Raspberry Pi operating systems: 5 reviewed and rated

9th May 2013 | 10:00

Raspberry Pi operating systems: 5 reviewed and rated

A sweet selection of tasty Raspberry Pi distros

The Raspberry Pi phenomenon appears to go from strength to strength; like a runaway train, it's ploughing ahead and forging itself a place in the record books.

It's hardly surprising - the hardware alone is developed perfectly for the goals of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the pricing is pitched perfectly, and having the unique versatility of Linux as the operating system seals the deal nicely.

Most buyers, once they get their hands on their new RPi, make a move towards the official Raspberry Pi site and follow the getting started instructions therein; the end result is the user running Raspbian "Wheezy", the Foundation's recommended operating system, creating, learning and programming, and strapping the poor wee beast onto a weather balloon and sending it to the outer edge of the atmosphere.

What many RPi users don't realise, though, is that there's a wealth of other operating systems available for their beloved Pi. We thought, therefore, that those users who aren't aware of these other sweet toppings for the Raspberry Pi need to be informed, and what's more, they need to have a chocolate box selection presented to them.

How we tested...

The Raspberry Pi comes in two major flavours these days: the original 'B' model version 1, which has 256MB of memory, and the much newer model 'B' version 2, which now comes with 512MB. Therefore, to get a true all-round perspective, we took the time to install the operating systems on a 4GB SD card on both the new 512MB, and the older 256MB model Bs.

The areas we're looking at are installation, default software, media playback (out-of-the-box), looks and usability, the community behind the OS and their respective attitudes toward software freedom. Basically, the very stuff that makes a Linux user decide on what system to use.

We also want to gauge this from the point of view of someone who's not as familiar with Linux as others are, so they can jump into the project without too much hassle, and not end up leaving it feeling disheartened.

Our selection

Raspbian
Risc OS
Plan 9
Android
Arch

Installation

Installation

Do you need a PhD to install the OS?

The installation of an operating system image is fairly well documented, as per the area on the Raspberry Pi site titled 'Guide for beginners', along with the simple installation routine of using either dd on Linux, or Win32DiskImager on Windows, to transfer the image to the SD card.

The process is relatively painless, it's what happens after you insert the SD into Raspberry Pi and apply some power that the fun starts.

Of the five operating systems we tested, Raspbian, Risc OS, Arch, Android 2.3 and Plan 9 each have their own particular nuances, and methods by which to 'install' and provide the user with a base working graphical desktop. While having a GUI isn't absolutely necessary, it does cover the large percentage of users who are new to Linux.

That being the case, the definition of 'installation' must include getting to the point whereby the new user can recognise the operating system as they would a standard Linux desktop - in other words be presented with a graphical user interface.

In a world where easing the user into the bath water of Linux is paramount, Raspbian did once sit atop the first-place podium, but the other offerings have just as good a start for the user. Take Risc OS, for example; once transferred to the SD card and booted, we are rapidly launched into a colourful and friendly GUI, with relatively detailed messages informing us of any issues during the initial boot and setup. From here, we can simply click on the Configure icon and begin to alter any settings we see fit.

Arch Linux for the RPi is a different beast, booting the user into a Terminal environment and leaving them to download, install and configure their OS. Arch, once fully appreciated, is one of the best operating systems available, but it takes some tweaking to get to the normalised desktop.

The current Android for the RPi project is beginning to shape up; when booted, you'll be presented with the official Android unlock screen, and behind that the interface we all know and (sometimes) love. It's still a little buggy, crashes a fair bit and is extremely slow, almost to the point of being unusable on the 256MB RPis - 512MB versions fair slightly better.

Plan 9 delivers a GUI that's effective, but has a steeper learning curve, although it's well documented.

Raspbian offers a text-based menu on boot. Users can configure the system, enable SSH and boot automatically into the user-friendly LXDE GUI. We would recommend Raspbian for the beginner, followed by Risc OS, and Arch as they become more familiar with Linux and its workings.

Verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 4/5
Plan 9 - 3/5
Android - 3/5
Arch - 2/5

Default software

Default software

What's in the box for the sweet-toothed Pi user?

The software that you get for each Raspberry Pi operating system varies greatly, but what you do get out-of-the-box can often be the single biggest selling point for the system. We shouldn't expect anything too complex, though, after all this is an operating system running from an SD card and being delivered by a credit card-sized computer with minimal (compared with a desktop system) resources available.

