Last week we talked about the new operating system for the Raspberry Pi (NOOBS). This week we are going to take a look at the different operating systems and why you would choose one over another.
There is a variety of distros in this operating system (Distro is another name for operating system), from the Debian-based Raspbian to the multimedia RaspiBMC and everything in between.
Arch is another of the officially promoted Raspberry Pi distros Joining Raspbian as the only other Linux distro, this Arch ARM build also includes the hard float, and is aimed towards the more veteran Linux user. Arch is a distro you build yourself, almost from scratch, with the system already configured to at least boot to a command-line interface. From here you customise the system to your exact specifications, without any of the extra bloat you’d get from something like Ubuntu.
Arch boots into a command line. There’s no desktop, and no users other than root. There’s nothing more than the standard tools and packages that make up part of the Linux kernel. From here you need to start building up your system using the pacman package manager, or grab Yaourt to access source code from AUR. You’ll need to update everything first before trying to install software, and the time from command line to booting into the most basic LXDE environment was about 90 minutes. As mentioned before, though, while this might be frustrating and slow to some Raspberry Pi users, this extra control allows you to fully streamline your Arch.
Arch is fantastic for headless server or NAS uses – allowing you to only install the packages you need for the networking and sharing, and forgoing the desktop environment completely. The Raspberry Pi itself has the potential for a lot of uses, thanks to its size and incredibly low power requirements, and distros like Arch allow you to really tweak the software so that you can get a low-footprint server that will fit anywhere, or a focused workstation with everything you need to work and nothing more. To the patient user, it’s also a great way to the learn the deeper ins and outs of using a Linux distribution.
Openelec is a multimedia distribution. It has only one goal: be the best media center distribution and it just does it very good. There is no worry about updates or packages. However Openelec does not contain a package manager. It is only to setup a media center PC.
Openssh installed and the XBMC repository is already set and you can install any kind of software that is available directly from the UI. The problem is that you will not find anything advanced like a webserver or any other package you will find in other distributions.
Fedora 18 Remix
On first boot, Fedora Remix has the same graphical setup as the full desktop version. From here you set up users, locales and more, and it definitely looks and flows a bit better than the command-line equivalent on Raspbian, although you don’t nearly have quite the same level of customization.
Being a full blown Linux distribution there is a noticeable lag even just browsing the interface, and it straddles the line between being frustrating and something you could get used to. It even crashed on us a number of times after the initial setup, such as when asking us if we wanted one or two panels to use on Xfce and freezing, or just getting in a reboot cycle until we disconnected the power. The first major update took about an hour or so to perform, and there are some.
At the very least, however, being a build of Fedora it is made up completely of truly free software. While that may be limiting to some, it at least means that any advanced projects will be a great showcase for open source software and Linux.
Raspbmc is a minimal Linux distribution based on Debian that brings XBMC to your Raspberry Pi. This device has an excellent form factor and enough power to handle media playback, making it an ideal component in a low HTPC setup, yet delivering the same XBMC experience that can be enjoyed on much more costly platforms.
Here is what Raspbmc offers: Wired and Wireless out of the box! No knowledge of Linux is needed. If you want to use the Raspberry Pi as an XBMC frontend you can do exactly that with no knowledge of how anything works. It’s auto updating, meaning you constantly get new features, performance and driver updates. You can however turn updates off at any time.
RaspBMC has several great features. It supports 1080p playback, Share your content from your PC over NFS, SMB, FTP and HTTP and a USB drive in almost any format. AirPlay and AirTunes support allow you to send music and video from your iDevice to the TV. As it is a Debian system, it is completely expansive and you can install any packages from Debian’s massive repository!
The Raspbian desktop is LXDE, and uses Openbox as a windows manager. This allows the distro to run smoothly and quickly on the Pi, even the 256MB early Model Bs and Model As. While there is no graphical package manager as standard, a small selection of great educational tools are available at the start, such as Scratch, Python and a web ink to some courses by UK exam board OCR on ways to teach with the Raspberry Pi. There’s also a link straight to the Pi Store, so you can download apps, games and tools developed by the community.
Raspbian is a fantastic tool for teaching, general coding and all manner of home- grown projects.
RISC OS has always looked fairly basic. With more simplistic icons and art style throughout the interface, a lot more work has gone into how you interact with RISC than its aesthetic, leaving it smooth and responsive. This is ultimately more important, and is only really a step behind something like the Xfce DE in this way. Usability- wise, it is different from a lot of the main Linux DEs, and in general a lot of the modern OS workflow – windows cascade as you open them rather than opening in the original window, scroll wheel click is the equivalent of context-sensitive right click, and there is no real terminal emulator for the system, forcing you to quit out of the shell with a simple F12 to get to the command line.
Software-wise, RISC OS is definitely lacking compared to its Linux counterparts, and not much of it is open source. As well as a package manager, there’s the PlingStore, which is the main way to get graphical applications. There’s not much between them, though: with less than 200 packages available in the package manager, and a mixture of 50 free and paid-for apps in the PlingStore, there are limitations to the amount you can do. What it can allow for is to teach some computing basics to people who have not used a computer before. While it is overall quite different to a lot of modern operating systems, mouse control and window management is roughly the same, and there are far fewer distractions.
RISC, while nostalgic, is not very useful for day-to-day computing, or as the base of an advanced project.