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Fancy a $30 computer but not sure you want to take the risk? You’re not a cheapskate, you’re just being wise. And getting a good preview look at what you’re going to buy is pretty simple. Rather than buy a Raspberry Pi and be disappointed, why not try the QEMU emulator to get a feel for it first?

What Is QEMU?

You’ve probably heard of emulation. It essentially enables us to run software on systems where it would otherwise be incompatible. Windows itself has emulation built in, in the form of compatibility mode.


Virtual machines are the default option these days for anyone wanting to try out a new operating system without upsetting their delicate digital life. VMware and VirtualBox are often recommended to anyone wanting to try Linux for the first time (our VirtualBox guide How To Use VirtualBox: User's Guide How To Use VirtualBox: User's Guide Learn to use VirtualBox. Get virtual computers up and running inside your computer, without having to buy any new hardware. Read More is particularly useful), for instance, or with a desire to access an older version of Windows. It’s even possible to run some older versions of Mac OS X in a virtual machine.

What virtual machines like VMware Player Run Multiple Operating Systems At Once With VMware Player Run Multiple Operating Systems At Once With VMware Player We’ve lavished attention on VirtualBox here at MakeUseOf, and for good reason. However, VirtualBox isn’t your only option for creating and using free virtual machines. VMware Player, VMware’s free product, is every bit as good... Read More and VirtualBox have in common is that they create a virtualized hardware environment based on the 32-bit and 64-bit architecture What Is 64-bit Computing? What Is 64-bit Computing? The packaging of a computer or computer hardware is crowded with technical terms and badges. One of the more prominent ones is 64-bit. Read More . While this makes them ideal for other forms of OS emulation/virtualization, it means that any operating system that runs on ARM chipsets cannot be installed and tested.

This is where QEMU comes in. Because Quick EMUlator emulates ARM chipsets – such as that found in the Raspberry Pi – we can use it to create a virtualized Pi on our PC.


Manual Setup vs Packaged

We have a couple of options open to us if we want to use QEMU. The first is by far away the easiest, and requires us to download this single QEMU package, which features everything we need to launch Raspbian in Windows.

If you fancy getting your fingers dirty, however, and have no qualms about digging out older versions of Raspbian (as you probably know, the latest version of Raspbian is Jessie 5 Ways New Raspbian Jessie Makes Raspberry Pi Even Easier to Use 5 Ways New Raspbian Jessie Makes Raspberry Pi Even Easier to Use Following the release of Debian Jessie in July, the Raspberry Pi community has been blessed with a new release of the Raspbian variant, based on the "parent" distro. Read More ), you might take a look at this guide, which shows you how to configure QEMU manually for emulation of Raspbian Wheezy (this solution also requires the ARM build of the Linux kernel). Note that this is a long, drawn out, error-prone method, and features several changes to configuration files. If this is your cup of tea, carry on!

Using the QEMU Raspbian Package

For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to use the QEMU Raspbian package from Sourceforge, which you will find at Once downloaded, unzip to your HDD – perhaps to C:/QEMU – and open. Inside the qemu subfolder, you’ll find three files.

Double-click run.bat to get started. A virtualized Raspberry Pi will appear, with Raspbian Wheezy booting up. This may take a while to complete, but should go pretty much as illustrated in this video.

Once complete, Raspbian will boot straight into raspi-config Optimize The Power Of Your Raspberry Pi With Raspbian Optimize The Power Of Your Raspberry Pi With Raspbian As befits a man with too much tech on his hands, I’ve been playing with my Raspberry Pi recently, configuring the device so that it works to its fullest potential. It continues to run as... Read More , a configuration tool for the Raspberry Pi. It isn’t advisable to go over the top with the options on offer here, as this can lead to stability problems. In particular, avoid using the update option or using any of the usual Raspberry Pi update or upgrade instructions where possible.

Note that this configuration tool can be relaunched at any point from a command prompt using

sudo raspi-config

When you’re done, use the arrow keys to select Finish, then tap Enter. From here, you’ll be sent to the command line, where you can either try out some basic Linux commands (try ls to list the items in the current directory, for instance) or enter startx to launch the GUI.


Now you’re in control of the Raspbian desktop interface, where you’ll be able to gain familiarity with the various tools that come packaged with the Pi’s favored operating system, such as the basic building-block development tool for children, Scratch.

It’s time to have a play!

Emulation vs Buying a Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi’s are extremely affordable, so why would anyone want to spend their time using an emulator?

Well, several reasons spring to mind. First, using QEMU to run a virtualized Raspberry Pi environment lets you try out Raspbian without all of the messing around that is involved with writing a disk image to SD How To Install An Operating System To Your Raspberry Pi How To Install An Operating System To Your Raspberry Pi Here's how to get a new OS installed and running on your Pi – and how to clone your perfect setup for quick disaster recovery. Read More . While NOOBs is a better approach How NOOBS For Raspberry Pi Can Help First Time Users How NOOBS For Raspberry Pi Can Help First Time Users There is something about the Raspberry Pi that might just put people off: until now, setting it up has not been particularly user friendly. NOOBS aims to change that! Read More , neither is a fast setup, so virtualization gives anyone wanting to dip a toe in the pie, as it were, a quick chance to do so.


Second, a virtual Raspberry Pi offers the chance to gauge how the various apps will run, as well as enable debugging and troubleshooting on your standard PC. This might be useful to children using Scratch or other development tools. Making screenshots on the Raspberry Pi is simple enough, but exporting them can be tricky – virtualization circumvents that. It’s also good practice to test a new operating system in a virtualized environment Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Read More .

Finally, why do we do anything on a computer? Raspberry Pi fans love to play, and tinker, and this is just another way of looking at things. It may not feature a physical computer, but it can be a time saver, and a bit of a game changer in some scenarios. If you’re a Raspberry Pi owner, it’s certainly worth having access to QEMU – you never know when you might need a virtual Raspberry Pi running.

Have you tried a virtualized Raspberry Pi with QEMU? Did you run into any trouble with it? Tell us in the comments.

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