Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

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tetsujin
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Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

Post by tetsujin » Wed Feb 20, 2019 2:37 pm

There was a thread about having to back out of a panel plan because of a laptop failure. I recently had to face this possibility as well (my laptop is old, and for a short period I thought it had died outright - and I'm not quite ready to buy a replacement...) so I thought it might be worth discussing some of the possible low-cost alternatives for dealing with such a scenario.

Being involved in electronics as a hobby, one possibility that presents itself is the use of a single-board computer such as the Raspberry Pi. The cost for a full system does add up a bit, but a full solution for around $50 might be possible. For instance:

Pi Zero based:
  • Raspberry Pi Zero W: $10
  • Enclosure: $5
  • Power supply: $5
  • SD card: $10
  • Mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable or adapter: $5
  • Bluetooth presentation remote: Around $15 (or you could use a smartphone for this...)
Total: approx. $35-$50

Pi 3 based:
  • Raspberry Pi 3: $35
  • Enclosure: $5
  • Power supply: $5
  • SD card: $10
  • Presentation remote: Around $10-$15 (or you could use a smartphone for this...)
Total: approx. $55-70

One of the benefits of this kind of approach is that the whole presentation set-up becomes very portable. My laptop is old and heavy and there's a lot of times at the con when I'd rather not be lugging it around. With a SBC-type solution like the Pi the whole system can fit in a small bag or pocket.

The Pi Zero is a very inexpensive model but there are some trade-offs in terms of convenience that can wind up pushing the total price of the system back up again. For instance, the Pi Zero has a mini HDMI connector rather than a full-size one, which means you'll probably need to provide the adapter to full-size HDMI yourself. Also, while the Pi Zero does have a USB port for connecting devices, it's a USB micro connector, so in order to use something like a presentation remote with a USB dongle, you'll need a USB-OTG adaptor. (I side-stepped the issue above by specifying the "W" version of Pi Zero, which includes Bluetooth, and using a Bluetooth remote) And finally, if you wound up needing to use composite video or analog audio rather than HDMI, that's more complicated on the Zero than on the full-size Pi models. A full-size Pi costs more and is larger but the convenience is often worth it - plus you get a more powerful (or "less weak"?) computer to work with.

There are some disadvantages to going this route as well, of course: First and foremost, there's a learning curve to deal with, if you're not already familiar with the Pi and Linux (which is the most common OS choice on Pi). And since it's not PC hardware, you might be rather limited in what software you can run on it. (There is a way to run Windows 10 on the Pi, but it won't quite be the same as running it on a full PC) It's also not a particularly powerful platform - it's low-end or mid-range smart phone hardware basically. If you run Linux on the Pi, that probably means using Libreoffice to run the presentation - and while it's a generally quite capable package that does support importing presentations from Powerpoint and other packages - importing presentations doesn't always go smoothly because of differences in the software.

One final disadvantage to note: A laptop would have its own display, and then probably the projector would act either as a second display or mirror the first one - either way, you have your own display to refer to as you're presenting. A Pi would not provide this by default. Using a smartphone as a presentation remote could get around that during the presentation.

Despite these challenges and limitations, I think it's something to consider. Relatively portable, reasonably inexpensive (though you can probably find used or low-end laptops, HDMI-capable tablets, etc. that would be price-competitive), and powerful enough for typical presentation needs - but with some limitations and learning curve to deal with.

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thetoddfather
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Re: Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

Post by thetoddfather » Fri Feb 22, 2019 11:40 am

This isn't a bad idea in theory, but the convention can rent real laptops for the weekend for around this price and we don't have to maintain them. in addition they come with built in batteries and updated licenses for MS office. We don't do this because it is cost prohibitive to rent laptops for a few presenters that may have outright hardware failure. In the past we've used a rented laptop to help a presenter out of a jam so its not unheard of but this is an exception more then a rule.

Personally I've played with many of the small form factor computers and i'd be more inclined to recommend a NUC over a PI. The ARM processor in the PI means everything has to be recompiled and some programs don't work or aren't ported, OpenOffice/LibreOffice doesn't play very well with regular office files on Linux on a new computer, esp those with video or audio add-ons (but I haven't use libreoffice in about 3 years). Some of that is fixed with linux on i386 or amd64 arch but not all of it, I've still had presentations barf all over themselves when opened in open/libre office. That would crush me as a presenter.

in addition presentations on thumb drives get corrupted all the time. The wifi at the Hynes isn't amazing and can't be trusted to download anything after about noon on Friday.

There are also a number of logistical issues that i'm not tackling here around staffing needs.

