The Raspberry Pi is not limited to Raspberry Pi OS. It’s the official distribution, but is far from being the only one. Depending on the model you use, your goals, and your personal preferences, it might be a good idea to examine other options. I tested all of the other options and share my favorites in this post, which should be a great starting point for you.
|Raspberry Pi Usage||Recommended distribution|
|Desktop||Raspberry Pi OS|
I will introduce the 15 distributions that stand out and deserve to be tested if you’re looking for the ideal system. By the way, note that most of these distributions can be installed on an external SSD drive (this one on Amazon is the best), to improve the boot and daily usage speed. It works really well on Raspberry Pi 4.
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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
It’s based on Debian and 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 a lot of improvements.
Today Raspberry Pi OS comes with the PIXEL desktop (based on LXDE), which makes the Raspberry Pi usable as a daily desktop computer.
For preinstalled applications, you’ll find essentials like Chromium, Minecraft Pi (on the legacy version only), Scratch, and 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, it should be pretty straightforward for you. 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. However, for a step-by-step guide to help you begin on Raspberry Pi the right way, I recommend watching my video course here. In a few videos, I teach you everything I know to help you get past the burden of getting started, save time by accelerating your learning curve and quickly have fun with any project on Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi OS now has a 64-bit version, you may want to try it if you are looking for a nice increase in performance. You can read my comparison between 64-bit and 32-bit Raspberry Pi OS here, and learn what you can really expect of these two versions.
2 – Ubuntu
A few months ago, installing Ubuntu on a Raspberry Pi was an adventure.
However, my last attempt was successful and now 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 a lot 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 it does not have much support from developers and the Raspberry Pi community, its 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, such as having Firefox installed as the default browser.
You can install additional packages with the apt command.
I put this distribution in second because it offers a work environment that is more attractive and more up-to-date than Raspberry Pi OS.
There is a catch – it comes 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 tips that will help you 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 aren’t sure which one to install.
Note: Using Armbian on Raspberry Pi can be a lighter option to consider if you want to run Ubuntu. Check the link for more details.
3 – Batocera
Batocera is currently my favorite app for retro-gaming on a Raspberry Pi. It’s pretty new, so it might not be one you’ve heard a lot of, but I think it deserves this place on the podium.
Batocera is inspired from Recalbox, another solution that I’ll discuss a bit later. It takes all the good stuff from Recalbox and adds another layer with great features (like the built-in content downloader) and optimized performance. The best way to show you is through a video, so here is the Batocera trailer:
And as for all the distributions in this list, you can also read my related content about Batocera, especially if you want to give it a try:
- Batocera on Raspberry Pi 4: Installation and First Steps
- Best Retro-Gaming OS: Retropie vs Recalbox vs Batocera vs Lakka
- My full installation guide of Batocera in video
4 – Manjaro
Manjaro is a distribution I discovered recently on Raspberry Pi. It works 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 yourself.
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:
If you like Arch Linux, EndeavourOS can be an alternative to consider, even if for the moment I don’t think it deserves a place on this list.
5 – LibreELEC
6 – Retropie
7 – 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 an easy setup included and minimal packages installed.
If you need better performance 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 are 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 your information, DietPi works on Raspberry Pi 4. It is the perfect operating system for a small server, like a file server or a VPN server you run at home.
8 – Kano OS
As you can see in the picture, Kano OS is a distribution dedicated to kids.
Kano is a manufacturer that sells computer kits for schools or kids in order 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 create a user account, which becomes 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 than 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 try it out, you can download the latest images 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 kid (6 years old and more).
Note: It looks like Kano is moving away from Raspberry Pi with their latest products. You can still test it, but I think they are no longer doing any update to their system.
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 installing 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 on 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 receives.
For this distribution, the easiest option is 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 of these options, I recommend that you 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 into 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 – Kali Linux
Do you know Mr. Robot?
Kali Linux is the best penetration testing distribution with many security tools for all kinds 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 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.
12 – OSMC
13 – Fedora
Fedora is a popular Linux distribution, based on RedHat, with approximately 1.5 million users today.
Fedora was created in 2003, as the open-source alternative to RedHat.
And for a few months, Fedora has been 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 terms 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 issues with.
Some commands are completely different and you’ll also note differences in the package manager or the file locations
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If you want to give it a try, you can read my step-by-step installation guide here (or watch the video here).
You can download the images for the Raspberry Pi on the official website. Raspberry Pi is now officially supported and ARM/AARCH64 versions included in the latest releases each time.
Note: you can also try OpenSUSE instead of Fedora, both are derived from Red Hat, so they have many similarities.
14 – OpenMediaVault
If you want to create a network drive easily and at a low cost, OpenMediaVault is probably a good choice.
OpenMediaVault is based on Debian and provides 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 kinds 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.
Plugins are now directly available in the web interface.
I included it in this list 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 have a complete guide about OpenMediaVault on this website.
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 – Pop!_OS
Pop!_OS is a new distribution in the Linux world, based on Ubuntu and using GNOME as a desktop environment. Its release on PC caused a stir, and it’s now available for Raspberry Pi. I have tested it for you, and I chose to add it to the end of this ranking.
As a whole, the Pop!_OS distribution is promising. Based on Ubuntu 64 bits for the latest applications and decent performances, using GNOME for a modern-looking desktop, and with several optimizations that might make it even better than the original Ubuntu for our Raspberry Pi.
The default desktop environment is GNOME, so I would recommend a Raspberry Pi 4 or 400 with enough RAM to use it, but in fact, I find it was working even better than with Ubuntu. The dock, launcher and app store make it a nice distribution for desktop usage.
Want to give it a try? Read my full setup guide of Pop!_OS there.
And I also have a video on my YouTube channel, comparing it to Raspberry Pi OS:
Recommended hardware to test these distributions
- Fast & big SD card: If you are like me, and often switch from one 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. There’s no need to think more about it, get a Raspberry Pi 4 with at least 4 GB, you’ll not regret it.
- SSD drive: If you expect more performance, a Raspberry Pi and an SSD allows you to run systems really fast. My favorite model is this one, and 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).
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This is the end of this ranking, which was intended to help 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 for most small projects, Raspberry Pi OS is the best choice. And then the other distributions are typically chosen for a specific purpose.
Want to see the best ones in video? Watch this comparison on my YouTube channel:
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