Using the Raspberry Pi to Turn an iPad into a Real Computer, part 1: Prologue

This Christmas, we upgraded the kids’ iPads, and I inherited my daughter’s old iPad Air 2. I had an iPad years ago, but I didn’t like it.

I like tablets, I just didn’t like the iPad. Tablets fill this weird gap between a smartphone and a PC, where you can do what you do what you do on your phone (texts, memes, and games) only more comfortably. A laptop is best used when seated, preferably at a desk or table; it’s portable. The smartphone is great when you are out of the house or office and moving around; it’s mobile. The tablet fits into that middle space: seated but not at a desk or table, such as in bed, on the couch, on a long flight, or riding a train. Staring at a screen of any kind in a car for a long time makes me nauseous, so I prefer audio for car trips.

I also hate tablets because they come close to doing what a netbook used to, before 10 inch screens went extinct. (Yes the GPD Pocket is a thing, it’s also the price of a gaming laptop. I already have too many laptops as it is, without dropping 12 Benjamins on another one because it’s cute.) Netbooks are great for note taking in a meeting or class, or for doing light system administration tasks where you need basic networking tools like ping, ssh, or more serious tools like network scanners or wifi analyzers. Android tablets do ok in this regard, but the lineup of network tools for iOS are not great.

The problem with a tablet is that it isn’t a netbook. The problem with a netbook is that it a tablet.

Since inheriting this iPad has cost me nothing (well, I paid for it years ago) I am going to try it again. This time I am also re-creating the netbook experience using recycled technology that I already have. I am trying to create a portable (not necessarily mobile) computing setup that is smaller than a laptop, charges off of 5v DC, does Unix shit reliably, stores files and streams media without Internet access, and fits in my man purse. The theme of this project is “modular off-grid solar powered computing made with shit laying around the house.”

Modular
The essential difference between a tablet and a netbook is the keyboard. The dream is to have either a netbook with a removable screen, or a tablet with a detachable keyboard. Those purpose-built devices are nice, but they are also expensive. For this hand-me-down project I decided to kludge pieces together instead.

Using a tablet keyboard is usually pretty lame, especially a keyboard with no touchpad. Taking my hand off the keyboard to touch the screen is a major distraction. I had a touch screen laptop for years and rarely used that feature. I think I have a decent little Bluetooth keyboard somewhere, one with that ThinkPad nipple-looking thing. It’s probably sitting in a box with a bunch of broken tablets.

As much as I dislike membrane keyboards, they will be significantly better than typing on the iPad when it is propped up in that tilted landscape mode.

Off grid
Traveling with a laptop can be kind of a waste, especially when you end up not using it very much. Wasted suitcase space isn’t that big a deal anymore since haven’t been on an airplane in a couple of years. Anymore, the traveling I do is outdoor stuff like car trips and camping. Tech in these scenarios is great for keeping the kids busy when it’s rainy, cold, or on long car rides. We travel a few times each year to my in-laws lake house where there is tons of nature, but not much access to the Internet. Offline media requires the kind of storage that tablets are notoriously short on.


In the before times, when international travel was a thing, I used a cheap Andoroid tablet and a Chromebook. The Chromebook had a real keyboard and real web browser, while the Android could run arbitrary apps from the Google Play Store. The combination was a decent small toolkit. Between having kids and COVID, I haven’t gone over seas in several years. All that gear is probably obsolete now anyways.

I hate electronic waste, and yet I seem to produce a lot of it.

Shit laying around the house
This project began as a plan to reuse a hand-me-down iPad. I set the old iPad up purely to get access to FaceTime, and as I loaded my old apps on it, I discovered that it was still decently powerful.

I have also collected a few Raspberry Pi’s over the years. I have done maker stuff with them, used them to demonstrate things at 2600, including a Pi PBX one time as a proof of concept. They’re handy little things. As I get more into amateur radio, Pi’s come in handy for different digital and packet modes.

The Pi also runs off 5v DC, albeit at higher than 2a. This isn’t a problem with modern phone chargers and portable battery banks, of which I also have a couple.

Adding Solar
Amateur radio has taught me about the importance of charging batteries in the field. “Field rechargeable” is probably a better term than “solar”. Solar is more of a guideline. If something can charge from USB, you can probably charge it off of solar. If you can charge it off of solar, you can probably charge it off either 5v USB, or 12v car electrical. Wall and car chargers for smartphones are great sources of USB power, and in the family travel scenario, car and wall power make more sense. USB ports in computers can also charge USB devices, although they tend to do it very slowly. The Pi 4 can’t run reliably from a laptop USB.

I have a folding solar panel with a 12v power output and USB outputs. I normally use it to charge my portable solar generator. That’s a stupid name for the device. It’s just a big 12v battery, it doesn’t generate anything. I already have a collection of USB battery banks laying around the house, so one of those should run the Pi for a pretty long time. I even have a USB battery bank with an integrated solar panel, though it takes multiple days worth of good sunlight to fully charge it. I haven’t tried laying out the solar panel with the solar banks plugged into it to see how it charges, but I am hoping to try it out when the weather is nicer.

Stay tuned for the next installment where I get started configuring the iPad.