Pi-Top and the Do-It-Yourself Feeling

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 16, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I spent several days last week assembling a Pi-Top, the do-it-yourself laptop that runs on a Raspberry Pi. I have limited experience with hardware, so if a mistake could be made, I probably made it. In the end, I concluded that I have a defective battery, although I have been able to explore the assembled laptop thanks to the power cord. Yet despite the ups and down and the anxiety, I found myself enjoying the experience in a way that I haven't enjoyed computing since I first discovered Linux.

Ever since my first computer, I have enjoyed tinkering, balancing config.sys in DOS and tweaking Windows programs to run in OS/2. The satisfaction in success increased with the degree of frustration, and I was tickled by the fact that I was the one doing the work, since as an English major such concerns were supposed to be beyond me.

Besides, the way that Windows discouraged me from looking too deeply into its working always annoyed me. After all, wasn't the computer supposed to be mine?

Given my attitude, Linux was a revelation to me. Not only did the experts I knew encourage me to explore, the operating system itself encouraged me by making most configuration files plain text and providing a command line interface that, unlike DOS, had some power to it. My explorations were cautious, and several times in the first months I reached the point where an installation was quicker than corrections, but within a couple of years, I knew my way around the operating system better than any English major had a right to.

Over the years, though, this do-it-yourself attitude has been diluted. Linux became primarily a desktop operating system, which is convenient, but automatically places users at one remove from the inner workings, and subtly discourages exploration. Later, GRUB2 came along, replacing perfectly adequate text files with binaries. More recently, systemd did the same with journals.

I continue to rely on the command line for package and file management, as well as miscellaneous system administration, but most of my days are spent on the desktop.

Don't get me wrong -- I appreciate the convenience of graphical interface, and I've been know to wince at the perversity of those who insist on using LaTeX when they could get similar results in LibreOffice. Yet the desktop often makes me feel remote from the operating system. Meanwhile, each time I visit Windows, the constant notices and the revelations of built-in spyware makes me constantly aware that the computer is simply being used by its owner, who has even less control of it than they did when I used Windows over a decade ago.

With this attitude, I watched the growing world of do-it-yourself sprouting up around Raspberry Pi. I was intrigued, but I was unsure where to start. It was something I kept meaning to explore, but somehow I never got around to doing so.

Then, last year, I learned about the Pi-Top. Running a laptop off a Raspberry Pi seemed an admirable bit of technical chutzpah, and the fact it was mostly free software and hardware even more admirable. I appreciated, too, the idea of a modular laptop at a time when all the major brands do their best to discourage users from opening the case. It was a do-it-yourself project the likes of which I had never seen, and after I wrote a story on the strength of the crowdfunding campaign, I immediately reserved a Pi-Top for myself.

When the Pi-Top arrived last week, I couldn't wait until the end of my work day to start exploring. I'd like to believe that my misadventures were the result of over-excitement, but I believe they were due mostly to my own incompetence. I almost missed the cables, hidden on the back side of the packing foam. I mistook the case for the micro SD card for an SD card, and the circuit board spacers for the screws. I fumbled with the 2.5 mm screws and nuts, and dropped them, necessitating long minutes on my hands and knees, since there were no spares, and no local computer store was organized enough to tell me if it had any replacements. The first time I finished assembling the Pi-Top, it didn't work, and I had to go back and start the instructions nearly from scratch. Then I did parts of the procedure several times more until I was forced to the conclusion that the battery was defective.

The experience was often frustrating. But then I reached that trance-like calm I have experienced a few times before, in which I seem to have infinite patience as I pour through the instruction manual for the third time and pick up the nut I've dropped for the tenth time and try again.

The first time the machine booted for me, I punched the air and give an inarticulate cry of triumph. The pi-topOS is built on Raspbian, a derivative of Debian, and held few surprises for me. But the machine felt like mine in a way that none of my recent computers have.

As clumsy and as clueless as I was, the time I had invested in assembling the Pi-Top has given me a vested interest in it. Looking back, I wonder now that I could ever have had such difficulties with what is actually a simple process. I can appreciate the simplicity of the design of two circuit boards screwed into parallel slots on the bottom of the case, and the plastic cover that slides back so you can work on them. I now know how a Pi-Top is put together as completely as anyone could possibly know it, and the resulting laptop could only be more mine if I had helped to design it.

This sense of ownership is what has been fading from my computing as the machines and the software I use become less hands-on. Even more importantly, the feeling is one that leaves me a deeper understanding. An ordinary computer is  more complicated than the two circuit boards in a Pi-Top, but already I am starting a much overdue education about them.

Not coincidentally, despite my less than total success, I no sooner finished assembling the Pi-Top than I donated to the company's newest crowdfunding campaign to reserve a Pi-TopCEED, its latest product.

The Pi-Top company has always emphasized education. It is especially concerned with programming and the skills needed in the Maker movement, and I plan to see what I can learn in the coming weeks. However, it has already taught me that hardware should not a sealed box, and given me a confidence I lacked before -- attitudes I consider well-worth the price of purchase.

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