a USB port (the Model B has two), a Flash memory card reader and several I/O (input/output) pins all come mounted on a 3.34 inch (85.6mm) by 2.08 inch (53.98mm) board around .67 inch (17mm) high. The whole unit weighs about 1.6 ounces (45g) and runs on 5 volts supplied by a micro USB socket rather than an onboard power supply (PSU) - the A draws 2.5 watts, the B, 3.5 watts.

Once the system is configured with user-supplied peripherals, Pi will initially drive ArchLinux, Debian and Fedora ARM GNU/Linux distributions - RPF has plans to add others later on. When it's up and running, the operating system presents in typical Linux format with command-line and desktop interfaces. Once channeled through the ARM architecture, document editors, web browsers and numerous other packages will perform as they would on a typical PC.

The Raspberry Pi is not much bigger than a credit card

Unfortunately, Pi won't run Wine compatibility software, so Windows and other X86 apps aren't supported. Obviously, to keep the price so low, a number of desirable features had to be scaled down or eliminated entirely. But then, that also serves as incentive for creative hacking, which is what the Raspberry Pi is all about.

A major force behind the whole project has been Eben Upton, current director of RPF. Back in 2006, while in the admissions department of Cambridge University, he noticed a downward trend in the skill-sets of A Level Computer Science applicants. Along with several colleagues (now also RPF trustees), Upton identified several reasons for this declining computer savvy among students. Gone were the Amigas, Commodore 64s and other machines of that ilk upon which the previous generation learned to program, replaced with home PCs and game consoles. Overall, curriculum emphasis had begun to switch from programming to website design and the fading dot-com boom didn't help matters much, either.

Upton eventually left Cambridge and became a SoC (system-on-a-chip) architect at US Fortune 500 semiconductor giant Broadcom. In his spare time, he began designing prototype machines with the aim of restoring computer literacy via affordable access to the hardware. By 2008, multimedia capable CPUs, originally designed for mobile devices, became inexpensive enough that Upton's dream had a real promise of coming to fruition.

Over the next three years, Upton and his Pi team scoured the world in a quest for low-cost quality components that would meet their design and price-point goals. Now, finally, the results of all their hard work are about to pay off. Evidently, good things still do come in small packages.

"I'd say that I very much hope that 2012 will be the year that Raspberry Pi, and other cheap, open devices like it, begin to change the way that people, and in particular children, interact with technology," Upton told Gizmag. "The future of our economy depends on our producing a new generation who have the skills and understanding to create new technologies rather than merely using them. Hopefully initiatives like ours can make a small contribution to this goal."

For specs and information on availability, go to the RFP website.

Check out the video below to see the Raspberry Pi in operation:

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