7 months ago

Piper review

Build a computer and then keep building it as you play through a Minecraft adventure

Once again, we’ve come face-to-face with a crowdfunded Raspberry Pi laptop. With the pi-top not even a year old, it’s interesting to see something that, on paper, is a competitor for the same space. A ‘build-it-yourself’ laptop that gamifies learning computing through a custom operating system, the Piper is very different from the pi‑top when it comes down to it, however.

The full article can be found in The MagPi 49 and was written by Rob Zwetsloot

First of all, construction of the laptop is very different. While the pi-top feels like you’re assembling the components for a real laptop, Piper feels like putting together a Meccano kit or wooden model. Laser-cut, engraved wooden sections slot into place, held together by the odd screw. There’s a big sprawling poster with the steps needed to put the box together, with the engravings giving you some visual clues on what goes where. The poster is a little unwieldy and you need lots of space for it, but construction is fairly simple, if not a little lengthy. We sat through at least a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine getting it built, so that’s about 90 minutes.

Some assembly required

The final build is chunky and sturdy. The computer parts include a nice 7˝ LCD display in the top, a Raspberry Pi, a USB mouse, and a portable power bank to power the whole lot. This makes it quite mobile, although you’ll need to remember to charge up the power bank and keep an eye on its levels.

The most ingenious thing about the Piper, though, is that you can carry all the electronics pieces, speaker, and mouse inside the laptop. It’s not really so much of a laptop as a digital toy chest, with all your Power Rangers (buttons) and Barbies (jumper wires), and whatever kids actually play with these days (Star Wars figures?) kept inside, latched up and ready to take with you wherever you go. The only thing it’s really missing is a carry handle, although we really wouldn’t want to be swinging it around with loads of bits inside.

The box it comes in is lovely

The box it comes in is lovely

The initial instructions take you as far as getting the case built, and the Raspberry Pi and screen working. Plug it all into the battery pack and you boot up into the Piper’s OS. This starts with a fun little video before launching you into the Minecraft adventure that helps you continue to build your laptop, adding the extra buttons and such via the GPIO. With a couple of hitches you can see some of the seams, moments of a desktop before the actual game/learning software is launched etc. It’s very much running on Raspbian, but you’ll never see it through normal use.

Know your craft

PiperCraft is the name of this game, a modded Minecraft Pi that gives you challenges to complete and in the process teaches you some real-world physical computing. Each section is presented by machinima-style cut scenes, presumably filmed in full Minecraft, which are also fully voiced in an adorable fashion. Guide PiperBot to save Earth from Mars, with only a witty assistant and many Minecraft blocks to help you. There are multiple levels and apparently more are being made, which will be free to download as they become available; people can also create levels and share them.

It’s all very cute and quaint and honestly not like much we’ve seen before; CEED Universe on pi-top is similar, but also unique in its own way beyond just being ‘gamified computing education’.

Let’s return to the concept of it as a laptop, though. As we’ve said before, the version you’re supposed to build and play with is not really a proper Pi laptop in a traditional sense. You don’t have a keyboard, for starters. However, it can easily be modified to be a more normal laptop. You can take out the Piper SD card and make a normal Raspbian one for yourself. The screen connects via HDMI, so it doesn’t require any extra software to get running. And if you take out the little component chest and the breadboard, there’s enough space to store a little USB or Bluetooth keyboard within the case. The version that’s shipping to consumers will come with a Pi 3 so you can connect to wireless, so really it’s very little effort to do a ‘conversion’ if you wish.

It’s a really fun, excellent kit. The build, the game, and the possibilities for it are great, even if it’s perhaps more suitable for younger kids than the ‘all ages’ for which it’s being marketed.

Last word

5/5

The price may be a little steep, but it’s a really fun educational computer kit that should really impress those who love Minecraft and building stuff. You can also take it almost anywhere!