Computer Lab for Under $1000

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We show how to build a computer lab using Raspberry Pis for under $1000

Need a computer lab but don't want to spend a lot of money? We got you! This tutorial will walk you through the process step-by-step. Powerful little motherboards, known as Raspberry Pis, form the backbone of the lab. These computers run a version of the Linux operating system that comes pre-loaded with lots of great software. This lab is ready for web-browsing, word-processing, spreadsheets, gaming, programming, and much more right out-of-the-box. But the Pi isn't really a computer, it is just a motherboard. So we will lay out all the other peripherals that you will need. This includes, screens, keyboards, cables, and more. We will walk you through the process from purchasing to install and setup. The first LucidTronix Lab of this kind was installed in McComb, Mississippi at the Jubilee Performing Arts Center (JPAC).

A Wall of Raspberry Pis

This lab was set up at the Jubilee Performing Arts Center (JPAC) in McComb Mississippi.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 0 Gather the Supplies

First we need the ingredients! Check the parts list below for more details. We have found that ebay and goodwill stores are great resources for LCD screens, keyboards and mice. If you are building the lab for a school or non-profit then local businesses may be willing to make an in-kind donation. One way or another the equipment must be acquired. The supply list below assumes a lab with 10 machines adjust your quantities as you like but keep mind for the cable and the SD Cards you can benefit from bulk discounts.

Step 1 Put the OS onto the SD Card

While you can buy SD cards with Raspberry PI OS (Raspbian) preloaded, these are quite a bit more expensive than buying SD Cards in bulk and installing the OS yourself. We have a step-by-step tutorial to get the OS ready, but be aware: formatting the cards and installing Raspbian takes about 30 minutes for each card.

Step 2 Video Conversion Voodoo

Make sure there is an appropriate converters and cables to connect each Raspberry Pi to a screen. Unless you have HDMI ports on your LCD screens you will need to convert the HDMI signal from the Raspberry Pi into a format your screen accepts. If you bought the screens second hand there is a strong possibility they will only take VGA signals, in which case you need a HDMI to VGA converter like the one we list in the parts section below. If the screens use VGA, then you will need VGA cable instead of the HDMI cable. It is also possible that the screens use the DVI format in which case you will need HDMI to DVI converter depending on whether you convert from male to female or vice versa you can use either a HDMI or DVI cable.

Step 3 Assemble Workstation 1

Now set up the first machine. Insert the SD Card into the SD card holder on the underside of Raspberry Pi. Plug the USB Keyboards and mouse into the USB ports. Connect a monitor to the HDMI port with appropriate VGA or DVI converters if necessary. Make sure the monitor is plugged in an turned on. Double check all the wiring. Lastly, connect a micro USB cable from the Raspberry Pi to the USB power hub. At this point the if the OS was correctly loaded the Raspberry Pi should boot up.

Step 4 Assemble All Workstations

Once you have one workstation up and running repeat the process for all the remaining machines. Arrange the USB power hubs so that each Raspberry Pi can reach one. Be careful with cable management at this stage, by coiling up any loose wires and securing them with zip ties or velcro. It is also a good idea to secure the power strips and the USB power hub to make the lab more resistant to tugs and twists.

Step 5 Make the Network

The cheapest and easiest networking solution is to use ethernet cables and ethernet switches as included in the parts list below. If this is your approach, then connect the ethernet switch to an ethernet cable that provides an internet connection. For example, use an ethernet cable from an internet-connected wifi router or from a broadband modem. Then connect each Raspberry Pi to the ethernet switch. If you have more Raspberry Pis than fit on one ethernet switch you can daisy-chain the ethernet switches together by connecting them via an ethernet cable. The Raspberry Pis also support wifi via a wifi dongle if you choose to go the wireless route.


Title Description # Cost Link Picture
Raspberry Pi 2 Raspberry Pi 2 - Model B - ARMv7 with 1G RAM 10 $39.95 Link 2358-01
LCD Screen Used Goodwill stores usually carry a number of still functioning LCD screens with VGA input for $5 - $25 10 $15.0 Link Images-1
Ethernet Switch TP-LINK TL-SF1008D 8-port 10/100Mbps Desktop Switch 1 $12.58 Link 519syw0ynfl._sl1280_
USB Power Hub Power supply for all the Raspberry Pis 2 $5.49 Link Unknown-9
Surge Protector 120V AC power strip 2 $4.99 Link Unknown-10
HDMI Cable Standard HDMI cable 10 $4.3 Link 10v3-411xx_04
Mouse USB Mouse 10 $3.99 Link Images-3
HDMI to VGA converter Generic HDMI Input to VGA Adapter Converter For PC Laptop NoteBook HD DVD Value: HDMI Male to VGA Female 10 $3.99 Link 51swrlyd8al._sl1000_
Keyboard USB Keyboard 10 $3.99 Link Unknown-8
SD Card (Micro) 8GB micro SD Card Value: 8GB 10 $2.99 Link 51_tnk1upll
Ethernet Cable Ethernet Cable 10 $2.0 Link Images-2
USB Cable Micro 3 Foot Micro USB Cable Value: 3 Foot 10 $1.55 Link Unknown-7
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