Decoding Raspberry Pi: Which OS to Choose?

Users have many choices when it comes to operating systems for the Raspberry Pi. This was not always the case, like when the Raspberry Pi premiered over a decade ago, support for the device was quite limited. These days, many different Linux distributions have added support for ARM devices like the Raspberry Pi, and there are even a good number of Linux distributions that have been developed specifically for use on the Raspberry Pi.

In this tutorial, we will help guide you towards a decision on which operating system to choose for installation on the Raspberry Pi. The device supports a lot of different Linux distributions, but many have varied purposes and target audiences. Which one is right for you? Take a look at the list below to get started.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • General purpose Raspberry Pi operating systems
  • Gaming emulator operating systems for Raspberry Pi
  • Home theater operating systems for Raspberry Pi
  • Audio player operating systems for Raspberry Pi
  • Other operating systems built for the Raspberry Pi
Decoding Raspberry Pi: Which OS to Choose?
Decoding Raspberry Pi: Which OS to Choose?
Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System Raspberry Pi
Software N/A
Other Privileged access to your Linux system as root or via the sudo command.
Conventions # – requires given linux commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ – requires given linux commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

Which Operating System Should Be Used on Raspberry Pi?

When it comes to deciding on an operating system to install on your Raspberry Pi, there is not necessarily any wrong answer. However, depending on what you plan to use the device for, there may be one or more operating systems that are better suited to your specific needs.

These operating systems will usually prove easier to use or more efficient for your specific use case. Although it is perfectly possible to install a catch all, general purpose operating system, there are many niche choices available that can fill a variety of uses. Some examples include operating systems that turn your Raspberry Pi into a router or firewall, video player or HTPC, jukebox or music player, or retro gaming machine.

We have split the following sections into different types of operating systems that are available for the Raspberry Pi in order to help guide you towards the best choice for you.

General Purpose Raspberry Pi Operating Systems

When we say “general purpose” operating systems, this includes any OS that gives your Raspberry Pi all the basic functionality of any typical PC. You can expect a desktop GUI, web browser, terminal emulator, and all the typical staples that you find in an everyday operating system.

These operating systems are generally safe choices for any type of use. While they are not tailored to any specific use, they can be easily customized or adapted to fill a variety of roles. If you plan to use your Raspberry Pi the way you would use an ordinary computer, or you want to use it for many different purposes, then a “general purpose” operating system will be your best bet.

  • Raspberry Pi OS – the default and official operating system for Raspberry Pi, which is based on Debian
  • Raspberry Pi OS Lite – the lighter version of Raspberry Pi OS, which does not contain a GUI by default
  • Ubuntu Linux – This is probably the most popular Linux distribution out there for a large spectrum of uses and it also officially supports the Raspberry Pi
  • Fedora Linux – This very popular, bleeding edge distro for servers and desktops also supports the Raspberry Pi
  • Endeavour OS – An Arch based distribution with a lightweight environment out of box, which keeps your Raspberry Pi running lean
  • Debian Linux – The official Raspberry Pi distributions are based on Debian, so this is always a safe pick if you want a less branded operating system
  • Pop! OS – Known for its sleek desktop interface, which is unique to the distribution, and its keyboard shortcuts, this OS will keep you productive on your Raspberry Pi
  • Arch Linux ARM – Veteran Linux users can enjoy Arch Linux on their Raspberry Pi, since this version of the OS supports ARM devices

Gaming Emulator Operating Systems for Raspberry Pi

It has become popular to use the Raspberry Pi as a retro gaming machine. The idea is to load up the device with as many ROMs from old video games that you can find. Old Nintendo, Play Station, Sega, and PC games are all fair game (no pun intended), thanks to operating systems that specialize in transforming the Raspberry Pi into an endless video game arcade.

  • Retro Pie – can be installed on top of an existing operating system or used as the main OS itself
  • Recalbox – A really simple OS that comes with all you will need for retro gaming and emulation
  • Batocera Linux – Features wide availability with tons of well known emulators, check the official compatibility page to see if it has everything you need
  • Lakka – Yet another lightweight Linux distro which will transform your Raspberry Pi into a retro gaming console

Home Theater Operating Systems for Raspberry Pi

Some users buy the Raspberry Pi just to plug it into their TV. The device can run applications like Kodi, Plex, Emby, and many more in order to access streaming services or to play movies that are stored on a local server in your house, or even on the Raspberry Pi itself.

If you plan to use the Raspberry Pi for only this purpose, then there are a few operating systems which have been built with this in mind. It will turn your Raspberry Pi into a home theater PC and the OSes come with all the necessary applications and codecs to make playback of videos and streams that much easier.

  • LibreELEC – A very lightweight Linux distribution that comes with Kodi pre-installed
  • LineageOS Android – An Android based operating system that supports the Raspberry Pi and comes with streaming and other home theater applications in mind
  • OSMC – OSMC is a full screen movie organizer and player, which will manage your movie library for you and present it in a digestable way, so you can navigate and find the film you want to watch

Audio Player Operating Systems for Raspberry Pi

These operating systems are for those that want to use the Raspberry Pi as a jukebox for their house or business. You can load it up with your own music files, or use a streaming service to create your playlists. These operating systems come with everything you need for whichever scenario you find yourself in.

  • Rune Audio – an ideal Linux distro for users that would like to turn their Raspberry Pi into a Hi-Fi music player. It comes with a lovely interface for playing back your favorite audio tracks, and the music can be controlled from another device such as your phone in case you want to skip a track, increase volume, etc.
  • Volumio – Comes with all the high fidelity streaming software you will need in order to turn your Raspberry Pi into a jukebox

Other Operating Systems Built for Raspberry Pi

There are a smattering of other operating systems that have been developed specifically with the Raspberry Pi and/or other single board computers in mind. You can usually expect these to run slightly better than a general purpose operating system would. Being that single board computers like the Raspberry Pi do not have a lot of power compared to same era desktops, these operating systems have been stripped down to run as smoothly as possible on such devices.

  • Twister OS – Twister OS is a general purpose operating system with a custom look and feel compared to most other Linux distros and desktop environments. It comes with many themes to choose from, including an Ubuntu theme and a Windows theme
  • DietPi – For those looking to squeeze the most performance out of their Raspberry Pi as possible, DietPi is a Linux distribution that has been completely optimized for performance on the Raspberry Pi. It only consumes 42 MB of RAM by default, and 531 MB of disk space.
  • OpenWrt – OpenWrt can be used to transform your Raspberry Pi into a router and/or firewall. It comes with all the usual componenets of a Linux distribution, like a package manager, but allows you to customize your device to route and filter traffic on the network.

Closing Thoughts

In this tutorial, we saw learned about choosing an operating system for the Raspberry Pi. There is no wrong choice when it comes to choosing a Linux distribution for your Raspberry Pi system. Many distros just lend themselves to certain niches, while others remain general purpose in order to attract a variety of different users. All of the operating systems mentioned here are free, so there is no harm in downloading a few and trying them out to find the one that suits your purposes best.

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