The Raspberry Pi Arcade Project, Part 2: The Essential Gear

The first thing you need when building your Raspberry Pi Arcade is… well… a Raspberry Pi. When they were first released, they were hard to come by, but now they’re readily available in the U.S., for about $45, on Amazon.com.

Unfortunately the Raspberry Pi, by itself, is completely useless. Fortunately, the other stuff you need to make a Raspberry Pi work is also fairly inexpensive and readily available on Amazon, so with an expenditure of about $150 and a few days’ wait for UPS to drop everything at your door (and a TV, which I’ll assume you have), you’ll have your complete Raspberry Pi set-up.

While this blog series is focused specifically on building an arcade cabinet powered by the Raspberry Pi, this post will serve well as a general introduction to the basics you’ll need (or at least want) to put together a core Raspberry Pi setup for any purpose.

The bare minimum you need to use a Raspberry Pi is:

  • Raspberry Pi
  • 5V 700mA (or greater) Micro USB power supply
  • HDMI (or RCA video and 1/8-inch stereo audio) cable
  • 4 GB or larger SD card
  • USB keyboard and mouse
  • Ethernet cable

Practically speaking, however, you’re going to also need the following:

  • TV or monitor with HDMI or RCA audio/video input
  • PC or Mac with an SD card slot (or get your SD card with Raspbian Linux preinstalled)
  • USB WiFi adapter (instead of Ethernet)
  • USB wireless all-in-one keyboard/trackpad (instead of separate keyboard and mouse)
  • USB hub (at least 3 ports; powered is better)
  • A case

I strongly recommend HDMI instead of RCA video if possible, as HDMI delivers an all-digital signal for a much clearer picture. I have not tested the Raspberry Pi with RCA video output, so from here on out we’ll just assume you’re using HDMI.

While you don’t need a case for the Raspberry Pi, it sure looks nicer (and will be better protected from damage) inside one.

Get the Goods

As noted above, everything you need is available on Amazon, which is where I got all of my components. My preferred options for each are shown below, but bear in mind that a lot of these exact parts and suppliers come and go, so the links may not continue to work in the future. Where this is especially a concern, I have included general notes on what to look for when picking an alternative.

This list cuts to the chase, and includes the things I think you need, including the WiFi adapter, wireless keyboard/trackpad combo, and USB hub.

TV not included.

(All images shown here are from the respective Amazon product pages. And, full disclosure, all of the Amazon links herein include my affiliate code. It won’t cost you any more, but if you use these links Amazon will throw a few pennies my way. Thanks!)

raspberrypiRaspberry Pi
There are a few different options for the Raspberry Pi itself, but don’t mess around: get Model B Rev. 2.0, which adds Ethernet and a second USB port missing from Model A, resolves a couple of technical issues with the first versions, and bumps up the built-in RAM from 256 MB to 512 MB.

power5V 700mA Micro USB Power Supply
There are lots of different options for these power supplies, many of which seem to come and go quickly on Amazon. But don’t sweat it. This is a de facto standard charger for many cell phones these days. As long as the charger is 5 volts with at least 700 milliamps and a Micro USB connector, it will power the Raspberry Pi, regardless of the brand or what devices it is advertised as working with.

hdmiHDMI Cable
Don’t get me started on HDMI cables. An HDMI cable is an HDMI cable. The only thing you need to concern yourself with is how long it is and whether or not your Raspberry Pi will be that close to your TV. Well, that and whether or not you’re dealing with a reputable seller. That’s why I like to go with the Amazon Basics cable. It’s cheap, it works, and it’s direct from Amazon.

sdcardSanDisk Extreme 16GB SD Card
Unlike HDMI cables, there is a difference between SD cards. You want one that’s fast, reliable, and spacious. 4 GB is considered the minimum for a Raspberry Pi, but I like to go with 16 GB, since it seems to be today’s best balance between size and affordability. (Translation: the price difference between an 8 GB and a 16 GB SD card is much smaller than the price difference between a 16 GB and a 32 GB.)

wifiEdimax EW-7811Un USB WiFi Adapter
There are a few options here as well, but I love this particular adapter because it’s cheap (about ten bucks) and tiny… which is essential for the Raspberry Pi. Don’t worry about software. It just works… or at least, it will once you get Raspbian installed (see my next blog post for that) and run the included WiFi setup app.

keyboardLogitech K400 Wireless Keyboard/Trackpad
OR FAVI Entertainment SmartStick Wireless Keyboard/Trackpad

It didn’t take long after I got my Raspberry Pi to realize two things: 1) I want as few wires connected to it as possible, and 2) two USB ports get filled quickly. The second is mitigated somewhat by using a USB hub, which you’ll eventually need for the X-Arcade Tankstick in the MAME cabinet project, but even if you’re not doing that, without a USB hub, the only way to use a Raspberry Pi with WiFi is to get an all-in-one keyboard and trackpad.