While the likes of an office product and full multimedia and graphics editing packages are the norm on a standard distro, we were quite pleased with what we got from our selection of RPi operating systems.

Raspbian leads the way here, with default software - as would be expected - but Risc OS isn't too far behind it - and, incidentally, if you opt for an additional £35 payment for the NutPi Pack, then you'll be offered a fully-working Raspberry Pi desktop, complete with office software, internet browsers, messaging and so on.

Arch, as we previously mentioned, brings you to the Terminal, but if you know your Terminal commands you'll be able to achieve a result that's almost the same as the desktop. However, matching Raspbian takes us out of the default software realm.

Android was the surprise here, with a decent selection of media-ready software, but no office-based apps. For some reason, we expected the RPi Android project to be devoid of apps, so we were quite shocked to see the usual suspects present.

Plan 9, however, was quite bleak. Once we broke through the desktop environment, Rio, we found little to work with effectively - especially so for the newcomer.

Verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 4/5
Plan 9 - 4/5
Android - 3/5
Arch - 2/5

Looks and usability

Looks and usability aren't everything. Oh yes they are!

Desktop eye-candy remains something of a guilty pleasure for most Linux users. Despite convincing the world that the operating system is a lean and mean machine, the user then goes and installs 3D rotating desktop objects, on-screen fire, Conky-esque dials and all manner of glitz and glam. It's a personal thing, and regardless of the toll taken on the resources, we like a bit of glitz on our desktops.

Of course, there comes a point whereby nice graphical desktops forsake the usability of the system - remember Vista, anyone? So while each of these RPi operating systems has the potential to be drop-dead gorgeous, there's a trade-off due to the low resources the RPi has available.

Looking at each of the OSes from humble beginnings to what can be achieved with a little work, we're sure you'll find a nice compromise with the selection offered.

Raspbian - 5/5

Raspbian

From the outset, Raspbian gives the user a bland, but functional desktop. Using Xfce as the desktop environment means the RPi's resources are kept well in hand, and not wasted on inefficient eye-candy.

However, Raspbian being a Debian-based distro means that the desktop can be altered to significant effect. The likes of Mate for Raspbian can be installed, giving the desktop the same look and feel as a classic Gnome 2 environment, which means you can then go forth and tweak it to your heart's content.

In terms of usability, Raspbian flies ahead of the pack initially, but a trigger-happy user may get carried away with the apt command, install hundreds of programs and make the OS start to feel like a pig in treacle.

Arch - 4/5

Arch

Arch is a funny one. It starts life on the RPi, displaying nothing more than the Terminal; but if you take the time to delve into the depths of Arch, you'll come across one of the best operating systems there is.

Arch, by its very nature, is a streamlined OS, and even after installing a desktop environment such as OpenBox, the system responds quickly. In terms of looks, if you combine OpenBox with a Raspberry Pi theme and Conky, you're well on the way to a very pleasing desktop.

Again, as with the looks side of things, Arch's usability is all down to what you want to install, which makes Arch - eventually - the most configurable and usable OS. A few installed packages, and you'll have Arch running like a charm and running rings around its bigger, fatter brother, Raspbian.

Android - 3/5

Android

Android 2.3 in itself is a pretty good-looking operating system. Decent animations, high-spec icons, themes, animated wallpapers and desktops make for an eye-catching environment. When used on the Raspberry Pi, though, things tend to go a little awry.

The current Android project for the RPi is far from perfect, but it's a project that will be completed, and one that will eventually outshine the others - we're just not sure when exactly.

In its current guise, working on the 256MB RPi, it's borderline unusable, but the increased RAM of the 512MB RPi can make things a tad better. It's still not something you could use day-to-day, but keep an eye on the project, as it'll soon come to the forefront of RPi news.

Risc OS - 4/5

Risc OS

Risc OS, like Raspbian, takes you into a nice GUI at startup. The Risc OS GUI is a well laid out, and colourful environment; it's also a nice change to have an environment boot to 1080, providing your monitor can cope with that resolution.

In terms of looks, the base desktop is probably all you'll ever need; it resembles the glorious past that Risc revels in, making it feel a little retro, but not in a poor-quality, 8-bit kind of way. In the usability stakes, Risc OS starts off a little niche, requiring some previous experience to get off the ground.

For example, the Ethernet port is disabled by default - there are full instructions on how to enable it, but doing so could put off a newcomer. However, perseverance, as with most aspects of computing, is the key and we can guarantee that within an hour of first use, you'll be navigating Risc OS like a pro.

