The Raspberry Pi has been out for over a year now, and in that time the number of distributions for the device has grown considerably compared to the few available at launch. The function of these distributions has also expanded, with the desktop operating systems making way for media centres and thin clients. Today, we’re focusing on the desktop distros, comparing six of the best to find out exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are.
All but one of the operating systems in this test use armhf, ‘hard float’, and are optimised for the ARMv6 processor that powers the Pi. Reportedly this can result in floating point operations speeding up by a factor of ten, so are such distros generally a better choice to get the most out of the Raspberry Pi?
We’ll be using a pretty varied mix of distros in the test, from the Debian-based Raspbian to the source-built Gentoo and everything in between.
Your first port of call to get a Raspberry Pi going
The basic Debian distro for Raspberry Pi was originally just a straight Wheezy remix for ARM – but shortly afterwards, Raspbian was released. This version supports the all- important hard float, and is the base for a lot of other distros that we’re not checking in on today. As well as Pi Bang and Moebius, there’s also Occidentalis from Adafruit, and a number of XBMC-based distros for HTPCs.
Raspbian’s approach to starting to use your Raspberry Pi is quite simple: dd the image to the SD card, turn on the Pi, and a configuration screen welcomes you to modify the setup of your system or just go straight into the OS. There’s a good selection of functions, with the ability to expand the image to fill the SD card, change the default password without having to know the default one, and even options to overclock and overvolt the CPU to some predetermined values. All of these extras come alongside some of the more basics as well, such as locale and time, and it’s great to have this kind of control before even getting to the desktop.
The Raspbian desktop is LXDE, and uses Openbox as a windows manager. This allows the distro to run smoothly and quickly on the Pi, even the 256MB early Model Bs and Model As. While there is no graphical package manager as standard, a small selection of great educational tools are available at the start, such as Scratch, Python and a weblink to some courses by UK exam board OCR on ways to teach with the Raspberry Pi. There’s also a link straight to the Pi Store, so you can download apps, games and tools developed by the community.
Overall, Raspbian is very easy to use and customise, fantastic for those coming to Pi with little Linux experience. It also makes it very useful
for the myriad of Raspbian-based distros that are available, especially thanks to its huge repository of Debian software immediately available. The only issue we can level with it at the moment is the lack of a dedicated tool to install images to an SD card – dd is easy enough to learn, and not a problem for more knowledgeable users, but young kids and newbies could benefit from a Linux graphical tool.
Raspbian is a fantastic tool for teaching, general coding and all manner of home- grown projects. Definitely the best distro for beginners
A more advanced distro for those who want more control over their Pi
Arch is another of the officially promoted Raspberry Pi distros – in that it’s available on the Foundation’s download page. Joining Raspbian as the only other Linux distro, this Arch ARM build also includes the hard float, and is aimed towards the more veteran Linux user. Arch is a distro you build yourself, almost from scratch, with the system already configured to at least boot to a command-line interface. From here you customise the system to your exact specifications, without any of the extra bloat you’d get from something like Ubuntu.
The Pi image is the same way, with Arch booting into a command line. There’s no desktop, and no users other than root. There’s nothing more than the standard tools and packages that make up part of the Linux kernel. From here you need to start building up your system using the pacman package manager, or grab Yaourt to access source code from AUR. You’ll need to update everything first before trying to install software, and the time from command line to booting into the most basic LXDE environment was about 90 minutes. As mentioned before, though, while this might be frustrating and slow to some Raspberry Pi users, this extra control allows you to fully streamline your system, making it as fast as possible with the smallest imprint on the storage and Pi itself.
This makes it fantastic for headless server or NAS uses – allowing you to only install the packages you need for the networking and sharing, and forgoing the desktop environment completely. The Raspberry Pi itself has the potential for a lot of uses, thanks to its size and incredibly low power requirements, and distros like Arch allow you to really tweak the software so that you can get a low-footprint server that will fit anywhere, or a focused workstation with everything you need to work and nothing more. To the patient user, it’s also a great way to the learn the deeper ins and outs of using a Linux distribution.