Disclaimer: I'm not on tech anymore but run digital signs (which runs on Linux) and I've done enough work with tech and programming to feel like I can answer this question. I am a Linux dude in my real life and own a Pi.
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tetsujin
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Re: Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

Post by tetsujin » Fri Feb 22, 2019 1:47 pm

thetoddfather wrote:
Fri Feb 22, 2019 11:40 am
This isn't a bad idea in theory, but the convention can rent real laptops for the weekend for around this price and we don't have to maintain them. in addition they come with built in batteries and updated licenses for MS office. We don't do this because it is cost prohibitive to rent laptops for a few presenters that may have outright hardware failure. In the past we've used a rented laptop to help a presenter out of a jam so its not unheard of but this is an exception more then a rule.
Well I didn't mean this so much as a thing the con could or should be providing (and if you get to the con and your laptop's borked, you need something that can work as a drop-in replacement. If you get to your PANEL and your laptop's borked... Yeesh, then you REALLY need something that's just a drop-in replacement. As in, how can I recover from this situation in like 5 minutes, not 5 hours. :) But if the con's like a month or two out and your laptop's borked, you have a lot more options...)

For sure taking a presentation created in one package and presenting it in something else is generally bad news. I used to run a Mac and so I authored things in Keynote, and then I think I migrated the presentation to Powerpoint and Libreoffice and the transition was always a mess.

I was thinking of this strictly as an option panelists could consider. First to cover the "dead laptop" scenario", second to cover the "I don't want to have to lug my laptop around all day" situation. It's an option with some real trade-offs, no question, but it could be a fairly low-cost method to solving that problem.

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Re: Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

Post by Aurabolt » Tue Mar 05, 2019 9:37 pm

...I see you read my thread.

My laptop kicked the bucket on Thanksgiving Day. The hinge, which had been cracking for almost year broke completely (I used it daily at home and elsewhere). Then on Thanksgiving Day, the screen never came on. I saw it coming days in advance. I lack the money to recover the hard drive (which is totally fine) or even buy a new computer for reasons I'd rather not get into here.

Someone did PM me when I first posted my thread in November offering to let me use their laptop but I turned them down. I wouldn't feel comfortable using someone else's computer personally. If AB provided the laptops for panelists to do their panels, I wouldn't mind cutting back on the music I tend to embed in my Powerpoints in that case.

tetsujin wrote:
Fri Feb 22, 2019 1:47 pm


Well I didn't mean this so much as a thing the con could or should be providing (and if you get to the con and your laptop's borked, you need something that can work as a drop-in replacement. If you get to your PANEL and your laptop's borked... Yeesh, then you REALLY need something that's just a drop-in replacement. As in, how can I recover from this situation in like 5 minutes, not 5 hours.
Funny you say this. It happened to me back in 2015: http://www.animeboston.com/coninfo/schedule_panel/1514

My laptop crashed twice: Once 5 minutes before the panel was set to begin and again about 40 minutes into the panel. I overcame both setbacks and still delivered the best panel of the night. I know because people were still talking about it the next day. It was a 2-hour panel and I gave away physical copies of Pokemon AlphaSapphire and Pokemon OmegaRuby--both still fairly new releases at the time--during the panel.

I had 3 years of experience as a panelist (all at AB) at that point. I don't panic in high-pressure situations and that was definitely a good time--and reason--to panic. After the first crash, my only thought was "There are over 100 people lined up outside to see THIS panel. I'm doing it. Let them in!" After the second crash, a collective groan swept across the audience. That's when I did the giveaways. That bought me enough time to reboot my laptop and I finished the panel without further incident.

The technician assigned to the room said after the second crash she thought that was it and was nothing short of awed by the fact I was unfazed by it. As a panelist, I prepare for everything in short so...yeah. I was fully prepared to finish my panel without my laptop if I had to at that point. LOL.
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Re: Single Board Computers as presentation hardware

Post by tetsujin » Thu Mar 07, 2019 4:36 pm

Ha, right on!

I'm facing some kind of laptop malfunction right now, not real happy about it. Machine is old and running into the ground, but despite its limitations I am a bit fond of it and don't really want it to die. But it seems to be failing when it heats up, just crashing or rebooting... just not a good time unfortunately. So this stuff has been on my mind a bit lately, plus more general over the years I've pondered ways to run a presentation without lugging a laptop around the con, just 'cause that's a pain especially with an older laptop like mine. There were some cons where I couldn't bring my laptop into the dealer's room, but I didn't have anywhere else to leave it...

As for the hard drive - I don't know your situation exactly but you can buy fairly inexpensive USB adapters that can be used to pull the data off a SATA drive - then it'd just be a matter of removing the drive (which can be difficult on some laptops, of course - and you need another machine to pull the data off onto...)

The story of pushing onward with the panel despite the tech. difficulties is a good one. I tell myself not to use the projector as a crutch but I still tend to just follow that course I baked into the slides - except when I don't and then maybe find that suddenly the panel got better. So there's that, too - though with my panel it's a bit of a problem if I don't have visuals, I think.

(...Fingers crossed that I have a panel this year...)

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