Plan 9 - 2/5

Plan 9

If you've used Windows, Mac OSX, Linux or even Unix then forget everything you thought you ever knew when using Plan 9. Although the commands are familiar, getting to them is something of a task.

Unfortunately, the level of understanding here represents a rather steep learning curve, which makes it a little awkward to get off the ground; but there is plenty of documentation out there.

Rio, the Plan 9 windowing system, looks and feels like a step back to the old Amiga and Atari ST days, as the façade is nearly the same. It does take some getting used to, and it's quite easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading material, but as we've stated many times already, keep going and you'll soon discover a rather pleasing desktop that's simple, elegant and flies at a rate of knots.

The community

Like Eastenders, but without the violence, affairs, deaths…

If there's one thing that makes Linux stand out as the operating system of the people, it's the community. Made up of individuals who are willing to help, share and promote their favourite operating system, the Linux community is a place where the new can learn, and the experienced can pass on their knowledge. There are also a significant number of trolls and idiots, but you get them in every walk of life.

Raspbian and Arch have the biggest communities. Raspbian especially, as the prime focus of the forum on the Raspberry Pi site is dedicated to the working of Raspbian. Arch, though, has a following that almost rivals it - and it's growing, as the user-base comes to terms with different OSes for RPi.

The Raspberry Pi Android project is gathering pace, with more and more users beginning to look at the potential of the port to the RPi, but it's a little bleak at present.

Risc OS, which has a following of Acorn users from many years back, hosts a vibrant community. Plan 9 for the RPi may be newer, but its followers have detailed and documented many help files online since its initial release back in 1992.

Most of the community offerings can be found on the respective OS sites, but take the time to browse through the Raspberry Pi forum to find what you're looking for; if you are stuck, don't be afraid to ask - the users on the RPi forum are a good bunch, and more than willing to help out a newcomer or more advanced user.

Verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 4/5
Plan 9 - 3/5
Android - 2/5
Arch - 3/5

Suitability for children

Minecraft

How user-friendly are they?

The Raspberry Pi has, as we all know, endeared itself to the next generation of computing wizards, but how usable are our selection of operating systems? It's all fine and well offering the next generation the tools to become more experimental with computing, but if the task of getting the hardware talking to the user in a human way becomes too difficult, then those users could well leave the project and never return.

In this instance, we're targeting the younger generation, and how they will cope with the OSes on test. For this, we recruited an 11-year-old and a 10-year old, Daniel and Hannah, to set up the operating systems for us.

Raspbian and Risc OS came out on top, being easy to get up and running and use. Android left a bad taste in their mouths, as did poor old Plan 9. Arch drew blank looks that brightened up after a bit of work.

In the words of Daniel, "Raspbian rules!", whereas Hannah enjoyed the look and feel of Risc OS, "Risc OS looks much nicer." There we have it. The youth of today hath spoken!

Verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 5/5
Plan 9 - 2/5
Android - 2/5
Arch - 3/5

Media playback

Media playback

Having a tiny media centre is OK, but does it play from the word go?

Media playback is contentious in Linux. Some distros provide the latest codecs and software, others don't. The beauty is you are free to download and install your preferred player, and tweak it to your needs. But how will our selection of chosen OSes cope with media out-of-the-box?

Android was the surprise OS, with a decent playback of our HD movie. Unfortunately, playback stopped two minutes in and refused to go any further on the 256MB RPi. Amazingly, this occurred to the point whereby we had to re-image the SD card as Android refused to boot.

The 512MB version fared better, but the video stopped after 15 minutes. The video was viewable, although during camera panning there were cuts and tears, but we figured that to be the limits of the default state of the OS. MP3 playback was as good as you're going to get through the audio port, But the 256MB model was almost impossible to get running in anything resembling a decent media device.

Raspbian didn't have anything to play the movie or MP3s on by default, which is unfortunate as the inclusion of OMXplayer wouldn't break the bank in terms of size. We will grant you that one of the goals of the Raspberry Pi is the users' foray into the world of open source, Linux and so on, and that by learning to use the Terminal and software repositories the user gains a better understanding of the environment they are working in.

Risc OS didn't do much better - both the movie and the MP3 failed to load up, as it did on Plan 9. Although both Risc OS and Plan 9 can make very good media viewers, the default software isn't able to open the most common modern media - but with some tweaking, downloading and installing they can.

