The joy of troubleshooting the Raspberry Pi

In his Lifehacker essay looking back on his five years of tinkering with the Raspberry Pi, Thorin Klosowski says one of the desirable features of the Pi is the fact that it's not easy to use right out of the box.


The joy I get from finding a solution to some dumb problem is one of the main things that drew me to the Raspberry Pi to begin with. Thankfully, Raspberry Pi projects have gotten easier over the years. Where it was once a complicated process to build an SD card, it’s now pretty much automatic. Still, the Raspberry Pi is far, far away from being as user friendly as a PC or Mac. That’s a feature, not a bug. The Raspberry Pi is built to force you to learn troubleshooting, and that’s still one of my favorite things about it.

Before hobbyists latched onto the Raspberry Pi, it was a computer for learning how to code targeted mainly at kids. Since then, the appeal has broadened, but it’s still impossible for a project to “just work” out of the box. You will have to tweak something, dig into the command line, or spend a few hours buried in an obscure internet forum to find solutions to problems that only you seem to be having. You will slam your head against the wall, yell a little, and throw your Raspberry Pi at least once for every project you attempt to make.

For every project you complete, for every bug you squash, and for every typo you correct, comes a small, glowing feeling inside your stomach that is well worth the trouble of it all. Troubleshooting is a way of processing the world at large, but if you’re not putting those if-then skills to the test repeatedly, you will lose them.

Image: Wikimedia/Nico Kaiser

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  1. Okay I think this is why I don't tinker with a pi or linux or such very much when I am home. I do (well did and will probably do that again as soon as I get a new job) this for my day job and would rather not deal with it at home too.

  2. An arduino certainly defaults to more than a bare AT-whatever chip does; but what sorts of harrowing dysfunction have you run into with rPi defaults that make them less useful than a microcontroller that hasn't had anything but a bootloader flashed yet?

  3. So copying a distro onto a flash card and powering it on is now considered "troubleshooting"?

  4. That's a fair enough criticism. I assume it has something to do with the original 'handy all-in-one-programming environment for the kiddies' concept; but even in the newer revisions, it's horribly outgunned for that purpose, so at least spawning an SSH server during install, like the various Debian flavors for headless devices do, would be nice.

    That said, while nothing in the official documentation seems to suggest that this might be handy; you can save yourself a lot of (physical) trouble by ignoring the Pi to begin with, and either mounting the SD card image to a loop device, or writing to the SD card and then mounting the card. Good old text config files don't care that an x86 is modifying them but ARM binaries are going to be reading them.

    If you do need full interactive configuration for something, I'm told that QEMU has Pi support now; but I haven't tried it.

    As a more general convenience; I'm very fond of the cheapo HDMI extender. The newer version speaks a non-broken streaming protocol, which makes setup really easy; I have the v.2 which speaks a somewhat dysfunctional dialect; but also has support.

    Image quality isn't what you'd call genius; but these things are markedly cheaper than 'proper' capture cards(and don't involve exciting fights with driver support); and they are certainly good enough to make text easily legible/otherwise allow GUI fiddling, with the 'monitor' living in a video player window on whatever computer you don't have to drag a monitor out of the junk box for. Unlike an (also wildly more expensive) IP KVM, this thing doesn't even pretend to handle peripherals, but something like the Logitech K400 isn't too bulky or annoying to set up. Hacked Motorola Lapdocks are also handy for speaking HDMI-and-peripherals in a small, portable, package.

    None of this excuses a failure to just spawn an sshd for me, please? on the part of the Pi, however.

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