Do anything you want with Arch, just make sure you have a handy guide if you’re a bit newer to Linux
Fedora 18 Remix
The Pi remixes of Fedora haven’t had the best time
While originally one of the first recommended Pi distros, the Fedora Remix fell out of favour due to some issues at launch. This hasn’t stopped people from continuing to work on the distro, and the Fedora 18 Remix is beginning to see the light of day. The image for the remix is the largest in this test – and at 3GB you’ll need to make sure you upgrade your SD card before attemptingtouseit.4GBSDcardsarefairlylow- priced these days, but it’s still one extra thing to get for your supposedly cheap mini-PC.
Like the others, this image needs to be manually transferred to an SD card with whatever method you prefer. However, on first boot, Fedora Remix has the same graphical setup as the full desktop version. From here you set up users, locales and more, and it definitely looks and flows a bit better than the command-line equivalent on Raspbian, although you don’t nearly have quite the same level of customisation.
One of the first things Fedora users will notice once they get to log in is that Xfce is now the preferred desktop, and there is no option to select the GNOME Shell to begin with. It’s best you don’t though, as even with Xfce and a very small selection of lightweight programs like the Midori browser, it runs very slowly.
There’s noticeable lag even just browsing the interface, and it straddles the line between being frustrating and something you could get used to. It even crashed on us a number of times after the initial setup, such as when asking us if we wanted one or two panels to use on Xfce and freezing, or just getting in a reboot cycle until we disconnected the power. The first major update took about an hour or so to perform, and there are some intermittent underscan issues on monitors using the HDMI cable.
It’s not a great experience as a desktop. As it’s Fedora though, there’s flexibility to use it in any other way, although the same could be said for Raspbian. At the very least, however, being a build of Fedora it is made up completely of truly free software. While that may be limiting to some, it at least means that any advanced projects will be a great showcase for open source software and Linux.
Slow and buggy, there’s a reason the Fedora Remixes never took off. It needs a bit more time in the oven
A tiny distro supposedly for use on desktop and on server
With the smallest image in the test, SliTaz is quick to download, install and boot. In fact, it shows off on startup that it took only three seconds to get to the command line – the fastest in this test. SliTaz is in its fourth version, released in the middle of last year. As an independent distro, not based on anything else, it is one of the genuine few that support hard float operations without being based on Raspbian. Clocking in at only 500MB on the SD card, it’s certainly a feat to have this fully working system on the Pi.
That low storage footprint comes at a price, though: there isn’t much to SliTaz. Coming with a grand total of 17 packages pre-installed, it’s an incredibly lightweight system that the developers themselves admit is meant to eke the max out of the Pi. The problem is, while the full SliTaz repos have a decent selection of packages, the Pi version only has 268. These are mostly utilities, and you can’t install a desktop environment from the repos. However, there is access to Xorg, and all the tools needed to compile it yourself. SliTaz has its own package manager, tazpkg, with a good search function to find what packages are available in lieu of a graphical manager. While you can also search the website for packages, you can’t filter by what’s available on Pi or not.
SliTaz on Pi then is very focused on being used as some kind of headless server, and admittedly thanks to the lack of packages it is fast, and it will draw very little power. The problem is, something like Arch is basically as fast, and the repositories are full of software that will allow you to also make it into a server. Also, you can also very easily turn Arch into a desktop system, something that SliTaz is very noticeably lacking.
SliTaz definitely has its place, and as a server it is quick to set up and has a lower footprint than the others. It just lacks the flexibility inherent in the Raspberry Pi itself.
SliTaz has a place as a very fast web server, but that is unfortunately all it can do without serious work
Compile it yourself with the most customisable distro, now on Pi
Using Gentoo is not for the faint-hearted.
