12 Best Linux Operating Systems for the Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi boards are functional single-board computers (SBCs) capable of serving as a foundation for a smattering of projects. There’s a veritable treasure trove of operating system (OS) options for the Raspberry Pi. Raspbian remains a top choice, and one of the most popular Raspberry Pi Linux distros. However, there are plenty of additional Raspberry Pi desktop options. Check out the best OS for Raspberry Pi boards!

12 Best Linux Operating Systems for the Raspberry Pi: Considerations

Before settling on a Linux operating system for your Raspberry Pi, think about your needs. Certain Linux-based retro gaming OSes or Kodi-based standalone operating systems provide limited purpose aside from multimedia and home theatre PC (HTPC) use. Still, these offer loads of services. Moreover, you may dual boot for a multi-OS configuration. What you’ll need for a desktop differs from the Raspberry Pi Linux distro you’ll want for HTPC use or retro gaming. Further, you may not even require a graphical user interface (GUI) for some projects, so a barebones, roll-your-own distro may suffice.

Raspbian

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As the name suggests, Raspbian is a Debian-based operating system created for the Raspberry Pi. Raspbian employs the PIXEL desktop environment or Pi Improved Xwindows Environment Lightweight. It’s a variant of LXDE as well as the Openbox stacking window manager. Because Raspbian comes standard with pre-installed software including Chromium, Minecraft Pi, and Mathematica. Easy to install and engineered for the Raspberry Pi, Raspbian is a fantastic Raspberry Pi Linux OS. You can pick from Raspbian Stretch with Desktop and Raspbian Stretch Lite, a minimal Debian Stretch-based Raspbian image.

Ubuntu

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While there are loads of Linux desktop operating systems, Ubuntu ranks as one of the most well-known. Blossoming into a household name, it’s available in several flavors. The Debian-based Ubuntu, in turn, spawned a series of Ubuntu derivatives ranging from Kodibuntu to Xubuntu and Lubuntu. For the Raspberry Pi, there’s Ubuntu MATE for the Raspberry Pi and Raspberry Pi 2. Alternatively, there’s Ubuntu Snappy Core, an operating system aimed at developers. Ubuntu Snappy Core targets Internet of Things (IoT) applications but differs from most Ubuntu releases in that it eschews apt-get software installation. Rather, it employs Snap installation. It’s a solid choice for running media center software such as Kodi, RetroPie, or Recalbox.

Kali Linux

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This Debian derivative aims as penetration testing (pen testing) and digital forensics. If you’ve watched the USA hit series “Mr Robot,” you’ve undoubtedly seen the Kali Linux desktop environment. It’s a fantastic Linux distro with an array of security testing tools, from password cracker John the Ripper, web app security scanner OWASP ZAP, and Aircrack-ng pen testing suite. Since this is a security-focused operating system, it’s one of the best Raspberry Pi Linux distros for programmers and developers with security testing needs.

CentOS

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Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is an awesome Linux OS for enterprise development. For a free, community edition of RHEL, check out CentOS which officially partnered with Red Hat in 2014. As such, CentOS benefits from an enterprise-class environment. With its ARM-compatible releases, CentOS runs flawlessly on the Raspberry Pi. Therefore, it’s a fantastic choice for use in business environments, for developing enterprise apps, or both. Stable, secure, and boasting an almost identical set of features as RHEL, CentOS is a great choice for a Raspberry Pi distro. Furthermore, CentOS makes for a splendid Linux server OS which could be a fantastic way to spin up a server such as a do-it-yourself (DIY) Spotify.

Arch Linux ARM

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While most Linux distros afford increased control, Arch Linux takes this to the extreme. It’s a minimalist distro that provides loads of functionality. Arch takes the KISS, or keep it simple stupid, principle to heart, which places the onus on the user to comprehend its overall function. Because of its ARM release, Arch Linux ARM may be installed on a Raspberry Pi. Since Arch can be tricky for novices, it’s recommended for Linux buffs and power users.

