Raspberry Pi operating systems: 5 reviewed and rated

A sweet selection of tasty Raspberry Pi distros

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.