If you’ve spent any time hanging around Christmas light groups or forums online, then you might have heard a lot of talk about this “Raspberry Pi” and how people run their shows off of it.
The Raspberry Pi is a small, Linux-based computer that you can use to run your Christmas lights display with a program called “Falcon Player” or “FPP” for short.
If you’re like me, you’re not an engineer and the thought of delving into yet another computer program with vague instructions might make you feel sick.
Not to worry! In this article, I’m going to teach you more about the Pi, and show you what you need to get started with it.
Then, I’ll link to another article and video that goes into more detail on installing and configuring the Falcon Player. Let’s begin!
What is a Raspberry Pi?
The Raspberry Pi is a “single-board computer”, or a simple computer that you can buy for just $35 (well, kind of) and then proceed to run a variety of different programs on it – from retro video games to smart home automation!
It was developed by the Raspberry Pi foundation and originally released in 2012 as the Raspberry Pi 1. Learn more about the history and previous models here.
At the time of this writing, we’re now on to the Raspberry Pi 4, and as you can imagine, it is significantly more powerful than previous versions.
As I mentioned above, you can “kind of” buy it for $35.
I put the disclaimer there because for $35 you get the actual board with the electronics on it, but you do not get a power supply, case, or SD card – all of which are required to get it running! It’s kind of like buying a car without the tires or any gas…
Still, at the end of the day, you can get a kit for around $60 that will get you started and run your lighting display without the need to tie up your main computer. And that’s not a bad price to pay!
(Or, do what I did and buy last year’s model on eBay for $35, case and card included)
Why Should I Run My Christmas Lights with a Raspberry Pi?
The simple and clear answer is this – a Raspberry Pi is simple and just plain works.
It doesn’t run Windows or Mac OS (which have updates that pop up and other programs running in the background, and it doesn’t tie up your main computer while your display needs to run.
It’s a proven, stress-free way to run your display and even offers the ability to run a backup Pi in case of failure.
While I didn’t run my first display off a Raspberry Pi, I now use one and it’s great! I don’t have to keep a PC running in my closet during Christmas, just a small, handheld Raspberry Pi that lives in my attic. I can access it wirelessly if I need to change a setting, but otherwise, it just works.
Even if the power goes out, it’ll reboot and be back to running again within a number of seconds. And for around $60? Yes, I’ll take it!
How Many Lights Can Falcon Player Control on a Raspberry Pi?
The next question you probably have is this – how many lights can you control off a $35 computer?
While I have searched and tested my lights to try to find this answer, it appears that there is no “official” answer as to how many pixels you can control via one Raspberry Pi.
The most definitive answer I’ve found is that somewhere around 300,000 pixels, you’ll need to split up the Pi’s. Up until that point, you should be good to have a smooth show….and at 300,000 pixels, you definitely can afford to buy a 2nd Raspberry Pi!
What Pi Should I Use For Christmas Lighting?
With all of these options, what Raspberry Pi should you choose to run the Falcon Player program for your lights?
Should you buy the latest version, or save money and grab a used model?
At the time of this writing, I’d suggest buying a Raspberry Pi 3 or newer to run your display. As effects which are built into Christmas light sequences become more complex, older Pi’s have a tougher time keeping up, but again, you can run a TON of pixels off these things!
Even though you could get away with something older, I’d warn against it. Most household displays can be run entirely off one Raspberry Pi.
But, if you’re going to buy new, then buy the latest version. Because the Raspberry Pi foundation regulates the price, older models generally cost the exact same $35 as the newest model!
How Do I Run My Christmas Lights with a Raspberry Pi?
The first thing you need to do is install a program called “Falcon Player” on your Raspberry Pi. Falcon Player allows you to bring Christmas light sequences into your Pi and play them.
Installing the Falcon Player software onto a Raspberry Pi is pretty simple.
You first need to download the latest software and get an SD card of at least 8GB in hand, along with a card reader. The card needs to be at least a “Class 10” speed, such as this one.
You’ll then use a program such as “balena Etcher” to format and create the bootable SD card for the Pi.
After that, simply insert the card into the Pi, plug it in, and you’ll be off to the races!
Grab my full video guide to install FPP here!
Once you’ve installed the Falcon Pi player, you can then set up your show. Inside of both Vixen and xLights, you can export your sequences in an FSEQ format that the Falcon player can read.
From there, you’ll be able to set up your outputs and set up a schedule on the “Program Control” screen.
Once you’ve set up a schedule it’s all hands-off! Just make sure the Raspberry Pi has power, and your show will run!
The Pi then takes the place of your xLights or Vixen computer – so you’ll still need your pixel controller(s) connected via a network cable, which will then drive your pixels.
Again, this is just a brief overview, you’ll want to watch my video that is linked above for the full details.