For practical purposes, the full-size keyboard of the Logitech K400 is the only way to go. The K400 is cheap plastic, but hey… it’s only about $35, and it works. I love it.

On the other hand, if you’re really trying to stay true to the micro-sized spirit of the Raspberry Pi, the FAVI SmartStick or something similar may be the only way to go. About the size of a TV remote control, the SmartStick includes a reasonably usable thumb keyboard and built-in mini trackpad, with the added bonus of a laser pointer so you can mess with your cat when not playing with the Raspberry Pi. In practice I’ve found the SmartStick is a bit touchy… thumb typing on it often requires looking down, and sometimes key presses infuriatingly don’t register. But it’s still fun to have.

hubBelkin USB 2.0 4-Port Powered Ultra-mini Hub
This is the one item on the list that I don’t actually own, as I am relying on an older USB hub I already had lying around. But if I were to buy a new hub specifically for this project, this is probably the one I’d choose. In practice, so far I have been able to do what I need to do with an unpowered hub, but a lot of what I’ve read on the subject suggests a powered USB hub is preferable for use with the Raspberry Pi, to keep the Pi itself from overheating.

caseSB Raspberry Pi Case (assorted colors)
There are a ton of Raspberry Pi cases out there, but this one is my favorite, because it’s nearly indestructible, it’s super-tiny, the Raspberry Pi snaps snugly into it with no tools, it includes slots for all connectors plus two mounting screw slots, and best of all comes in a variety of translucent colors, plus black and white.

I currently own two Raspberry Pi’s, and I have one of these cases for each, one in pink and one in orange.

The Bottom Line

So, how much is all of this going to cost you? I created an Amazon “Listmania!” list (with only the Logitech keyboard, not both), and the subtotal is $143.86. Not bad for all of the essentials (except a display) you need to run a reasonably capable general-purpose Linux computer.

Next time we’ll take a closer look at the SD card, or more specifically, what’s going to go on it: Raspbian, a modified version of the popular Debian Linux distribution that’s been tailored for an optimal experience on the Raspberry Pi.

Update: It’s come to my attention that the Belkin USB hub I have recommended actually is not powered. I will update this post in the near future with an alternate, powered hub recommendation.

February 1983 / February 2013

The sting in my nostrils as I step out the back door
Into the pre-dawn cold

The smell of car exhaust mixing
With the frozen winter air

The stretching shifting halos
Around the streetlights seen through squinting half-awake eyes

The snow stomped from my boots before I step
Through the front door

Ode to the locker room

Being a runner in Minnesota can be difficult, because it forces you to make one of three choices:

  1. Run outside in subzero weather.
  2. Get a gym membership and run on a track or treadmill for 4-5 months.
  3. Stop running altogether in the winter.

Since #3 is not a viable option, you’re left with either bundling up with many layers and tiptoeing hesitantly along icy sidewalks or park paths with blustery winds buffeting your face, or paying a monthly fee for the privilege of driving to a building and running indoors on a treadmill or (if you’re lucky) a track, a tedious but climate-controlled solution.

Being an uncharacteristically wimpy Minnesotan, I’ve gone with the gym membership. I’m very fortunate, I suppose, to live close to the Midtown YWCA in Minneapolis, where I have access to first-rate facilities including a 1/6 mile indoor track. I loathe running on a treadmill. The track can be tedious, but at least I’m actually moving. And if I pick the right soundtrack, I can even visualize running around Lake Nokomis instead. (I’ve run Nokomis to the sounds of my own The Long Run enough times that I know precisely where I am in relation to the lake as each of the 11 sections of the 40-minute piece comes on.)

But as much as I can trick myself into enjoying (or at least tolerating) indoor running in the winter, there’s one aspect of Y membership that I will never like or be able to reconcile with my desire to be outside and alone when I run: the locker room.

I was not a jock in school. In fact, I was pretty much exactly whatever the opposite of a jock is. So what little time I did spend in a locker room was an exercise in taunting and humiliation (real or imagined, and probably more imagined than I believed at the time). I’m no longer afraid of the locker room. I just don’t like it.

I don’t like how crowded it is. I don’t like having to find a space on a bench to put my stuff while I change, or coming back to the locker room after my run to see someone else has chosen bench space directly in front of my locker.

