Fuze for Raspberry Pi £89.99
15th Nov 2013 | 14:50
Pi plus bread equals electrical engineering teaching tool
The Raspberry Pi, as a quick recap for those of you who dwell under rocks, is a credit-card sized computer that runs Linux and costs around £30.
The Fuze takes this, wraps it in a metal case and adds a keyboard and a breadboard (not the wooden type – see later in the review) to create a more complete package. It also comes with a wireless mouse. You just need to plug it into a HDMI monitor (not included) and you're ready to go.
It comes with a SD card with a modified version of Raspbian (the most popular Linux distro for the Raspberry Pi). There's new artwork for the desktop, a new icon set and a slightly different lineup of applications, but the biggest addition in Fuze's Linux is Fuze BASIC.
A casual glance at the Fuze will evoke nostalgia in readers with fond memories of the BBC Micro (albeit with slightly funkier colours). Fuze BASIC takes this a step further, and creates a similar programming environment. Not only is the syntax similar to the BBC micro's built-in language, it even looks similar with blocky white text on a black screen.
While there are, no doubt, a few BBC Micro aficionados staring dreamy-eyed at this machine, the real focus is on education. To help in this area, the Fuze team is creating project cards to help guide teachers through lessons, and get kids programming in this environment.
These are a key feature of learning to programme with FUZE BASIC. The project cards were provided on an SD card with our unit, and are provided free of charge with the on sale unit.
New Project Cards and electronic projects will be made available from the FUZE website.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the 80s ascetic is the solderless breadboard mounted on the top of the machine. This lets users take the general purpose inputs and outputs (GPIOs) and wire up circuits and control them from Fuze BASIC. The Electronic Projects Component Kit contains a range of wires, LEDs, buttons and resistors as well as a seven-segment display and a buzzer.
Together it makes a fairly complete educational kit centred on the Raspberry Pi board designed to be a one-stop-shop for schools looking to extend their computing facilities with minimum fuss. The alternative would be to build your own system based on smaller cases for the Raspberry Pi and separate peripherals.
Most of the connections that are on the Pi itself are accessible from the case. Though only one of the USB ports is available (the other is taken by the keyboard) and this is needed for the mouse, so you'll need a USB hub if you've got any accessories to plug in. The one connection that's completely missing is the one for the camera. Rather disappointingly, the case doesn't allow any method of attaching this.
The GPIOs are accessible through a Fuze IO Board. This has a different layout to the Pi GPIOs and so isn't compatible with any of the Raspberry Pi add ons such as the PiFace or PiLite. Next to the IO board, there's a 840-hole solderless breadboard which provides more than enough space to build circuits with the accompanying component kit.
One of the main selling points of the device is Fuze BASIC. This is a programming language aimed at beginners. It includes some simple methods for drawing and accessing the GPIOs. The device comes with a Programmer's Reference Guide which explains all the features of the language, but it's definitely a reference guide not an introduction to the language, so don't expect to use it to learn to program. For this purpose, there are a range of project cards on the website.
Performance and verdict
BBC BASIC, the language of the BBC Micro is fondly remembered for being a good language to learn on. However, the computing world has moved on in the past 30 years. Fuze BASIC harks back to the past rather than embracing the present and looking to the future. The font may look retro to older readers, but it'll look ugly and out of date to school children. The lack of mouse control and syntax highlighting in the code editor also seems to be trying to pull users backwards to the past.
The thing that confuses us is that this is completely unnecessary. Python, the language recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is not just a more powerful language that allows students to progress further, it's also easier to use. Python, unlike Fuze BASIC, is also cross platform, so students can work on projects if they don't have a Pi at home.
While the case feels and looks nice, we're also unsure what it actually adds to the setup. Raspberry Pis in small cases such as the PiBow are, in our experience, protected well enough. The built in keyboard is a bit too small for comfortable typing (the right shift and return key aren't full size) and the minimal travel on the keys add up to a poor experience. On a normal Pi, you can simply use whatever USB keyboard you wish, and that seems like a better option.
The inability to use standard Pi add-ons is a real disappointment for us. There are some great devices being made (with more in the pipeline) that give the user easy, simple access to a wide range of inputs and outputs. The lack of access to the camera port, similarly, seems like an opportunity lost.
The Fuze is one of the most expensive ways to kit out a Raspberry Pi. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything better than the more common options, and it does some things noticeably worse.
We also don't think that Fuze BASIC is a good option for education. Python and Scratch are the languages of choice for most Pi educators and we see no reason to change this. SD card images with Fuze basic are available for download from the manufacturer's website, and we recommend you try it if you're thinking of using a Fuze.
It's not that the Fuze is a bad device; it just happens to be less than the sum of its parts. For every task we can think of, having a normal Pi case is preferable to this for flexibility, ease of use, connections and expansion options. Perhaps there are some situations where the sturdiness of the case coupled with the inbuilt keyboard is useful enough to surpass its weaknesses, but in most situations, we don't think it will.
The case feels sturdy and well made. It was also good to see the GPIOs take pride of place on top of the machine. A position that, hopefully, will persuade people to use them. The programmer's Reference Guide was a nice touch, and if they do keep producing project cards, they will build up into a really useful collection for educators. However, it is difficult to see this overtaking the already excellent information on the Pi, including those produced by the OCR exam board.
The case limits your options for peripherals because it has the standard GPIO connections. The keyboard is uncomfortable to type on. We don't think the focus on FuzeBASIC is a good option for education. Fuze BASIC is a clunky language with a poorly equipped editor, and it doesn't share much syntax with any common languages so students may find it hard to move on should they wish. Tucking the board away out of site seems counter to the whole attraction of the Pi as a hackable device.
As a retro-styled computer for a hobbyist, the Fuze is alright, but there are better options for Raspberry Pis in education.