Costing just $ 40, the Raspberry Pi is cheap, versatile, and relatively powerful in a way that the competition doesn't. While most projects can be accomplished with Raspbian, the Debian Linux fork, this Raspberry PI OS is not the only option.
So many other operating systems can run on a Raspberry Pi. Just make sure you have a monitor, mouse, and keyboard handy before starting it up, and a fast microSD card to run the operating system of your choice.
The best Raspberry Pi desktop operating systems
It is estimated that there are over 80 Linux-based distributions for the Raspberry Pi. Most of them are designed for universal and desktop use.
Note that multiple operating systems (including Raspbian and Ubuntu MATE) can be installed through the NOOBS installer. You can also find media center software and emulation suites with this tool, both of which can be found below.
Raspbian is recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation and is the first station on the way to learning with the Pi. Raspbian is packed with tools and functions with which you can optimally use your printed circuit board (printed circuit board) universally. It's also a great introduction to Linux.
Raspbian is part of most Raspberry Pi distributions and is compatible with every version of the computer.
2. Ubuntu MATE
If you prefer the simpler Linux feel, Ubuntu MATE is available for the Raspberry Pi 2 and above. Ubuntu MATE supports all Pi hardware, including GPIO and USB boot, and has raspi-config preinstalled. Steam Link and Minecraft: Pi Edition are optional extras.
Ubuntu MATE is available for the Raspberry Pi Model B 2, 3 and 3+. See what we thought of Ubuntu MATE on the Raspberry Pi 3.
DietPi is probably the lightest Raspberry Pi distribution on the market and runs on a highly optimized version of Debian. DietPi images are only 400 MB in size, which is three times lighter than the slim Raspbian Lite.
We took a closer look at DietPi to see what was on offer. DietPi is available for all Raspberry Pi models.
4. Arch Linux ARM
Most Raspberry Pi distributions are based on Raspbian, a derivative of Debian. Arch Linux is an increasingly popular variant of Linux aimed at knowledgeable users – so it's not ideal for beginners. However, once you are comfortable with Raspbian, Arch Linux is ideal.
Versions of Arch Linux ARM are available for all Raspberry Pi B cards (Original, Pi 2, 3 and 4).
5. FydeOS: Chromium OS for Raspberry Pi
Based on the same code as Google's Chrome OS, Chromium OS can be installed on netbooks, laptops … and the Raspberry Pi. With Chromium OS installed, you'll have access to the same cloud-based tools as Chrome OS.
For more information, see our guide on installing Chromium OS on Raspberry Pi with FydeOS.
6. Windows 10 ARM
If you are looking for a challenge and want to install Windows 10 on your Raspberry Pi 3, here you can.
This is thanks to the WOA Deployer who installed the ARM version of Windows 10 on microSD. This can then be used to start your Raspberry Pi with Windows 10!
Amazingly, it's also possible to run Android on a Raspberry Pi. That shouldn't come as a surprise – Android appears to run on almost everything from PCs to set-top boxes. You can even create an Android tablet for Raspberry Pi from scratch.
Various Android builds are available for the Pi, giving you access to the extensive collection of Android apps and games. There may be some compatibility issues, but overall stability is good.
If you want to use your Raspberry Pi as a media center, there is a good selection available to you. Although these operating systems are all based on Raspbian / Debian, they are also based on Kodi, the popular media center software.
Note that you can install Kodi on any standard Raspberry Pi operating system instead of a full disk image.
OpenELEC is designed to turn your Pi (or other circuit board) into a Kodi media center. It is an HTPC operating system. This means that the only goal is to use computer resources solely for browsing and playing media.
OpenELEC is available for Raspberry Pi models up to Raspberry Pi 3.
OSMC is compatible with Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3 and Zero. Regular updates are available through the dedicated administration screen. It is also available as an option in NOOBS.
With arguably the better user interface of all the Raspberry Pi Kodi options, OSMC is surprisingly light.
Xbian is quick and easy and does something different. Like the base Debian operating system, it includes rolling releases. The other Kodi options for Raspberry Pi don't – Xbian is delivering improvements and bug fixes faster than its competitors.
Xbian runs up to 3B + on the Raspberry Pi.
Finally, LibreELEC is also available which is the easiest to install thanks to an SD card creation tool.
LibreELEC runs on all consumer Raspberry Pi boards, including the Raspberry Pi 4.
Retro gaming operating systems for Raspberry Pi
A number of retro gaming operating systems can be installed on the Raspberry Pi. You can use these tools, both of which run on Raspbian / Debian, to launch game ROMs and emulators.
Remember, if you're using an emulator, you'll usually need boot and game ROMs. To use these legally, you should have purchased the original systems and games beforehand.
Please refer to our manual for more information. There you will find everything you need to know about retro games on the Raspberry Pi. The following retro game systems work on all Raspberry Pi models.
RetroPie is the original retro gaming solution from Raspberry Pi, emulating a wide collection of retro platforms from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.