Arch is exactly the same. It boots into the Terminal, so there's little hope of getting anything graphical to work out of the box. Arch can be made into an amazing media box, but the learning curve needed may put off the inexperienced.

Verdict

Raspbian - 4/5
Risc OS - 3/5
Plan 9 - 3/5
Android - 2/5
Arch - 2/5

Attitudes toward software

Software

They may take our OSes, but they can't take our freedom!

All of the operating systems tested here have their source code available from either their respective home pages, or other sources relating to the OS itself; so in essence they are all free, and will most likely continue to be so unless - of course - things change, in which case the community would most likely be up in arms in a matter of seconds.

Risc OS for the Raspberry Pi is open source, version 5.19, and the code is maintained by a voluntary group; but the latest version of Risc OS 6 requires the user to sign up for the Select scheme at £99 per year, and is wholly proprietary software, with no public access to the Risc OS 6 source code.

Plan 9, Arch, Android and Raspbian, as we all know, are free to manipulate, install and develop on, as per the ethos of Linux as a whole, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The overall attitudes to software freedom from the collective projects are one and the same, in many respects; the enhancement, further education and use of each of the projets is in accordance with the various regulatory thoughts and aspirations of the open source community, and those managing it.

It's a bit of a difficult test to grapple with, the verdict will see each score the full five stars, as each is free and the attitudes are those of freedom. It's unfair to label Risc OS as being lax in the open source arena because of the closed nature of Risc OS 6, as the community behind the open 5.19 for the RPi is willing and more than able to manage the free software aspect.

Verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 5/5
Plan 9 - 5/5
Android - 5/5
Arch - 5/5

The verdict

Raspbian

Of all the operating systems we looked at here, Raspbian comes out on top as being the most usable, best-looking, having the best range of default software and so on; but the others are snapping at the heels of the Foundation's OS of choice.

For the newcomer, Raspbian is indeed the starting point for their journey, not only into the wonderful world of the Raspberry Pi itself, but also their first steps into the big, wide world of Linux and alternative operating systems. However, once the newcomer is au fait with the intricacies of the operating system, and how the RPi works, then there's a very solid chance that they will instead install the likes of Arch, Risc OS or Plan 9 to become their main OS for the Raspberry Pi.

Android for the RPi is certainly an interesting project, and one that will no doubt end up being one of the main distributions for the RPi, but there's still some work needed, and in all truth the Raspberry Pi is nowhere near as powerful a device as the latest crop of Android-powered smart devices.

Power to the people

Power being the limiting factor here, the likes of Arch and Plan 9 will come into their own. Their minimalistic, and streamlined systems mean that the RPi will tear along without ever hitting the upper limit of the available resources, whereas Raspbian could end up being a very bloated beast if it's not managed accordingly. Should the Foundation ever produce a significantly more powerful unit, then the wealth of operating systems available will no doubt triple overnight.

However, the problem therein lies with the cost of such a unit. At the moment, the £25 price is what's so endearing about the RPi project - with more oomph comes more cost, generally speaking, so at present we have it pretty good with the current batch of operating systems available.

As the title suggests, there's no competition here; there's merely the chance for a user to try out their Raspberry Pi, install an OS, use it to their heart's content, learn from it, and - like Linux - evolve into their own custom way of doing things. So while Raspbian scores the top marks, bear in mind the other operating systems represent a project that's standing by, ready for the individual to enjoy and experiment with.

Final verdict

Raspbian - 5/5
Risc OS - 4/5
Plan 9 - 2/5
Android - 2/5
Arch - 3/5

Also consider...

If these operating systems hold little interest for you, then consider PiBang, a Linux distribution inspired by the popular Crunchbang Linux. With an excellent use of Openbox, Tint2 and Nitrogen, PiBang not only looks amazing, it's also a fast, fluid and stable environment.

PiBang includes OMXplayer and VLC, but as stated on the PiBang site, "VLC does not currently play videos to a watchable level on the Raspberry Pi, it is installed for testing and for audio playing."

PiBang offers a full desktop environment, so the educational software has been removed in favour of Abiword, Conky, Gimp and so on. It uses the same software sources as Raspbian, so there's added compatibility. In fact, if PiBang had been included in the operating systems on test here, there's a chance it would have won. Why wasn't it included? Well, it's an OS that hasn't stood out from the crowd yet. Why, we're not quite sure, as it's very, very good.

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