Three things I value: Part 1 – the cheap but effective

Reading the post you will see why I value a device that cost less than thirty pounds, that at various points caused me to pull my hair out, but yet I wouldn’t want to be without.

Writes Bob Windmill

So what’s the cheap but effective example, then?

The device in question is a Raspberry Pi 3, aka RP3. This device is a fully fledged computer about the size of a pack of playing cards that is capable of running a wide range of software using the Linux operating systems

The advantages of Linux is that is that it offers a windows-like experience, at least in use. And because Linux is open-source pretty much any software you could image is available to download for free.

Windows users eat your heart out.

Alongside this are hundreds if not thousands of online communities freely offering help and advice. Happily, this includes those oh-so important command line instructions needed to install and configure software and hardware.

Yeah, that’s right, no windows “click to install” here. 

A problem or an opportunity

Is this a problem? In my opinion it’s only as big a problem as a person chooses to make it. Sure it’s different to Windows but to me it’s an opportunity to learn something new rather than a barrier.

I’m OK using and trouble-shooting Windows/Office and generally keeping devices functioning smoothly. However, the world of Linux and typing lengthy commands into a “terminal window” was a closed book to me.

Happily salvation was at hand from the previously mentioned online communities and forums who make tutorials freely available on virtually an subject or project.

More importantly, the majority provide example commands that can be pasted into the terminal window on a user’s RP3. Using this approach I was able to set up and configure the software I needed.

Solving a problem

Thinking back to my introductory post, I value thing that are either useful or decorative. In this case I was trying to solve the problem of sharing my old-but-still-perfectly-functional USB only HP P1005 printer over my home network.

This is what an "old but good" printer looks like
What “Old but Good” looks like

Reluctant to scrap a 0.2p/page workhorse I forget my own advice of “buy cheap, buy twice” and tried a couple of entry level TP-Link network printer servers.

OK, amazon refunded me both times but I still couldn’t share my printer.

Happily, while trouble-shooting the TP-Link kit I kept coming across articles touting a RP3 as an inexpensive but reliable network print server.

Taking the plunge

Researching this idea further suggested that I could, with a bit of effort, set up an RP3 network print server for less than thirty pounds. The “inexpensive but reliable” bit appealed to my thrifty nature so I took the plunge.

Waving my credit card in Amazon’s direction had an RP3, complete with case and power supply, dropping though my letterbox the next day.

Sorry, didn’t I mentions that the basic RP3 is just the bare board and needs a case and peripherals? Happily my chosen kit included a case, power supply and self installing operating system on a micro-SD card.

The self-installing micro-SD card was IMHO the best bit. Just insert the card, power up the RP3 attached to keyboard, mouse and monitor, select the Linux flavour of your choice (mine was Raspbarian) and enjoy the ride.

Beyond choosing a username and password (you do change you default passwords, don’t you) and confirming time zones, languages and keyboard choices my main activity was drinking tea while the RP3 did its thing.

Making it useful

As standard a RP3 doesn’t know how to talk to a windows network and doesn’t have a driver for a P1005. This was something of a drawback given that I wanted to share my that particular printer with a windows network.

Happily, installing the SAMBA, CUPS and foo2zjs packages (don’t ask, just nod an say “yes” at this stage) fixed those problems and I could happily print from my new mini-marvel

Configuring the RP3 to share it’s printer with a windows network was happily done through the CUPS web interface (just keep nodding and saying “yes“), and the shared printer was set up from windows as usual.

Thank you, thank you, thank you …….

You will probably have noticed the total lack of technical instructions in this post. There is a good reason for this: I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff.

However I could follow the online guides and tutorials and paste the required instructions into the Linux terminal window, so a huge thank-you to all those wonderful people who so freely share their expertise.

Was it all plain sailing? Was it heck. It took a little while to get the hang of how things worked but, from scratch, all the above software was up and running in just over an hour.

Getting ambitious

Initially I kept the RP3 on my desk with a keyboard an monitor attached, just to keep an eye on things. As I came to trust it I wanted to stash it under the desk, but I still wanted to be able to check on it from time to time.

Enter Tight VNC.

 Virtual Network Computing (VNC) is a graphical desktop sharing system that uses the Remote Frame Buffer protocol (RFB) to remotely control another computer.

Virtual Network Computing (VNC) is a graphical desktop sharing system that uses the Remote Frame Buffer protocol (RFB) to remotely control another computer.

It transmits the keyboard and mouse events from one computer to another, relaying the graphical screen updates back in the other direction, over a network.

As you may have guessed I got that bit from Wikipedia. So another thank-you there.

In short it means that if both devices are running one of the flavours of VNC software I can access a remote computer as though I was sitting in front of it.

And I can do this from my iPad (neat) and my android mobile (not so neat, assuming you actually want to read what’s on the screen)

Again, all good stuff, I couldn’t have done it on my own.

Accessing an RP3 using VNC

And now?

On a day to day basis I don’t think about my RP3, I just happily accept that hitting “print” has a 0.2p/page print trundling out of the P1005.

Hey, I said it was “old but good“. I never said “fast“. “Trundling“, say 10 pages per minute, is fine for what I want to do.

Even better, the time for the first page to print is about the same as over USB, maybe just a second or two longer.

That’s impressive for any print server, never mind a sub thirty pounds home brewed special.

So, what do I value, and why

I value the fact that I haven’t added to the world’s landfill problems by throwing away a perfectly functional printer just because I wanted to print from my sofa.

I value having had the experience of working with a non-windows operating system and, with amazingly generous help of various online communities, come to grips with getting it to do what I want.

I value just hitting “print” and getting a print-out without having to reboot or re-configure anything (Thanks for that, TP-Link).

I value the fact that my RP3 can also do a bunch of other stuff. With the addition of an inexpensive USB hard drive it is also now a media server for my video, music and photograph collections.

It apparently also makes a usefully quick file server or back-up destination, but I have tried this yet. No I’m not idle, I just have other solutions in place for those tasks.

Was it worth the money?

For me, completely. Just under twenty five pounds well spent

OK, it’s not the only option, but with many print servers costing over a hundred pounds it was was worth the risk. And it was (mostly) fun doing it.

02/02/2019 Update

Today was a kind of anniversary: It’s been six months since I used VNC to see what my Pi print server was doing. In that time it happily churned out hundreds of pages on demand.

Not bad for under thirty pounds and a few hours of my time.

Over to you

If you have a comments on this post, or would like to share a story of something that you value, please leave a comment below.

Bob Windmill

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