Costing just $40, the Raspberry Pi is cheap, versatile, and relatively powerful in a way its competitors are not. While most projects can be achieved with Raspbian, the Debian Linux fork, it isn’t the only option.
So many other operating systems can run on a Raspberry Pi. Just make sure you’ve got a monitor, mouse and keyboard to hand before you boot it up, and a fast microSD card to run your operating system of choice.
1. ARM-Based Linux Operating Systems
Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s estimated that there are over 80 Linux-based distributions for the Raspberry Pi. These range from Raspbian to Linutop and even PiBang.
While Raspbian is the default option (and recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation), you might prefer Ubuntu MATE. To get away from the Debian-based distros, there’s a choice of Pidora (a Fedora-based distribution), and Arch Linux ARM.
Then there’s Kali Linux for pen testing, and a whole host of operating system images intended for the Pi, covering so many different purposes.
For youngsters, Kano OS is an education distro that is available for all Pi computers, not just those sold by Kano.
Note that several operating systems (including Raspbian and Ubuntu MATE) are available via the NOOBS installer.
2. Raspberry Pi Media Centers
If you want to use your Raspberry Pi as a media center there is a good selection available. Although these operating systems are invariably built on Raspbian/Debian, they’re also based on Kodi, the popular media center software. What you get with these systems is a disk image to install, just as you would any other Raspberry Pi operating system.
So, what’s available? Well, versions of OpenELEC are available for all consumer models of the Raspberry Pi.
Meanwhile, OSMC is compatible with the Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3 and Zero, with regular updates available via the dedicated admin screen. It’s also available as an option in NOOBS.
Finally, LibreELEC is also available, with the easiest installation thanks to an SD card creation tool for Raspberry Pi 2 and 3 users.
3. RISC OS Pi
The Cambridge-developed RISC OS was the first operating system for ARM processors, developed in the 1980s. It gained widespread use in the Acorn Archimedes, found in education institutions in the mid-1990s, eventually being replaced by Windows-based PCs.
However, RISC OS remains relevant and easy to setup.
For the best results, you’ll need a mouse with a clickable scroll wheel, as the RISC OS user interface requires a three-buttoned mouse. Once installed, you’ll find free applications in Packman, and commercial options in the Store app
You can install RISC OS using the NOOBS installer tool, linked to above, or download RISC OS for manual installation.
4. Plan 9
If you’re looking for an alternative to desktop operating systems, the UNIX-like Plan 9 might be the answer. This is a barebones open source OS, designed by the same team behind the original UNIX.
The microSD card image can be written in the usual way, and booting will take you almost immediately into the Plan 9 OS.
In truth, a purely command line user interface may be difficult to get to grips with. However, if you have UNIX experience or want to sample that sort of computing, Plan 9 is a good place to start.
5. Retro Gaming for Raspberry Pi
Back to Linux, and there are a pair of retro gaming operating systems that you can install on the Raspberry Pi. These tools—both running on Raspbian/Debian—enable you to launch game ROMs and emulators and feature slick user console-inspired interfaces that can be browsed with a game controller.
Several retro suites are available for you to choose from.
Prefer to steer clear of these? Other options are available.
Lakka is considered ” a lightweight Linux distribution that transforms a small computer into a full blown emulation console,” while the Pi Entertainment System (PES) is a collection of emulators based on Arch Linux.
PiPlay, meanwhile, is a compact alternative that squeezes emulation of 12 platforms plus ScummVM onto your Raspberry Pi.
Remember: when using an emulator, you will usually need boot and game ROMs. To use these legally, you should have previously purchased the original systems and the games.
For more details, check our guide for everything you need to know about retro gaming on the Raspberry Pi.
BSD is not Linux, but it looks like Linux and works in much the same way. Descended from Research Unix via the Berkeley Software Distribution (hence “BSD”), FreeBSD (or large chunks of its code) is one of the most widely used operating systems in the world.
You’ll find FreeBSD code in macOS, the Nintendo Switch, and Sony’s PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.
Running on a Raspberry Pi is largely a command line-focused experience, albeit one with the ability to launch applications and games. A surprisingly large collection of software is available for FreeBSD, so if you haven’t checked it out already, now is the time—on your Raspberry Pi!
For an alternative, consider NetBSD.
7. Chromium OS
Based on the same code as Chrome OS, Chromium OS can be installed on netbooks, laptops… and the Raspberry Pi. With Chromium OS installed, you’ll have access to the same cloud-based tools found on Chrome OS.
In fact, there’s a project right here: build your own Chromebook with a Raspberry Pi! This project is in continuous development, so new features might be introduced (or removed) compared to the video above.
8. Windows 10 IoT Core
Let’s be clear: Windows 10 IoT Core for Raspberry Pi is not Windows 10 as you know it. Rather, it is a rebadged version of Windows Embedded, and has no desktop environment. Its purpose—as evidenced by “IoT”—is as an Internet of Things OS.
This means that the Pi can be used for IoT development purposes, but for the best results you’ll need to connect remotely to the Windows 10 IoT Core device from a different PC.
From here, you can deploy software from Visual Studio to it. A Raspberry Pi under Windows 10 IoT Core will also run Python apps.
Note, however, that it’s a bit of a development cul-de-sac. While useful for a specific set of tasks, Windows 10 IoT Core isn’t a Linux replacement for the Raspberry Pi.
9. Android and Android Things
Amazingly, it’s also possible to run Android on a Raspberry Pi. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—Android seems to run on just about anything these days, from PCs to set-top boxes.
Various versions of Android are available for the Pi, with the current versions based on Android 7.0 Nougat. Some Android TV builds are also in development at the time of writing.
As you might expect, installing Android on your Raspberry Pi gives you access to the vast collection of Android apps and games. There may be some compatibility issues, but overall stability is good. You can find a copy of the most up-to-date version at the Android Pi Wiki.
10. AROS: AmigaOS Remake
One of the most popular operating systems of yesteryear, AmigaOS is a closed source project currently owned by Amiga, Inc, and licensed exclusively and perpetually to Hyperion Entertainment. Several clones have been developed over the years (most notably MorphOS), but only AROS is available for the Pi.
As you can see from the demo, some games and applications are available, and you should find the modern Amiga-like experience worthwhile. Download it from the AROS website.
Note that you can also emulate an Amiga on your PC, and use any of the applications and games from its vast library.
11. IchigoJam BASIC RPi
Finally, IchigoJam BASIC has been ported to the Raspberry Pi.
Designed for the low-power, sub-Raspberry Pi single board IchigoJam computer from Japan, IchigoJam BASIC RPi is designed for low level, basic computing.
The operating system was designed to make programming in the BASIC language easy, and has support for digital I/O, PWM, I2C, and UART functions.
If you’re looking for a language to get to grips with and you’re new to programming, try IchigoJam BASIC RPi.
So Many Raspberry Pi Operating Systems!
You can do almost anything with a Raspberry Pi, from running a low budget space program to streaming PC games.
While the hardware is good, the Pi’s success rests in the wide selection of operating systems available.
With Linux-based operating systems, the legendary RISC OS and AmigaOS, and even Windows 10 IoT Core, you would be hard pushed to find so many choices for any of the Raspberry Pi’s competitors.