The “build it yourself” billing may not be 100% accurate, but these kits are redeemed by excellent software.
Kano, an education-focused company, had a huge hit on Kickstarter with its original Computer Kit, promising to provide everything you could need to “build your computer bit-by-bit”.
The truth is somewhat different. Inside this, Kano’s second Computer Kit Bundle, you’ll find that the computer you’re “building” is actually a fully assembled Raspberry Pi 3 single-board computer, with only power and its microSD card required to get it up and running.
The bundled full-colour manual – which Kano dubs a “storybook” in keeping with its desire to engage children – walks you through the “building” process using simple terms and clear illustrations. Insert the microSD card, snap together the two halves of the included case, and then the most daunting step: connect the power cables for a small speaker and amplifier that’s set into the lid of the case onto the 5V and ground pins of the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. After that it’s simply a case of inserting the bundled wireless keyboard’s USB dongle into a free slot, plugging the speaker into the 3.5mm audio-visual jack, and connecting power and a display.
It’s the need to provide your own HDMI-compatible display that Kano addresses with the second half of its bundle: the Screen Kit. Emblazoned with the promise that you’ll “make an HD screen,” it’s more accurate to say you’ll snap the pre-assembled screen into a plastic stand, fasten a PCB with buttons onto the rear of the case using the supplied sticky hook-and-loop tape, connect a linking wire, then snap your cased Kano to the rear before connecting USB power and a short HDMI cable.
Initially, then, the Kano experience is underwhelming, even allowing for the accessible nature of the “storybooks” and their occasional divergence into theory and foundational knowledge. Thankfully, this feeling is soon swept away when you power up the kit and are greeted by Kano OS, in what looks like an EGA DOS prompt from the 1980s.
For younger users, this part will require adult supervision: the first boot walks the user through basic Linux terminal concepts, changing directories and running a program, using a Matrix-themed hook. When the program is executed correctly, the terminal is replaced by a top-down 8-bit-style roleplaying game reminiscent of Nintendo’s finest, in which the player must progress towards the goal to load Kano OS proper.
Following this, and directly on subsequent boots, the Kano OS interface appears. Available in an icon-heavy default and more traditional desktop environment flavours that are switchable at will, this provides quick access to the bundled software as well as a means of managing a user account. This can be tied into Kano’s cloud servers for achievement tracking and software sharing.
The bundled software is heavily slanted towards coding. Many of the default apps are prefixed with “make” to emphasise this practicality, using a Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop interface suitable for younger programmers. Make Art, as the name implies, offers a turtle-style artistic experience; Make Apps is more open-ended; Make Minecraft works around the bugs of the Alpha-status Minecraft Pi Edition to allow users to easily build their own programmatic creations within its blocky world.
The jewel in the crown is Kano’s Story Mode. An extended version of the RPG from the initial boot introduction, this guides the player through various computing concepts in a way that’s both endearing and engaging. There’s an equivalent for the command line, too, dubbed Terminal Quest.
Sadly, all this – and the bundled stickers for customising your Kano cases – fails to justify the cost of the kit. At US$299 for the bundle, or $149 each if the Computer Kit and Screen Kit are bought individually, the Kano kit is considerably more expensive than a Raspberry Pi 3, official touchscreen and accessories – and lacks their touch capability.
Kano’s decision to release the Kano OS, built on Debian Linux, as a free download that can be installed onto any Raspberry Pi means that, for less than half the price of the Kano kit bundle, you can have a touch-enabled version lacking only the storybooks, stickers and built-in speaker. That makes it tough to recommend.