Official website for Linux User & Developer
FOLLOW US ON:
Jan
16

Top 4 Raspberry Pi OS

by Rob Zwetsloot

Most people stick with Raspbian, but is that really the best OS for your Pi? Find out in this six-page super test!

Pidora

The Raspberry Pi Fedora Remix has come a long way since its initial launch, where it lost ground to Raspbian due to its sluggish, buggy behaviour. The new Pidora 2014, built for ARMv6 architecture and featuring packages from Fedora 20, is impressive at first glance – but are the changes only skin deep?

Fedora on Pi has seen many improvements since he launch of the Raspberry Pi
Fedora on Pi has seen many improvements since he launch of the Raspberry Pi

There was a spin of Fedora for the Raspberry Pi during the early days of its release, but that was quickly dropped in favour of Raspbian when it proved to be a bit slow and buggy. It was almost two years after this incident that a proper version of Fedora was released on the Raspberry Pi in the form of Pidora. An almost straight-up port of the codebase to the specific ARM architecture of the Pi, Pidora has had a few tweaks to let it run on Pi hardware without much loss in performance, at least.

The very first thing to note is that the problems of Fedora on the Pi in the past are long gone. This is a very mature operating system that is stable and generally runs well on the Raspberry Pi. In terms of speed, it’s not as fast as Raspbian or Arch Linux and in the case of Raspbian this may be due to a number of factors. Pidora uses Xfce, for one, which is known to be a little heavier than the LXDE that Raspbian uses. Fedora also uses much newer software that is somewhat designed to be run on computers which are slightly more high-end, while Raspbian is based on an older version of Debian with more lenient software. It isn’t the biggest difference but it all adds up with the other problems.

Booting from NOOBS is painfully slow and prone to errors – something that doesn’t occur with Raspbian or the other distros on NOOBS. Installing straight from the image removes this problem but, unfortunately, Pidora has one other disadvantage over Raspbian: lack of software.

More software is being added all the time but a lot of basic or useful yet obscure packages available for Raspbian just aren’t in the repository. The essentials are there and there are plenty of programming choices, but combine this with a lack of official Pi accessory support and it becomes less attractive for project work.

It’s definitely not a bad distro, though. If it had ended up being the default when the Pi launched then we’d likely be saying similar things about Raspbian. However, there’s very little reason to use it over its Raspbian counterpart.

Verdict

We do really like Pidora but for everything you’d want to use a Raspberry Pi for, Raspbian or Arch is just better

RISC OS Pi

A legacy of days gone by, RISC OS Pi is a distribution of the classic RISC OS for your Raspberry Pi. Developed by Acorn Computers for use on the ARM chipset that they also designed, RISC OS was forked after Acorn Computers was broken up in 1998 and it’s a continuation of this project that lives on in RISC OS Pi.

The last time we did a Pi OS group test we slightly enjoyed the blast from the past that was RISC OS, remembering our time in school using Acorn Computers that our Tesco Computers for Schools vouchers paid for. We came away realising that the tint on our rose glasses was a bit strong and struggling to get any screenshots off the SD card.

Since then, RISC OS has been updated a few times, increasing the amount of available software, improving the performance of the OS and finally letting us easily export PNG screenshots for this article. It’s still very much the same RISC OS though, a curious novelty from another time that doesn’t really fit in with the ecosystems of modern operating systems.

While RISC OS is not Linux it does have a similar file structure and uses a package manager, but otherwise it is completely its own thing. Using RISC is different from other operating systems as it uses a three-button system for clicking and opening menus, unlike the two-button standard of today. This can be confusing for new users, along with the way apps open on the desktop and the way they don’t always require double-clicks to launch. When it is in a fullscreen window, it covers the panel and a whole host of other quirks. If you’re used to the traditional desktop metaphor there are a lot of new workflow processes to get your head around for something you’re unlikely to use as your main computer.

As for teaching tools there are very few. You won’t really be learning to code on here unless you like using BASIC or already have a bit of knowledge in Perl or C. You can access the GPIO port but it’s not very well suited for all projects; Raspbian and Arch would be better.

Things have changed in the 18 months since we first checked out RISC OS on Pi, but it’s either not enough or it’s just never going to go in the direction of Raspbian. It’s definitely interesting, though, so if you have a few hours to play with it then we recommend giving it a shot.

Overall

4/10

RISC OS is a very different operating system to the others on this test, which isn’t a bad thing but it is not conducive to education

Arch Linux ARM

For the ultimate in resource-light, custom-built operating systems, nothing beats an Arch setup – that is, if you know how to set it up. The barrier to entry is steep with Arch, but if you’re looking to really learn the inner workings of Linux systems then few others will give you quite the same opportunity.

Arch on Pi now includes some better desktop options
Arch on Pi now includes some better desktop options

For just about as long as there’s been a Raspbian distro on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s site there’s also been an Arch alternative for those a little more adventurous in their choice of operating system. Whereas Raspbian gets you going straight away with an excellent selection of apps, Arch provides users with a command-line interface and only a bare smattering of extra packages over the Linux kernel to make it work.

