The Raspberry Pi is not limited to Raspberry Pi OS, which is the official distribution but is far from being the only one
What is the best distribution for Raspberry Pi?
There are dozens of operating systems available on Raspberry Pi, and there is not a perfect distribution. Each distribution has its strengths and weaknesses and is more suited to a specific use.
I will introduce here the 15 distributions that stand out and that deserve to be tested if you’re looking for the ideal system.
By the way, note that most of them can be installed on an external SSD drive (this one on Amazon is the best), to improve speed in boot and daily usage. It works really well on Raspberry Pi 4.
1 – Raspberry Pi OS
If you are lost in all these new words and abbreviations, request my free Raspberry Pi glossary here (PDF format)!
Raspberry Pi OS is the official distribution of Raspberry Pi
Based on Debian it is built on the same philosophy, i.e., stability and performance.
Many Debian packages are available on Raspberry Pi
Since its first release in 2012, there have been many improvements
Today Raspberry Pi OS comes with the PIXEL desktop (based on LXDE), which makes the Raspberry Pi usable as a daily desktop computer
About the preinstalled applications, we find essentials like Chromium, Minecraft Pi, Scratch or LibreOffice
Installing additional packages or a different desktop environment is facilitated by the presence of the APT Packet Manager
If you are used to Debian or Ubuntu, you will not be lost. By the way, it’s also possible to directly install Debian on your Raspberry Pi (click on the link to learn more about it).
I put it first in this ranking because it has many advantages, such as compatibility, reliability and adaptability to most beginner projects
Raspberry Pi OS works well on any Raspberry Pi model
Raspberry Pi OS is available on the official website
To install it, you can check my tutorial here. But if you really want the step-by-step process to get started the right way on Raspberry Pi, I recommend you watch my video course here. In a few videos, I will tell you everything I know so that you can quickly get past the burden of the beginning, save time by accelerating your learning curve and quickly have fun with any project on Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi OS now have a 64-bit version (still in development), you may want to try it if you are looking for a nice increase in performances. You can read my comparison between 64-bit and 32-bit Raspberry Pi OS here, and see what you can really expect of these two versions.
2 – Ubuntu
A few months ago, installing Ubuntu on a Raspberry Pi was an adventure 🙂
My last attempt was successful, everything works well on Raspberry Pi 3 and 4
Ubuntu quickly became the most used Linux distribution in the world
Based on Debian, this distribution runs on a shorter development cycle and therefore provides the latest news much earlier than Debian
If you’re used to Ubuntu and are looking for an alternative to Raspberry Pi OS, Ubuntu for Raspberry Pi is probably a good choice
Even if he does not have much support from developers and the Raspberry Pi community, his fame in the world of PCs makes us want to test more deeply
Behind a more modern interface, you will find the same basic packages as on Raspberry Pi OS: LibreOffice, Minecraft PI, Scratch, …
And there are some small changes like installing Firefox as the default browser
You can install additional packages with the apt command
I put this distribution in second because it is for me a work environment more attractive and more up to date than Raspberry Pi OS.
But with less stability and a smaller community (on Raspberry Pi)
It remains a perfect distribution to start
You can download Ubuntu for Raspberry Pi on this page.
It’s the server version (terminal only), but you can install your favorite desktop environment (commands are listed at the end of the page)
A Raspberry Pi 4 is recommended to have the best experience with a desktop environment
If you are interested, I explain everything here on how to install Ubuntu on Raspberry Pi. You’ll get all the tips to save time and avoid the most common issues while installing this operating system.
And I also have an in-depth comparison of Ubuntu and Raspberry Pi OS here if you are not sure which one to install.
3 – Retropie
Retropie is a well-known distribution, which allows you to turn your Raspberry Pi into a retro-gaming console
Built on Raspberry Pi OS, it gives you the possibility to play old games from classic PC to N64 games
Retropie provides easy setup and a user-friendly interface to start and play your favorites games
Before playing, you have to download ROMs from the Internet (my top websites for this are list here), and then upload them to your Raspberry Pi.
