At just $40 for the main version (and a lot less for the Pi Zero), there’s no point arguing with the Raspberry Pi. Versatile in a way its competitors are not, most projects and uses can be achieved with Raspbian, the Debian Linux fork. Raspbian is maintained by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so you can be confident that it offers the best functionality.
But you don’t have to stick with Raspbian. 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!
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, PiDora, and ArchLinux (all available via the NOOBS installer), to Linutop and PiBang. In the middle, you’ll find Ubuntu MATE (which runs really well, as shown in our setup guide. Also consider the educational Kano OS, which is available for all Pi computers, not just the ones sold by Kano.
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.
2. Raspberry Pi Media Centers
Such a purpose might be a media center. Raspberry Pi users have a big selection available. Although these 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.
Several options are available, all offering Kodi:
- OpenELEC — versions are available for all consumer models of the Raspberry Pi.
- OSMC — compatible with the Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3 and Zero, with regular updates.
- LibreELEC — offers an SD card creation tool for Raspberry Pi 2 and 3 users.
You can download these individually, or as options in the NOOBS installer. For the best results, run Kodi with a VPN.
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 !Store.
You can install RISC OS using the NOOBS installer tool, linked to above.
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 Suites
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.
Two are available, RetroPie and RecalBox.
RecalBox — similar to RetroPie, Recalbox offers support for some later systems that RetroPie does not. For instance, v4.1 can run some Dreamcast games with Reicast. It’s arguably easier to setup and use, too.
Remember: when using an emulator, you will need boot and game ROMs. To use these legally, you should have previously purchased the original systems and the games.
This 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 into windows. 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!
Head to the FreeBSD wiki to find out more, and download a copy.
7. Chromium OS
The same source for Chrome OS, Chromium OS can be installed on netbooks and laptops. Oh, and the Raspberry Pi, too. 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 you own Chromebook with a Raspberry Pi! This project is in continuous development, so note new features might be introduced (or removed) compared to the video above.
Several Chromium OS-based projects for the Pi are in progress. Perhaps the most polished is Flint OS.
8. Windows 10 IoT Core
There has been a lot of talk — and confusion — about Windows 10 IoT Core for the Raspberry Pi. In short, it isn’t Windows as you know and (perhaps) love 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 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 this is all a bit of a developmental cul-de-sac. While useful for a specific set of tasks, Windows 10 IoT Core isn’t a Linux replacement for the Raspberry Pi. Get Windows 10 IoT Core direct from Microsoft.
Amazingly, it’s also possible to run Android on a Raspberry Pi. Actually, 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 AndroidPi 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.
What’s Your Favorite?
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.
Which is your favorite? Which OS do you enjoy using the most on your Raspberry Pi? Tell us in the comments!