Arch has the bare essentials available to be built upon for a perfectly customised distro. To that end, this version comes with the pacman command line package manager to help you install any available software from the repository including desktops, media players and others. It enables you to have no bloat on the system and the correct setup will always be faster than a modified Raspbian for a lot of projects or applications.

As for Ras Pi-specific functions, it does quite well in this regard too. The Pi camera board is supported and so are the GPIO pins – the latter allowing access to a huge number of Pi accessories, including Adafruit screens and sensors and other physical devices. Some of it can be trickier to use, as you can’t rely on pre- built Raspbian software, but it is doable with some of the more complex additions.

For normal users, though, it can be quite terrifying. All knowledge is assumed and, while you can easily find some quick tutorials to get started, it can be quite daunting. Even adding the Pi camera software takes a lot more effort than enabling it in the config menu. It does offer a unique opportunity to learn the intricacies of Linux, at least – which does keep in line with the Raspberry Pi education ethos – but there are a lot of one-off commands that might get lost in the process of getting it from zero to desktop.

For extremely custom projects you may well be better off using Arch over Raspbian. However, for a lot of users there won’t be much of a difference in performance.

Overall

7/10

Arch is excellent in its own way but it’s definitely not for everyone and really not the best distro for something like the Raspberry Pi

Raspbian

The Pi community’s distro of choice (with a little help from the Raspberry Pi Foundation), Raspbian is popular for a reason. We cast a critical eye over this Debian-based OS to see just what the real advantages and disadvantages are with this distro, and whether it still stands up against the challengers.

The classic Raspberry Pi operating system
The classic Raspberry Pi operating system

There’s no secret as to why Raspbian is the recommended Raspberry Pi distro: it’s obviously an easy-to-use distro that can be set up relatively quickly. Thanks to the support of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it gets a lot more development and attention from the community than any other distro for the Raspberry Pi.

The Debian base of the distro is in no small part responsible for this. It’s easy to maintain, and if you ever need to delve into the terminal then the commands are simple and quick enough to use. There are also plenty of software choices through the repositories, which include the majority of the apps you’d use on your main computer; whether or not they’re useable on the limited resources of the Pi is another matter.

The major advantage of Raspbian over the other distros is the selection of educational and teaching material included on the distro. From simple software such as Scratch and Sonic Pi that teach coding fundamentals through to a full-on OCR computing course, there are a lot of apps on here that you don’t get anywhere else. It also supports all the recommended overclocking limits, the Raspberry Pi camera and any future official hardware add-ons as well.

A benefit of using Raspbian is that a lot of tutorials, projects and third-party hardware run off or are based on it as a standard. It makes it easier to learn coding if that’s your goal, or even to replicate these projects if you’re not particularly confident in your skills.

Otherwise the distro is quite fast and light. The browser was recently updated to a custom piece of Epiphany-based software that is noticeably faster than the previous Midori effort (see page 84). Raspian’s other custom pieces of software are great at improving its performance but are unique to Raspbian, such as the command line OXM player for playing video and audio.

It is essentially the default Linux distribution and this status has given Raspbian a lot of advantages over everything else while still being as flexible as Linux can be.

Overall

9/10

It’s an excellent distro which is designed around all the Raspberry Pi’s strengths

And the winner is…

Raspbian

Pidora’s strong performance raised an interesting point about these operating systems, and that’s the degree to which they’re supported by the Pi community. Having won the lead a few years ago, Raspbian has since enjoyed not only the full support of the Raspberry Pi Foundation but also the benefits of documentation – the majority of the tutorials you’ll have found for the Pi use Raspbian and, because of this, its leading position has only become stronger.

However, looking at Pidora 2014 on its own merits and ignoring the Raspbian bias, it does have some key useability advantages over Raspbian. Not quite enough to make it better, but enough to make us think that this is going to be a real contender in the future.

An honourable mention goes to RISC OS, not only for its preservation of a classic OS enjoyed by many Linux users a few decades ago, but also for providing a completely different kind of desktop experience and helping young Pi enthusiasts discover more about the history of computing. It isn’t, unfortunately, going to become our go-to Pi distro, but it’s certainly good fun.

As for Arch, whether or not you choose to use this distro will really come down to your previous experience with it on Linux systems. If you know what you’re doing – or are prepared to dedicate a substantial number of hours to learning
how – then Arch can be the best choice for big, ambitious projects. The absolute control you have over the way you build Arch empowers you to really push your Pi with highly custom setups.

So for now we recommend that you stick to using Raspbian, while keeping a weather eye open for Pidora. If you’re looking for a challenge, it’s time to start learning Arch.

  • Tell a Friend
  • Follow our Twitter to find out about all the latest Linux news, reviews, previews, interviews, features and a whole more.
    • 9pi – plan9 on Raspberry Pi.

      very different but cool and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity (more “unix” than unix).

    • Christopher Markieta

      I didn’t see your rating for Pidora, I guess that means 15/10? :)

    • sggodsell

      Instead of pidora, you can now run full Fedora 21 on the PI 2 instead. Which is better then pidora.