They will automatically show in the Retropie menu
For a better experience, you can even add a controller like on SNES and enjoy a game as if you were back in childhood!
I choose to place the Retropie distribution in the top 3 because it’s a good one, and it allows Raspberry Pi to be discovered by many players, and therefore to make it more known. Other options are available, as you’ll see later in this list (or in this article, where I compare Retropie with the other retro-gaming alternatives).
Pre-made images for the Raspberry Pi are available here, but you can also get a pre-installed SD card with a thousand of games on Amazon. It’s surprisingly cheap to get one of them, given the time it saves you instead of spending hours finding games on various websites.
I also have many tutorials about Retropie on this website that you can check to learn more about this OS:
- Beginner step-by-step guide
- My 12 favorites games on Retropie
- Best Themes for Retropie – Top 15
- How to Add Games on Raspberry Pi (4 ways on Retropie)
- And where to download other games easily
4 – Manjaro
Manjaro is a distribution I discovered recently on Raspberry Pi
It’s working very well and I like it
Manjaro is based on Arch Linux, a rare system on Raspberry Pi
But it’s cool, it allows us to test and learn new things
Its goal is to be a fast and user-friendly distribution
Manjaro is available in various flavors with the most known desktop environments (XFCE, GNOME, KDE, Cinnamon, LXDE, Mate, …)
You can also start with a minimal version (named Architect) where you can install only what you need and configure everything
Manjaro is available on Raspberry Pi 4, and I highly recommend using it to enjoy this system in graphic mode
You can download the system images here
And I have a step-by-step tutorial on how to install Manjaro on your Raspberry Pi. You can also watch the video version of this tutorial just below:
5 – OSMC
OSMC (Open Source Media Center) is probably the best media center solution built for Raspberry Pi
Based on Debian and using Kodi as a front-end, OSMC is a Linux distribution easy to install and use
OSMC can play most of the media formats and stream from all kind of sources
I choose to put it in this listing because it has a significant use for the Raspberry Pi, you can set up your media center for $50 with OSMC
The look is excellent, the system is self-updating and the community is always present if you have an issue
You can Download OSMC from the official website
If you need further advice, check my dedicated post about OSMC and Kodi. I will show you all the steps from download to a full setup media center (how to use a USB storage or even a NAS). I also introduce the best add-ons you can install and the web interface that most users don’t know about 🙂
6 – Lakka
You probably recognize this well-known interface which is inspired from the PlayStation 4
But it’s Lakka! A Retro-gaming system on Raspberry Pi
Like Retropie you have many emulators available on it and can install your games easily
The Lakka systems runs on LibreElec and uses RetroArch for the graphical interface
I have added it in this list because it’s available on Raspberry Pi 4, so it’s a good alternative to Retropie at the moment
And I also like the intuitive usage for many things (PSX games are working directly, on/off button for many options, etc.)
If you want to discover this retro-gaming system, you can read my tutorial here on how to install and use Lakka. It’s an operating system with many qualities, but there are a few hidden features you can easily miss without reading it.
Downloads links are on the official website here
7 – Kali Linux
Do you know Mr. Robot?
Kali Linux is the best penetration testing distribution with many security tools for all kind of purposes :
- Wireless attacks
- Passwords cracking
- Web apps attacks
- Network sniffers
- Vulnerability scanners
- … and a lot more
Behind Kali Linux, we find Offensive Security, a major security trainer and pen-testing provider
They have funded and maintained this distribution, formerly known as Backtrack, to become a reference in the security market
If you want to go deeper, you can read my post about 15 steps to start with Kali Linux on Raspberry Pi. I will not only show you how to install it, but also introduce all the fantastic tools you can use on this distribution. As almost everything is pre-installed it will be a shame to miss them.
By the way, if you want to push it a step further, you can also check my guide on how to hack a Wi-Fi network here.
The download image is available here
You have to scroll to the Raspberry Pi Foundation part
Raspberry Pi 4 is fully supported now
8 – Kano OS
As you can see on the picture, Kano OS is a distribution dedicated for kids.
