Fuze (type II), powered by Raspberry Pi review
The Fuze is an enclosure for the Raspberry Pi, with an accompanying set of software and accessories, aimed at youngsters taking their first steps in computing. There’s something both brilliant and absurdly simple about it: so simple, in fact, that you could reduce it to four lines of code:
10 PRINT “PI”
20 CREATE BOX WITH KEYBOARD
30 ADD BREADBOARD
40 IF CHILD THEN PLAY
Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will have no difficulty recognising the language we’re alluding to – and null. The company behind Fuze has created a version of the language with syntax colour-coding and a sprinkling of new commands, making it easier to follow, and able to create more powerful programs.
Better still, a set of accompanying project guides introduces first-timers to BASIC: these manage to be friendly and funny without veering into the dangerous territory of zany, and make a very handy lesson guide for teachers. Those of us with a little more experience, but who may have forgotten our IFs and THENs, can refer to a handy printed guide to all the main commands.
The Fuze keyboard isn’t going to win any awards for ergonomics – the keys are a little spongy – but it turns the Pi into a single unit that’s much more convenient to work with. If you already own a Pi, you probably understand the annoyance of hooking up an external USB keyboard that’s 20 times its size.
And this is more than just a box with a keyboard built in. At the top you’ll find Fuze’s much-improved general-purpose input/output (GPIO) board, which conveys all of the Pi’s GPIO pins and adds a few of its own for good measure – including four analogue inputs, allowing you to connect heat, sound and light sensors. It’s a major improvement over the original type I Fuze box (see pcpro.link/244fuzetypei), which was criticised for restricting the Pi’s connectivity.
More opportunity for experimentation comes via the included solderless breadboard, which opens up the realm of electronics to prospective programmers. It’s accompanied by a box loaded with LEDs, buzzers, cables and micro switches, so you’ve got everything you need to build your own circuits and create programs to control and interact with them.
We weren’t fans of the type I’s single USB port (the Pi Model B’s second port was used to connect the keyboard), but this time around a four-port USB hub is included, so regardless of whether you’re using a Model B or the newer B+, you’ll have ports to spare after connecting the bundled Bluetooth mouse. There’s an Ethernet port and a full-sized HDMI port to connect to a TV as well.
A choice of languages
What you see when you boot up the Fuze is a customised version of Raspbian Linux, with a handful of desktop icons to guide you to your chosen programming language. Scratch comes preinstalled as well as Fuze BASIC, and it’s also good to see a prominent icon for Python – a more challenging programming environment for youngsters to learn, but one that’s widely used in the real world.
I tested the Fuze in the “live” environment known as my family home, with three child-shaped guinea pigs aged seven, ten and 13 who were given free rein to use the Fuze in whatever way they chose over several weeks. Both the older children immediately loved BASIC – and bear in mind this is a generation raised on slick apps, not text-based interfaces. The ability to create and manipulate their own programs had massive appeal, representing a non-scary way to move beyond the more childish Scratch.
Python proved a step too far, but that’s okay. One of the joys of this box is that children can pick and choose exactly what they want to do with it, whether that’s fiddle around with an existing BASIC program, create something new in Scratch, meddle with electronics – or manipulate the optional robotic arm.
The robotic arm
The arm adds £50 to the price if you buy it at the same time as the Fuze, and it’s definitely an interesting inclusion. For a start, you have to assemble it yourself. If you or your children enjoy making model aeroplanes, then you’ll love this; if not, you might curse a few times as you grapple with the world’s tiniest screws. It took me, with the help of my middle son, around four hours to put it together over the course of a couple of weekends (and, worryingly, I still have four screws left over).
Once assembled, the arm plugs into one of those spare USB ports, and can be controlled via Fuze BASIC. An accompanying project card helps to bring it to life, and we can easily imagine children’s imaginations being fired – a Lego production line perhaps, where your program moves blocks from one place to another. Note that it’s possible to buy the arm separately from Maplin for £35 and download the printed guide from fuze.co.uk.
I would be lying if I said my children were constantly using the Fuze – it’s striking how many distractions children have now, from apps and console games to on-demand TV – but it does get powered up a few times each weekend. Most recently, my ten-year-old challenged his younger sister to a Scratch-off to see who could build the best game (admittedly, mainly because he knew he’d win).
And while it’s true that you could equally use a regular PC to create Scratch games, the Pi’s limitations make it a single-use machine without distractions. Although you can connect to the internet, the browsing experience is slow and basic, so children won’t be tempted.
If you already own a Pi you can buy the case alone for a very reasonable £70 inc VAT – both the Model B and the newer B+ are supported – but if you want the whole caboodle, including the software bundle, breadboard and project cards, you’re looking at a steeper £180 inc VAT (and that doesn’t include the arm).
All the same, my eldest son was unequivocal when I asked him whether PC Pro should recommend the new Fuze: “Definitely,” he declared: “It just does so much more than the Raspberry Pi.” Our original Pi, gathering dust underneath the TV, is testament to that.
|Board||Raspberry Pi B+|
|Chassis||Fuze case (type II)|
|Keyboard type||Mechanical, UK layout|
|Interfaces||Fuze IO board, solderless breadboard|
|Connectivity||4 x USB ports|
|Video and audio outputs||HDMI, 3.5mm audio|
|Operating system and software||8GB SD card preloaded with Raspbian and Fuze BASIC|
|Extras||Bluetooth mouse, electronic component kit|
|Price including VAT||£180 (£192 with robot arm)|
|Warranty||1 yr RTB|