I don’t like listening to other people whistling in the showers. What is so great about this experience to make them want to whistle their tuneless little non-melodies?

I don’t like people who are too comfortable being naked in the locker room, and I also don’t like people who are too uncomfortable with it. Be naked in the shower, the sauna, and at your locker, but nowhere else. Don’t be afraid to take off your swim trunks in the shower. Conversely, don’t stand at the sink naked while you shave, or at the counter by the hair dryers, reading a newspaper. (It kind of just seems logical to me to cover up certain parts when you’re wielding a razor blade, electronics, or paper. Especially paper.)

I don’t like listening to other people’s conversations, even when I am deliberately eavesdropping. I don’t want to be eavesdropping. I especially don’t like listening to teenagers swear loudly. And get off my lawn.

I don’t like how hot it is in the locker room, and how by the time I’m done drying off after my shower, I’ve started sweating again before I can even put on my shirt.

Given my dislike of winter in general, and especially my dislike of the compromises it requires (like spending so much time on the corollary disliking of myriad characteristics of spending time in the Y locker room), I’ve been asked by certain individuals in my life why I want to live in Minnesota at all.

They just don’t understand.

I’m not sure if it’s the harsh conditions of life in the Upper Midwest, much like the harsh conditions in the Scandinavian countries where many of our ancestors came from, or whether we’re just resentful of how easily our existence is ignored by the rest of the country, but part of the joy of being Minnesotan is to be able to complain about being Minnesotan. For us, to love something is to feel comfortable complaining about it.

Of course, that would suggest that perhaps I really love the locker room. But love and hate are not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference. And whether I love the locker room, or hate it, the one thing I clearly am not is indifferent.

But whatever the reason for my strong feelings, there is one that is stronger than all. Spring can’t get here soon enough.

What do Made-in-USA iMacs, fracking in North Dakota, and right-to-work in Michigan have in common?

Yesterday I blogged about the huge glowing area in North Dakota that is experiencing a shale oil boom thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This morning I tweeted about new legislation passed to make Michigan a right-to-work state. And for the past few days I’ve been reading enthusiastic news that Apple is resuming manufacturing in the United States.

What do these things all have in common? Well… the always insightful Jason Kottke has the answer.

We’re witnessing an interesting cycle in the US economy right now. Changes in China in recent years have presented new challenges to its burgeoning manufacturing base; meanwhile here in the US the combination of Great Recession-related unemployment, the GOP’s 30-year experiment in rolling back labor rights, and (as Kottke notes) the artificially low price of natural gas here due to the fracking boom, have suddenly made the United States a much more desirable place for manufacturing. But will it last, and at what cost?

Near misses

Last night, while driving in a relatively unfamiliar area in the northern suburbs of St. Paul, I nearly died. Well, OK, I’m not sure I was that close to dying, but a fraction of a second was the difference between today being another ordinary day and being one spent in ICU or the morgue.

I was heading west on Ramsey County 96, about to make a left turn onto the southbound I-35W onramp. Highway 96 is a 4-lane divided highway at this point, and with some construction in the area, the interchange has recently been made into a 4-way stop. As I approached the intersection I stopped, observing a semi slowing to a stop in the oncoming right-hand lane. I arrived at the intersection first, so I began my left turn. Just as I was entering the intersection, an SUV blew through in the oncoming left-hand lane, oblivious to the stop sign, obscured by the semi. I slammed hard on my brakes (and almost as hard on the horn). They honked at me too, apparently blaming me for observing the stop sign they were unaware existed. I escaped unscathed, though I’m not sure how close we came to a collision. 4 or 5 feet, probably. Not a razor-thin margin, but with the SUV traveling at least 50 MPH, it was still too close for comfort. (And I don’t mean this.)

We all encounter varying degrees of “near misses” every day. Only rarely are they so clear and obvious that we are shaken by them, and even then, things quickly return to normal. We are a resilient species. We have to be, to survive. But there’s a downside to that resilience. It’s easy to forget just how precious our days are, and how soon they will be gone.

My near miss last night has me thinking more about what’s really important, and wanting to spend my time only on those important things as much as possible. That doesn’t mean working crazy hours or having life-changing experiences every moment. But it does mean spending less time worrying about things that don’t really matter, and making choices that make each day better instead of worse.

Don’t worry, and don’t regret. Take chances. Go after opportunities. Make things happen.

I’m still here. For now. And if you’re reading this, you are too. Let’s do this. Don’t stop. Except at stop signs.