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Tech Tip: Build Your Own Computer

Q. I have seen advertisements for those do-it-yourself computer kits for kids, but what can these machines actually do? Do they run Windows?

A. The computer’s abilities depend on the type of build-your-own system kit you have. Some computer kits intended to teach children (and other newcomers) the basics of hardware and software run on their own customized operating systems — which are often variations of the free, open-source Linux code.

Raspberry Pi and Kano are two popular computer kits that provide beginners with the bare-bones components like low-cost motherboards and wireless-networking dongles. These computer boards can be connected to existing monitors and keyboards, or used with new equipment.

The very basic Raspberry Pi Zero board starts at $ 5, but you can find kits on the higher end that include a keyboard and screen for less than $ 300, like the Kano Computer Kit Bundle. Both Raspberry Pi and Kano computers use their own operating systems, but you can also experiment.

The officially supported system for the Raspberry Pi is called Raspbian, and it is based on Debian, which has Linux roots and is versatile enough to run on other hardware, too. The Raspberry Pi — which started out in 2012 as a low-cost bare-bones motherboard meant to teach computer fundamentals — can also run other operating systems, including a special version of Ubuntu Linux. The full consumer desktop edition of Windows 10 is not available for the Raspberry Pi, but the version of Windows 10 designed for the Internet of Things (called Windows 10 IoT Core) works on recent versions of the tiny computer. It even has Microsoft’s support.

Kano computer kits actually use a Raspberry Pi motherboard but include other components like a keyboard, speaker and cables in the box; a version of the kit that includes a screen is also available. Kano computers come with the Kano OS, another Linux variation (and one that can also be used on stand-alone Raspberry Pi computers). On the Kano OS, users can learn how to write code in Python and JavaScript and make their own games, among other things.

Kano computer kits can be bought at Barnes & Noble bookstores and Toys “R” Us stores. Like the Raspberry Pi, Kano kits are also available for sale online.

If you are looking to build a more traditional computer — like one that runs the full Windows system or has customized hardware for intensive video game play — you can find kits for those online as well, but they usually cost at least a few hundred dollars more. Newegg is one site that sells several do-it-yourself PC kits. If you want to run Windows instead of one of the many free, open-source systems out there, be sure to factor in the cost of buying the software.

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