With RetroPie you can play almost all classic games, including those from arcade machines. It's all come with the EmulationStation user interface.
RetroPie's main competitor is RecalBox. This system tends to give out emulators for some later systems that are earlier than RetroPie. For example, the Dreamcast emulator for Raspberry Pi was issued before RetroPie for Recalbox.
Lakka is a "lightweight Linux distribution that turns a small computer into a full-fledged emulation console" and is an intelligent retro gaming platform.
Lakka, the official Linux distribution from RetroArch and Libretro, is available for numerous printed circuit boards as well as for Windows and MacOS.
15. Pi Entertainment System (PES)
PES is a collection of emulators based on Arch Linux. It manages emulation for 22 platforms, tracks achievements via RetroAchievements.org, and includes Kodi.
PES was written in Python and is a more hobbyistic approach to retro games.
Specialized operating systems for Raspberry Pi
Unusual, versatile and downright frustrating operating systems are available for the Raspberry Pi.
16. Kali Linux
Kali Linux is intended for penetration testing and security reviews. This means using the operating system and tools installed to test the health of the connected network.
Different builds are available for the Raspberry Pi, Pi Zero and the Raspberry Pi 2, 3 and 4.
BSD is not Linux, but it looks and works similarly to Linux. FreeBSD is derived from Research Unix through the Berkeley Software Distribution (hence "BSD") and is one of the most widely used operating systems in the world.
You can find FreeBSD code in macOS, the Nintendo Switch, and Sony PS3 and PS44.
Use the command line to start applications and games. There is a surprisingly large collection of software available for FreeBSD. Use your Raspberry Pi to test FreeBSD – it's available for all versions of the Raspberry Pi B board. Visit the FreeBSD wiki for more information.
18. RISC OS Pi
The RISC operating system developed by Cambridge was the first operating system for ARM processors developed in the 1980s. It became widespread in the mid-1990s and was eventually replaced by Windows-based PCs.
For compatibility reasons, use a mouse with a clickable scroll wheel to match the RISC OS three-button mouse-driven user interface. Once installed, you can find free applications in Packman and commercial options in the Store app.
RISC OS is compatible with all Raspberry Pis up to and including 3B +, including Pi Zero and Compute cards.
19. Plan 9
If you're looking for an alternative to desktop operating systems, the UNIX-like Plan 9 might be the answer. This is an open source, barebones operating system developed by the same team behind the original UNIX.
Booting you into the notoriously difficult Plan 9 operating system, a command-line UNIX-like experience, almost instantly puts you in touch. Do you need some tips? Read our Raspberry Pi Terminal command guides.
Are you looking for a way to set up home security software and webcams with your Raspberry Pi?
motionEyeOS runs on all Raspberry Pi boards, including Raspberry Pi 4, Zero and Compute. It supports USB webcams and the Pi's own camera, and you can even sync recorded footage with Google Drive. Easy to set up, if your looking for a home improvement OS give this a try.
IchigoJam BASIC has been ported to the Raspberry Pi. This is an operating system that was originally developed for the IchigoJam single board computer with low power consumption running on Raspberry Pi from Japan. Similarly, IchigoJam BASIC RPi is designed for simple, low-level computing.
The operating system is designed to simplify programming in the BASIC language and supports digital I / O, PWM, I2C and UART functions.
Develop Internet of Things projects with Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a great Internet of Things (IoT) platform thanks to its size, connectivity, and performance.
22. Windows 10 IoT Core
In contrast to Windows 10, Windows 10 IoT Core OS for Raspberry Pi 3 does not have a desktop environment. Its purpose is an Internet of Things development operating system. For best results, you will need to remotely connect to the Windows 10 IoT Core device from another PC.
From here you can deploy software from Visual Studio. Python apps are also run on a Raspberry Pi under Windows 10 IoT Core. Remember: Installing Windows 10 IoT Core on Raspberry Pi is not a replacement for Linux.
23. Android things
For more IoT fun, consider Android Things, a version of Android's Android development platform. Use this option to connect apps via Google services, access hardware such as displays and cameras via the Android framework, and develop in Android Studio.
Android Things is a smart alternative to Windows IoT Core and just a Raspberry Pi 3 operating system.
So many Raspberry Pi operating systems!
You can do almost anything with a Raspberry Pi, from running a low budget space program to streaming PC games.
While the hardware is good, the Raspberry Pi's success comes from the wide range of operating systems available.
With Linux-based operating systems, the legendary RISC operating system, Kodi and even Windows 10 IoT Core, the choice is considerable. Simply select an operating system, confirm board compatibility, and download it.
Ready to go? Here's how to install a Raspberry Pi operating system. Then you can check out this handy Raspberry Pi command cheat sheet.
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About the author
(1414 articles published)
Deputy Editor for Security, Linux, DIY, Programming and Technology explains. He also produces The Really Useful Podcast and has extensive desktop and software support experience.
Christian is an employee of Linux Format Magazine and a Raspberry Pi hobbyist, Lego lover and retro gaming fan.
More from Christian Cawley
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