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Manual override: Raspberry Pi beginners' books

Do the 'getting started' guides make your first slice of Pi more tasty?

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Up to Scratch

Still, you can see its influence on the other, later books. All of them follow its template, walking the reader through setting up the computer and getting to grips with the Linux command line. Python tutorials and assorted software projects follow, before wrapping up with a look at the hardware. The same kinds of projects - Pi as media centre, Pi as web server, Pi to control connected LEDs - are largely repeated from book to book.

Raspberry Pi for Dummies is the most extensive of the Pi guides, taking in getting office apps onto the Pi - the User Guide covers this too - along with writing HTML and CSS for websites, and even using GIMP for basic photo editing. Despite warning that the Pi is too underpowered to replace a regular machine, Dummies nevertheless does what it can to assist folk who want to use the Pi that way, in the series’ established chirpy, propellor-head style. Getting Started with Raspberry Pi’s authors are enthusiastic too, but fortunately not on the same perpetual high as the Dummies editors.

Getting Started with Raspberry Pi  Getting Started with Raspberry Pi

Getting Started with Raspberry Pi is a great introduction to the Pi, but not a reference work
Click for larger page sample

Girling, as I say, prefaces his Raspberry Pi Owners’ Workshop Manual coverage of Python with some general theory of programming technique which is interesting, but helps lend his book a didactic air that makes it feel like a coursework at times. It’s certainly less engaging than the more informal Getting Started with Raspberry Pi or even the Raspberry Pi User Guide. With its frequent references to the history of computing, and of the ARM chip and its BBC Micro heritage in particular, and its emphasis on writing programs rather than scripts or interpreter input, the Raspberry Pi Owners’ Workshop Manual feels as if it was written with the fortysomething former user of one of the 1980s home computers and computer science undergraduates in mind rather than the youngsters the Pi was created for, or non-techies keen to try their hand at coding.

A case in point: Girling completely ignores the Pi’s preloaded Python tool, IDLE, leaving the reader in the dark as to the function of the applications they’ll see on the desktop the first time they boot into the Pi’s GUI. He opts instead for a more sophisticated IDE, Geany, which is a better choice for coders who want to maintain multiple source code files and have them all open at the same time. That’s how college kids are taught, in preparation for writing large, modular programs, but it’s an approach programming newbies and amateurs are unlikely to consider.

The Haynes manual also leaves aside Scratch, the child-centric flowchart-as-coding tool. Scratch is a great basis for getting kids to think logically and to assemble programs without getting bogged down typing and remembering keywords. My 10-year-old loves it. But he got no help from Girling and Haynes.

I pointed him toward Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps at first. Its approach to Scratch - and, indeed, all of the Pi features it covers - is to provide a series of short step-by-step walkthroughs. They’re easy to follow but light on explanation. Chapters build on what has gone before, so it’s not a book for dipping into. I spent a lot of time answering questions which the book’s author, Mike McGrath, doesn’t address. It’s a book for people who want to follow instructions, not folk who want to understand "why" as well as "how".

Have a Bash

Raspberry Pi for Dummies, Getting Started with Raspberry Pi and the Raspberry Pi User Guide are perhaps too wordy for young kids eager to create games with Scratch - no RTFM for them - but of the two Dummies offers by far the best exploration of the application and is the more thorough. Upton and Halfacree nod toward further uses, such as feeding Scratch with sensor data - as does Getting Started with Raspberry Pi - and using it to control robots assembled out of Lego.

The Raspberry Pi Owners’ Workshop Manual may take no notice of Scratch, but it covers shell scripting and the C language - another pointer to its real audience. Only within the various software projects, though. There’s no extensive introduction to either of these languages of the kind as he provides for Python, yet there’s rather too much "oh, and you can also do this in Python" in later parts of the book. This may well be handy for the more experienced user, but it makes the Haynes manual more confusing for the novice than it need be.

Having been taught to think about programming the Pi with Python, newbies are then forced to negotiate C code in order to access certain Pi components and features before they’re told how to do so with their new language - and in a way that often amounts to converting the C code into Python.

Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps

Looking for easy and untaxing? Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps is for you
Click for larger page sample

It’s easier for an experienced user to spot and skip the parts of a book they don’t need to read, than for a novice to do so. Better then to have written the Raspberry Pi Owners’ Workshop Manual from the newcomer’s perspective and provided the more advanced information as supplements to each chapter.

Girling doesn’t provide standalone chapters as the others do on the pygame Python library of code for games - Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps even covers the Tkinter library, used to give Python apps standard GUI elements, though in its usual cursory fashion - but he introduces it and other libraries through the projects he provides. You can argue that this is a better approach: give readers the information when they need it, but it makes the Raspberry Pi Owners’ Workshop Manual less useful for looking things up, or as a read-through Python tutorial.

Getting Started with Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi for Dummies and the Raspberry Pi User Guide work better read cover to cover. The former is particularly successful in this mode, as it’s not pretending to be a reference work the way the User Guide is. Neither is it as verbose as Raspberry Pi for Dummies. Like Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps, it’s a book you can start on page one go straight through to the end. Getting Started, however, will leave you feeling you’ve learned something and not simply repeated page after page of instructions.

Raspberry Pi User Guide
Authors Eben Upton and Gareth Halfacree
Publisher Wiley
Publication Date September 2012
Price £12.99 (paperback) £8.99 (ebook)
Format Paperback, 223 x 186mm, 262 pages
Ebook DRM'd Kindle, ePub
More Info Wiley

Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps
Authors Mike McGrath
Publisher Easy Steps
Publication Date February 2013
Price £10.99
Format Paperback, 227 x 186mm, 192 pages
Ebook DRM'd Kindle, ePub
More Info Easy Steps

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