Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi: Intro and Setup

What it is:

The Raspberry Pi is a miniature computer created for the purpose of teaching people how computers work and introducing them to the principles of programming, engineering and mechanics. The Raspberry Pi is very inexpensive, ranging from $5 for the basic model to $35 for the latest “high-end” model, making it a perfect tool for experimenting without the risk of destroying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of electronics.

Out of the box, the Raspberry Pi is a blank slate. The first lesson for users will be how to get it setup properly, running an operating system in which they can interact. The team behind the Raspberry Pi has developed a free, open-source operating system call Raspbian for just this purpose. Though installing Raspbian is by no means necessary, its a great first lesson for beginners. It is also packed with various useful software, including a music editor, Minecraft Education Edition, LibreOffice and much more. 

What and Where to Buy:

The Raspberry Pi product page lists every model the company has ever produced with links to online retailers that sell each model. The latest Raspberry Pi models can also be found on Amazon and other popular online retailers. Just be sure to check you’re buying the right model.

The two most popular and up to date models, and the ones we’ll be focusing on for his post, are the Raspberry Pi Model 4 and Raspberry Pi Zero W


Raspberry Pi Model 4

The Pi4 is the latest “high end” model offered by Raspberry Pi. It has 4 USB ports, 2 mini-HDMIs with 4K output, an Ethernet port, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, a 3.5mm analog audio output, a MicroSD slot, a camera interface (CSI), a display interface (DSI), and 40 GPIO pins for connecting peripheral devices.

All of this comes in a board the size of a deck of cards, making the Pi4 a highly versatile machine. As for computing power, it packs a 1.5GHz 64-bit quad-core processor with 1GB of RAM in the base model (2 or 4GB upgrades options available), and a dedicated 500MHz graphics card.

The flagship Pi model has been updated every year, giving it a gradual increase in computing power and new hardware features, while maintaining the same $35 price tag. The Pi4 model was released in July of 2019.

Raspberry Pi Zero W

The Zero Model was introduced in 2015 as a smaller, even more affordable, alternative to the flagship model. While it lacks many of the ports and processing power of its bigger brother, the Zero is still an incredibly capable machine for many projects.

The Zero W has one micro USB port, a mini HDMI port, a microSD card slot, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, a CSI connector, 40 HAT header pins, a 1GHz single-core processor, and 512MB of RAM – all in a 2.5″ by 1.2″ body.

The Zero models do not update as frequently as the flagship model. The Zero W launched in February of 2017. It retails for roughly $10. If you don’t need WiFi or Bluetooth, the previous version (Zero) retails for only $5.

What You’ll Need:

The Raspberry Pi itself is just the motherboard of a computer. If you want to turn your Raspberry Pi into a fully-fledged desktop computer, you’ll need a few accessories. 

MicroSD Card (minimum 8GB):

First and foremost, you’ll need a hard drive on which the operating system will be stored and files can be saved. Both the Pi4 and Zero W models have a microSD card slot for just this purpose. While it is possible to run the Raspberry Pi off of a standard disk drive, solid state drive, or even a flashdrive, it is neither cost-effective, nor practical size-wise. If you plan on installing the Raspbian operating system (which we’re doing in this tutorial), you’ll need at least an 8GB card.

Power Adapter:

Neither model comes with a power adapter. Luckily, Raspberry Pis can be powered from universal USB power adapters. You probably already have a few lying around the house. The Pi4 requires a USB-C power adapter with a minumum of 5.1V/3A output. The Zero W uses a micro-USB power adapter and only requires a 1.2A output.


Unless you plan on exclusively accessing the Raspberry Pi remotely, you’ll need an HDMI cable to connect the device to a monitor or TV. Both the Pi4 and the Zero models have mini-HDMI outputs, so you’ll likely need a mini-to-regular HDMI adapter (pictured to right).

Keyboard and Mouse:

You’ll need a keyboard and mouse with either a direct USB connection or wireless USB dongle (like Logitech’s Unify receiver) for the Raspberry Pi as well. Bluetooth keyboards and mice will work with the Pi4 and Zero W, but only after you pair them with the device, which requires a previously connected keyboard and mouse.

Note: the Zero models only have micro USB ports, so you’ll need a micro USB-to-USB adapter as well (pictured to right).

MicroSD-to-USB Adapter (maybe):

If your computer does not have an SD card slot, you’ll need an adapter to connect the microSD card to a computer in order to install the Raspbian operating system (explained in the next step).

Case (optional):

Having a case for your Raspberry Pi is not necessary by any means, but it does offer some protection from the elements, drops, etc. as well as some piece of mind. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of cases available to purchase online for Raspberry Pis. You can even 3D print or build your own!

Installing Raspbian:

In order to install the Raspbian operating system on the microSD card, we’ll first have to download Raspbian from another computer (yes, unfortunately you’ll need a second computer to get Raspbian installed on your new Raspberry Pi). 

Go to the Raspbian download page on the Raspberry Pi website. Click the “Download ZIP” link under “Raspbian Stretch with desktop and recommended software” heading. If you’re only interested in the operating system itself, and none of the free software, you can choose the download link under “Raspbian Stretch with desktop” instead.

Next, we’ll need to download a free program called Etcher that will allow us to write the Raspbian installation file to the microSD card.

Now, connect your blank microSD card into the computer with the Raspbian download and Etcher. If your computer has an SD card slot, put the microSD card in its provided SD card adapter and plug it in. If your computer does not have an SD card slot, you’ll need to use a microSD-to-USB adapter.

Open Etcher. You’ll see a screen similar to the one above. First, click “Select image” and locate and select the Raspbian ZIP file. Next, click “Select drive” and choose the blank microSD card. And finally, click “Flash!” This will take awhile.

Once the file has finished being written to the microSD card, safely eject the card from the computer and pop it into the microSD card slot on your Raspberry Pi. 

Note: make sure your Raspberry Pi is connected to a monitor or TV before plugging it in to power. For some reason, the Raspberry Pi will occasionally not show any output if the HDMI is plugged in after it is already powered on.

If everything goes right, Raspbian will start installing itself automatically and, after its complete, you’ll boot to the desktop. You’re done!

Note: your default admin login and password will be the following:
username: pi
password: raspberry

For suggestions and ideas on what to do next, check out Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi: Raspbian Applications.