Kano is a manufacturer selling computer kits for school or kids, to teach them how a computer works.
You can learn more about the hardware part on Amazon, but they also provide a free open-source operating system to install on a Raspberry Pi.
After the installation, a funny wizard will help you to create a user account, that will become a real character in the adventure.
Then you can jump into the Story Mode to discover all the stuff provided with Kano OS.
You can also explore other apps from the menu, where you will find the most common apps (Minecraft, YouTube, web browser) but also dedicated apps to start small projects with your kids as you can see in this video.
By the way, kids can start really young on Raspberry Pi, probably sooner that you’d expect (I explain here). There are many projects that are suitable for them at a young age, as listed in this blog post where I identified the best ones.
The Kano website provides many resources to help you start with this distribution
If you want to make a try, you can download OS and books from this page
If you are interested in the proposed kits, you will find them on Amazon (check the Kano computer kit here for example). This kit includes everything you need to build your computer (Pi 3, case, wireless keyboard, etc.). Once assembled, you have the best toy for any kids (6 years old and more).
9 – Gentoo
Gentoo is a lightweight distribution that you can build as you want, to install any package you need
With the end of the support of Arch Linux for the Raspberry Pi development, Gentoo could become the new standard if you need flexibility in your projects (with Manjaro)
Gentoo is not a beginner in the Linux world. The first version was released in 2000
I remember having trouble at this time to install my first Gentoo, but there has been a lot of progress since 2000 🙂
Most of the time you can now add new packages with emerge and portage
The big difference between Gentoo and other distributions is that packages are compiled locally in your computer
If you choose to install new software, the system will download the source code, extract it, and build it according to your preferences and your computer type
So, it’s very optimized for you unlike in Debian systems, where you get the same generic binary package that everyone will get
For this distribution, the easiest way will be to check my Gentoo tutorial for Raspberry Pi to get the full installation procedure, including downloads.
10 – RecalBox
Recalbox is the last Retro gaming system I want to recommend in this list.
Like Retropie and Lakka, it allows you to play old games on your Raspberry Pi (NES, SNES, Atari, etc.).
If you are a bit lost with all these options, I recommend you to read my comparative here, but Recalbox is a great option to consider.
Here is a short video overview of this system (not the latest version, but you will understand the concept):
RecalBox is a younger system than Retropie, but with different features
So, you have to try it to make your own choice
For example, I really like that everything is integrated in the interface (you don’t need to use Raspi-config or the Retropie setup script for example)
You can read my complete beginner’s guide for Recalbox here
Or download the Recalbox image directly on the official website
Raspberry Pi 4 is not yet supported, so you have to stay with Lakka for now if you want to play on Pi 4 🙂
The ROMs you can use on Recalbox are the same as on Retropie, so you can follow the same tips to easily find ROMs online.
11 – DietPi
DietPi is my favorite minimal distribution on Raspberry Pi
I really like this distribution because it’s very close to Raspberry Pi OS Lite, and you can have the easy setup included and really the minimal packages installed
If you need performances or want to install only what you need, DietPi is definitively a good option to consider
DietPi is a recent distribution (created in 2015 I think) with an image size under 1G (1.8G for Raspberry Pi OS Lite) and half of the Raspberry Pi OS Lite packages installed by default
On the first boot, a wizard will help you to configure your system as you want
You can find all the details about the DietPi installation in my guide here, including the detailed comparison with Raspberry Pi OS Lite.
And you can download the system on the official website.
For information, DietPi is working on Raspberry Pi 4. It will be the perfect operating system for a small server, like a file server or VPN server you run at home.
12 – LibreELEC
On the picture it doesn’t seem so different from any other distribution running Kodi
But it’s different, everything is different, it’s LibreELEC 🙂
LibreELEC is a fork of OpenELEC, a system built from scratch to run Kodi and only Kodi.
The goal of OpenELEC and LibreELEC is to provide the lightest possible distribution to make Kodi work in the perfect conditions.
Like OSMC you can use a universal remote control with it (like the famous Harmony remote on Amazon), you just need a cheap USB adapter like this one to make it works.
