Buy Your Kids a $50 PC

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I can still remember the first computer I ever built.

I was 11 years old and thought my parents were crazy for wondering if I could really do it. But shockingly, the parts I chose out of a magazine and ordered with their credit card somehow all fit together. The fans whirring to life, the little red light that oddly meant things were OK, and the beep it made the first time I turned it on stand out as some of my favorite memories from childhood.

But computers are no longer complicated machines assembled by nerdy kids in basements. Now, even a 2-year-old can pick up an iPad and do the kinds of things that were science fiction two decades ago. So by the time I have kids (five to 10 years from now – or next year if you listen to my girlfriend), who knows how much simpler they’ll be to use?

But as computers get ever more sophisticated and require less user knowledge, something is being lost: the understanding that only comes from seeing the circuits that make the modern world possible.

That’s why I was excited to hear about the Raspberry Pi. It’s a $25 to $35 Linux computer that’s really just a playing card-sized circuit board with a few ports around the sides. Pair it with an SD card (which it uses as a hard drive), a keyboard, mouse, and your TV, and you’ve got a fully functioning computer for around $50. Take a look at Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson’s video to see it in action.

Now, you’re not going to be doing the kinds of things you do with an iPad or desktop PC on a Raspberry Pi (it’s much less powerful), but it’s certainly an inexpensive way to get a Web browser, email, and word processor. Coupled with the learning curve required to use a Linux operating system, it’s a great way for kids to learn the fundamentals of computing.

The Raspberry is also a great way to learn the fundamentals of programming, a valuable skill. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but seven of the 10 Hot Jobs for College Grads in 2012 relate to computers or software development. That’s based on “current openings, expected job growth over the next decade, average pay, and work environment.” If a $50 Linux computer sets your kids on the path to one of those jobs, it’s hard to argue it’s a waste of money.

What do you need?

There’s a quick start guide on the Raspberry Pi’s website that goes over the various parts you’ll need to buy, but here’s what I used to get mine set up:

You’ll notice most of the parts I used were things I already had lying around or stuffed into drawers, so I was able to put everything together for about $50. If you have to go out and buy each component, you’ll probably end up spending closer to $75. But a savvy shopper (or yard sale regular) might be able to scrounge up everything for less than I spent.

And if you need help, the Raspberry Pi has a very active community of devotees willing to answer any questions you or your children might have – everything from setting up the Raspberry Pi and learning the basics of Linux to programming and hardware development. One university professor even built a “supercomputer” out of Legos and Raspberry Pi computers with his 6-year-old son, and published a step-by-step guide to build your own.

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