Gentoo

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Similarly, Gentoo is available for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a highly customizable and flexible Linux distro that includes a package manager and kernel. However, the user is responsible for installing everything else, including a desktop environment. Whereas the likes of Ubuntu MATE and CentOS feature a GUI, Gentoo does not. A roll your own distro, Gentoo is best suited to those willing to slog through the ultimately rewarding but not uncomplicated installation.

openSUSE

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An excellent Linux OS for developers and system admins (sysadmins), openSUSE provides a feature-rich environment that’s ideal for everything from desktop use to a server set up. There are several desktop environments to choose from, an awesome package manager in YaST. It’s super simple to install openSUSE on a Raspberry Pi as well as a bevvy of other ARM boards and Raspberry Pi alternatives.

OpenMediaVault

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While many options on the Raspberry Pi are desktop distros or multimedia-oriented OSes, OpenMediaVault yields a Linux-based server alternative. It’s Debian-based and sports features such as a gorgeous web-based GUI, monitoring tools like Syslog, connectivity with SSH, FTP, and NFS, as well as plug-ins for lots of software. Bonus points for its ease of set up on the Raspberry Pi.

OSMC

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Open Source Media Center, or OSMC, is a standalone Kodi operating system. It’s incredibly easy to install for the Pi with its pre-built images and allows for loads of customization. You can use the default OSMC skin with its modern feel, classic Kodi skin, or any third-party skins as well. Plus, there are tons of ways to stream media from Kodi addons or local media. OSMC benefits from regular updates such as a bump to Linux 4.14 in Feb. 2018. You may also consider LibreELEC, OpenELEC, XBian, or GeeXbox for your HTPC needs on the Raspberry Pi.

RetroPie

Retropie

While it’s not the only retro gaming on the Raspberry Pi software option, RetroPie is arguably the most popular. Using the EmulationStation frontend, RetroPie presents a beautiful experience for retro gaming with an SBC. Under the hood, RetroPie is Debian-based and builds on several tools including RetroArch.

Recalbox

Though RetroPie might hold the distinction as the best-known retro gaming OS for the Raspberry Pi, Recalbox is a hot newcomer. While similar to RetroPie with its EmulationStation frontend it has a similar lineup of gaming emulators. However, Recalbox is a bit more user-friendly and less customizable. For instance, you’ll find fewer shader options. Newer users may prefer Recalbox, whereas seasoned Linux pros may be left wanting. But this doesn’t mean Recalbox is lacking. In fact, it includes compatibility with the likes of Hyperion for creating a DIY Ambilight for your media center.

Lakka

Based on RetroArch, Lakka is an uber-powerful Linux-based retro gaming operating system. Its intuitive installation and robust feature set make Lakka an ideal choice for creating a retro gaming arcade with a Raspberry Pi. Lakka runs phenomenally well out of the box, replete with superb gamepad compatibility. There’s no keyboard or mouse required, merely a controller. Plus, Lakka is jam-packed with customization options which can even at times be overwhelming. Still, Lakka brings old school gaming to the Raspberry Pi in style.

12 Best OSes for the Raspberry Pi: Final Thoughts

There’s no shortage of Linux distros for the Raspberry Pi. Ultimately which operating system you pick depends on your needs. For a desktop experience, try a Linux OS such as Ubuntu MATE, CentOS, or openSUSE. Gaming and HTPC needs are fulfilled by RetroPie, Recalbox, or a Kodi operating system for the Raspberry Pi. Minimalist and lightweight OSes run well on the Pi. Want to spice up your Raspberry Pi? Have a look at the best 15 Raspberry Pi cases available.

Which Raspberry Pi Linux operating systems do you prefer?


Moe Long

Moe Long is an editor, writer, and tech buff with a particular appreciation for Linux, Raspberry Pis, and retro gaming. When he's not hammering away at his keyboard, he enjoys running, reading, watching cinema, and listening to vinyl. You can read his writings on film and pop culture at CupOfMoe.com and check out his thoughts on movies on the Celluloid Fiends podcast.


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