While all the distros on this list will let you write an image to disc and then have the Raspberry Pi boot just fine from it, Gentoo has you manually setting up the SD card with a specific file system layout, adding a specific stage 3 image to the disc, before adding Portage (the package manager) and the Linux and kernel modules. You’re still not done though, as afterwards there’s the matter of setting up fstab and the boot options, along with clearing the root password.
While this saves you some of the usual Gentoo hassle of having to compile an entire system, where the smallest thing can cause problems down the line, it is still a lot of work to get the distro installed in the first place. As Gentoo provides the pre-compiled kernel, you don’t get the extra customisation available from compiling it directly. This means there’s not a huge amount more streamlining you can do over something like Arch unless you decide to start compiling your own Pi-based Gentoo kernel and risk stability problems.
Of course, once you’ve gone through the process of getting the SD card set up, you can then do whatever you want with it – after you configure the network, profiles, software clock and rcconf etc. Handily though, it does include tools to activate the Raspberry Pi Foundation- approved overclocking profiles from the start.
Like Arch, Gentoo is for the ultimate tweakers, allowing you to get absolutely every ounce of power possible from the system and have it do anything any other similarly powered Linux computer can achieve. You can then hide it away almost anywhere thanks to the size of the thing. From servers to media streamers and even desktops, you can make a Gentoo Pi do whatever you want, without any of the bloat of a completely pre-packaged system – it obviously just takes a lot of time and technical know-how to get the best out of it, and is not for everyone.
It wholly depends on the user and what you’re comfortable with, but Gentoo is nonetheless designed for a very particular audience
The OS of British schools in the ’90s is still alive for the Pi
RISC OS should be familiar for anyone who went to school in the UK in the Nineties, when Acorn computers were ubiquitous in the classroom. The software that powered them was RISC OS, and while Acorn Computers’ main legacy is ARM, RISC OS is still being maintained. It recently became available for the Pi via RISC OS Open, and is officially promoted as a recommended Pi OS.
Originally designed for the earliest ARM chips, RISC OS has always looked fairly basic. With more simplistic icons and art style throughout the interface, a lot more work has gone into how you interact with RISC than its aesthetic, leaving it smooth and responsive. This is ultimately more important, and is only really a step behind something like the Xfce DE in this way. Usability- wise, it is different from a lot of the main Linux DEs, and in general a lot of the modern OS workflow – windows cascade as you open them rather than opening in the original window, scroll wheel click is the equivalent of context-sensitive right click, and there is no real terminal emulator for the system, forcing you to quit out of the shell with a simple F12 to get to the command line.
Software-wise, RISC OS is definitely lacking compared to its Linux counterparts, and not much of it is open source. As well as a package manager, there’s the PlingStore, which is the main way to get graphical applications. There’s not much between them, though: with less than 200 packages available in the package manager, and a mixture of 50 free and paid-for apps in the PlingStore, there are limitations to the amount you can do. What it can allow for is to teach some computing basics to people who have not used a computer before. While it is overall quite different to a lot of modern operating systems, mouse control and window management is roughly the same, and there are far fewer distractions.
RISC OS is an important part of history and it’s great to see it on a device with aspirations of replacing the old Acorn-built school computers. However, it unfortunately does not serve much more purpose than as a history lesson.
RISC, while nostalgic, is not very useful for day-to-day computing, or as the base of an advanced project
And the winner is…
A lot of these distros seemed to go back and forth between being as lightweight or as customisable as possible, or trying to offer a full desktop experience on the Pi. Raspbian goes the extra mile and not only supplies a great desktop experience, but is also heavily tied into the Raspberry Pi community. With access to learning modules and the Pi Store, it’s excellent for teaching computing, as well as for using in a headless state for a quick and easy-to-use server.
We want to also give special mention to Arch, as while it may not come with a desktop as standard, it was the only command-line distro that proved usable and also highly configurable. The desktop environment, while time-consuming to set-up, was as fast as Raspbian thanks to the lack of bloat that Arch comes with. Choosing between the two of these really depends on how much time, patience and expertise you have with Linux, whatever project you want to use your Pi for.