So, it’s not based on Raspberry Pi OS or any other operating system, it’s something different.
LibreELEC was born in 2016 as the OpenELEC project starts to decline
13 – Fedora
Fedora is a popular Linux distribution, based on RedHat, with something like 1.5 million users today
Fedora was created in 2003, as the open-source alternative to RedHat
And since a few months, Fedora is available as a stable release on Raspberry Pi (3 versions: Server, Minimal and Workstation)
If you are new to Fedora, you’ll get something similar to other distributions like Debian or Ubuntu in term of software and usage, as you can run most of the desktop environment on Fedora, with any popular software
But there are some changes you may have issue with it
Some commands are completely different and you’ll also note differences in the package management or the files locations
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Note: you can also try OpenSUSE instead of Fedora, both are derived from Red Hat, so they have many common points.
14 – OpenMediaVault
If you want to create a network drive easily and at low cost, OpenMediaVault is probably a good choice.
OpenMediaVault is based on Debian, and provide a NAS solution that ships the needed services: SMB, SSH, FTP, NFS, …
OpenMediaVault is an easy to use out-of-the-box solution that everyone can install at home or in a small office
It works very well on Raspberry Pi. You can add a larger SD card or an external hard drive to increase capacity and store all kind of files (movies, backups, …).
The best accessory for that kind of server would be something like the NAS Kit from Sunfounder. This kit includes everything you need to host a file server on a Raspberry Pi (SATA slot, fan, case, etc.), click to see how it works.
Another thing you have to know is that you can install many plugins to improve OpenMediaVault
This system allows you to run most of the services on your Raspberry Pi, even if you are not interested in a NAS
For example, you can install the nginx and MySQL plugins to build a web server with a simple configuration in the web interface from OpenMediaVault
You can find available plugins on this server
I chose it to be in this top for two reasons:
- It makes it easy for beginners to build a server at home
- It is reliable. I used it for years in a company of 200 people with very few problems
The OpenMediaVault image for Raspberry Pi is available on Sourceforge (the latest system images are compatible with Raspberry Pi 4)
I also made a post on how to turn your Raspberry Pi into a file server (with or without OpenMediaVault, you can check it by clicking on the previous link)
Note: if you want to use SATA drives to build your NAS with your Raspberry Pi, you can use a NAS kit like this one. It works on any Raspberry Pi model and supports any SATA disk you already have. Much cheaper than a real NAS device.
15 – CentOS
And the last system I suggest trying on your Raspberry Pi is CentOS
CentOS is a well-known Linux distribution for its stability and its respect for Linux best practices
CentOS is based on the Red Hat distribution (like Fedora), so you’ll find many similarities with these systems
They have a version available for Raspberry Pi, and it’s working pretty well on Raspberry Pi 3B+ (not yet available on Pi 4)
But if you’re used to Raspberry Pi OS, you must adapt yourself to some CentOS commands and operation
Like on Fedora, some management commands are different
Recommended stuff to test many operating systems
- Fastest & big SD card : If you are like me, and often switch from a distribution to another, I recommend a big SD card (at least 128 GB) with all your operating systems on it (with BerryBoot for example). This one is the best model available right now (and often in discount).
- Raspberry Pi 4 : Almost all operating systems in this list are now supported on Raspberry Pi 4, no need to think more, get a Raspberry Pi 4 with at least 4 GB, you’ll not regret it.
- SSD drive: If you expect more performances, a Raspberry Pi and a SSD allows you to run systems really fast. My favorite model is this one, and you SSD drives are now really affordable, go for it! (USB adapter included)
- The best controller for retro-gaming OS : If you are a serious gamer, you should take a look at this controller. I tested many of them, and it’s my favorite (for style, tech and comfort).
Grab your free PDF file with all the commands you need to know on Raspberry Pi!
This is the end of this ranking, which was intended to make you discover the 15 operating systems that are worth using on Raspberry Pi
If I had to do a synthesis, I would say that for beginners and in most small projects, Raspberry Pi OS is the best choice.
And then the other distributions are more chosen for a specific purpose
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