How To Upgrade Raspbian Lite to Desktop (PIXEL, KDE, MATE, …)

upgrade raspbian lite to desktop

Raspbian is available in two main versions: Raspbian Lite and Raspbian with Desktop
The first one is a minimal Linux version, with only a terminal. The second one includes the PIXEL Desktop environment
But for many reasons you can choose to upgrade a Raspbian Lite version with a desktop environment (PIXEL or any other one)
And I will show you how

How to upgrade Raspbian Lite to Desktop?
Raspbian Lite is the core of Raspbian Desktop, so it’s possible to upgrade it with a desktop environment
To do this you need to install three components:
– Xorg: the display base for any environment
– Your favorite desktop environment (PIXEL, KDE, MATE, etc.)
– LightDM: the display manager

In this post, I will start by explaining why you may want to upgrade Raspbian Lite to Desktop, and how to do this with each of the main desktop environments available

Why would you need to upgrade Raspbian Lite to Desktop?

Most of you already know why you are here 🙂
But for those who are curious I will start by a short introduction about why you would need to upgrade your Raspbian Lite SD card to a Desktop environment

The first reason can be that you have changed your mind 🙂
Sometimes, we start an installation for a basic project (a web server for example), then we add other services and configurations
Finally, we need a desktop environment and don’t want to lose everything running in background
In this case, an upgrade is a good choice, as you can upgrade to a desktop while keeping the background installation

The second reason may be to choose your desktop environment
When you download Raspbian Desktop on the official website, you’ll get the PIXEL Desktop environment
If you want another one, you need to install it manually, and most of the PIXEL packages will stay installed on your Raspberry Pi, taking up disk space for nothing

And finally the smartest reason may be for performance
Even if you want to use PIXEL, you may not want to use all the default apps that come with it
By installing a desktop environment above Raspbian Lite, you install only the necessary packages, and can choose which applications to install later

Choose your Desktop Environment

Now that you have decided to upgrade Raspbian Lite, you must first choose your desktop environment
Here is a quick introduction about the one available on Raspbian

I took all screenshots after upgrading Raspbian Lite to these desktop environment, so the main menu is pretty empty 🙂

PIXEL Desktop

PIXEL is the default desktop environment on Raspbian Desktop
You probably already know it well 🙂
PIXEL stands for “Pi Improved Xwindow Environment Lightweight”

As PIXEL is developed directly by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it’s probably the most stable and optimized desktop environment that you can choose for your Raspberry Pi
But there are many other possible choices that we’ll examine now

MATE

The MATE Desktop exists since 2011 and is more and more chosen for Desktop PC
MATE is a fork of GNOME 2, created following the bad reviews of GNOME 3

I really like this desktop environment, as it has a modern look right after the installation
On Raspberry Pi 4 it’s perfect, but on old Raspberry Pi devices, the memory usage may be an issue

KDE

Even if it’s probably the heavier desktop environment available for Raspbian, KDE is working pretty well on the last Raspberry Pi 4
If you want a modern interface or are a fan of KDE on Desktop PC, this can be a good choice

XFCE

XFCE is one of the lightweight desktop environment that you can choose if you are looking for performances
Its main goal is to be fast and low on system resources, so it’s perfect for any Raspberry Pi model

The default look seems dated, but you can improve it easily if performances are not your main concern

LXDE

LXDE stands for “Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment”, and as the name suggests, it’s one of the lightest desktop environment available on Raspbian
Thanks to its strengths, LXDE was the former official operating system on Raspberry Pi

It’s close to XFCE (probably with fewer features), so you may have to try both to make your choice 🙂

Upgrade Raspbian Lite with a Desktop Environment

Now that you have made your choice, we can get to the installation part
The beginning is the same for any desktop environment

Raspbian Lite installation

If you are reading this, you probably already have Raspbian Lite installed
But if you are just curious, you need to start by installing it

If you need some help to do this, you can read my Raspbian installation guide by clicking on the link

Update your system

Before starting, I recommend updating your system to avoid any issue later

Type the following command on your Raspberry Pi:

  • sudo apt update
  • sudo apt upgrade
  • sudo apt dist-upgrade
  • sudo reboot

Once your system is up-to-date, you can start the installation

Xorg

Xorg is the display server on Linux systems
That’s to say that it’s the core component of any desktop environment
So whatever the choice you have made, you need to install it first

Xorg is available in the Raspbian repository, you can install it with:
sudo apt install xserver-xorg

This will install about 75 new packages on your system, and after a few seconds you are ready to move to the next step

Desktop Environment Installation

Now you need to install the desktop environment you have chosen
All of them are available in the Raspbian default repository, so you can install it with apt
Obviously, the command will be different depending on your choice

  • To install the PIXEL Desktop, you can type:
    sudo apt install raspberrypi-ui-mods
    This will download over 400 packages with approximately 200M to download
  • If you prefer KDE, use this command:
    sudo apt install kde-plasma-desktop
    KDE will take more time to install, as you need to download over 700 packages for more than 500M to download
    And I didn’t test kde-full but it’s something like 1500M to download!
  • For LXDE the command is:
    sudo apt install lxde-core lxappearance
    This one is lighter, with 100M to download for something like 300 new packages
  • To install XFCE, enter the following command:
    sudo apt install xfce4 xfce4-terminal
    XFCE is the lightest environment in this list, with less than 300 packages (90M to download)
  • And finally, the MATE desktop installation can be done with:
    sudo apt install mate-desktop-environment-core
    For this one, it’s about 320 packages for 170M on a fresh new Raspbian Buster Lite

You’re almost ready, but don’t reboot the Raspberry Pi right now
For some of them, you’ll need another package 🙂

LightDM

As I told you in introduction, LightDM is the display manager
This package is mandatory to automatically start the desktop environment on boot and also manage the login part
It’s the link between everything if you want (Raspbian, Xorg and your desktop environment)

When I made my tests, most of the previous commands will install LightDM automatically
But you may need it at least for MATE and KDE

To install it, just use the following command:
sudo apt install lightdm

If it does nothing, it’s because it’s already installed on your system

You can now restart your Raspberry Pi to enjoy your new environment 🙂
sudo reboot

Install more apps

As you’ll probably notice, whatever the desktop environment you choose, the apps available are minimal
For most of them, you only get a terminal and the system settings
Not enough to use it as a desktop PC

Here are a few apps I recommend installing before going further:

  • Synaptic

    Synaptic is a package manager. Even if you are coming from Raspbian Lite (and probably know how to use apt in a terminal), it can be useful to have a graphic interface to manage packages
    You can install it with: sudo apt install synaptic
  • Chromium

    How can you check RaspberryTips.com with a web browser? 🙂
    Seriously, a web browser is mandatory, and you can install Chromium with this command: sudo apt install chromium-browser
  • Install a new theme

    For most of the desktop environment, the default appearance is not optimal, you get a light system with an ugly style 🙂
    If you are not looking for performance only, you can try to install a theme
    The installation depends on the environment you have, but you can find some information in this post

That’s it for the basics
If you are looking for new apps to try, you can also check my 17 recommend apps for Raspbian here

Conclusion

Congrats! You now know how to install any desktop environment on Raspbian Lite

Even if it’s not as practical as downloading the Raspbian Desktop image, it’s a good choice if you want to try other environment or improve your Raspberry Pi performance

If you have any thoughts about this, feel free to leave a comment below
And as usual, if you like this post, thanks to share it on your favorite social network, it helps me a lot 🙂

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