Raspbian Jessie is a great operating system for the Raspberry Pi, but if you want a more traditional Linux computing experience, you might be looking for a different OS.
Many operating systems are available for the Raspberry Pi, among them Ubuntu. But surely that’s a desktop operating system? Well, yes, and no.
In fact, Ubuntu is a desktop OS as well as a server OS. And both variants can be run on a Raspberry Pi 2 or 3. Several paths to installation on your Raspberry Pi’s SD card are available, and we’re going to take a look at each below.
Meet Ubuntu MATE
For Ubuntu to run on the Raspberry Pi as an alternative to Raspbian, you’ll need to use the dedicated Ubuntu MATE version from ubuntu-mate.org/raspberry-pi/. As you’ve already guessed, this is a version of Ubuntu with the MATE desktop environment, built for the Raspberry Pi.
In the desktop computing world, alternatives to MATE are available (such as GNOME 2.0). However, the MATE environment is low enough on system resources to run comfortably on the Raspberry Pi.
Buy a New SD Card
The first thing you will need to do is get hold of a microSD card suitable for running Ubuntu MATE. This should be a Class 6 or Class 10 microSDHC, at least 6 GB in capacity. A good quality SD card is required for speed and data correction purposes.
With the card ready, it should be inserted into your desktop computer or laptop, awaiting a copy of Ubuntu MATE.
Ubuntu MATE Download
Once you’re ready, it’s time to download Ubuntu MATE and write the disk image to your microSD card. You’ll find the Ubuntu MATE 16.04.2 LTS version at ubuntu-mate.org/download/ has a Raspberry Pi 2 and 3 option, so use this. You’ll find options to download directly, or via BitTorrent (contrary to popular myth, BitTorrent is quite legal).
Once downloaded, you’ll need to decompress the data and write the disk image to your microSD card. You might even leave a tip.
How to Write Ubuntu MATE to microSD
Different options are available for writing a disk image to a microSD card. It depends on what operating system you’re using. If you’re using Windows, for instance, then the Win32DiskImager tool is ideal. We previously covered using this for installing a Raspberry Pi operating system.
If you’re using Linux or macOS, you’ll need to use the dd command. Linux users can also try the gddrescue utility, which introduces the ddrescue command. Install in the usual way, along with xz-utils (line 1), then uncompress (line 2) and write to the microSD card (line 3):
sudo apt-get install gddrescue xz-utils unxz ubuntu-mate-16.04.2-desktop-armhf-raspberry-pi.img.xz sudo ddrescue -D --force ubuntu-mate-16.04.2-desktop-armhf-raspberry-pi.img /dev/[sdx]
You’ll need to use the lsblk command to check the mounted location of the microSD card. It will typically be sda or sdb.
Our look at managing SD cards in Linux explains more about the dd command. Meanwhile, Linux users preferring a graphical tool should consider GNOME Disks. Install this with:
sudo apt-get install gnome-disk-utility
Whichever method you use, wait for the image to be written to the microSD card, and end the program. Then safely eject the card and insert it into your Raspberry Pi.
Booting Ubuntu MATE for the First Time
To save time in setting up wireless networking, connect the Pi to a display. This might be your TV (via HDMI or RGB) or perhaps an official Raspberry Pi touchscreen display. Have a mouse or keyboard handy too at this stage.
Then, boot up and run through the usual Ubuntu setup, flavored with MATE. You’ll need to configure the regional settings and configure your username and password, for instance.
At this stage, you’re done. Ubuntu MATE is ready to use as your Raspberry Pi’s operating system. And if you need to tweak anything, the Raspberry Pi Configuration Tool is still available via the command line!
Ubuntu Server for Raspberry Pi 2 and 3
Running a desktop operating system is one thing. But what about a server for the Raspberry Pi?
Distinct versions are available for the Raspberry Pi 2 and for the Raspberry Pi 3 — note that only the Pi 2 image is official and supported by Canonical.
You can install these to microSD card as per the instructions for Ubuntu MATE, above. Once you’ve done this, you should boot the Pi, and make some customizations.
Most of these are available via an unofficial PPA, and include:
- libraspberrypi-bin — A collection of VideoCore utilities, such as raspistill.
- libraspberrypi-bin-nonfree — Non-open source VideoCore utilities.
- xserver-xorg-video-fbturbo — Accelerated x.org video driver, limited to window moving/scrolling.
Install the PPA with:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntu-raspi2/ppa sudo apt-get update
As this is a server OS, you’ll need to connect via SSH to install these or any other applications.
Need a Desktop? Try This
Not happy with command line-only access? You need a desktop! Fortunately, some desktop options are available for Ubuntu Server on the Raspberry Pi. Try installing xubuntu-desktop, lubuntu-desktop, or kubuntu-desktop as a new desktop. For example, for Xubuntu, use:
sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop
Note that Kubuntu will run slow until you disable Desktop Effects in System Settings. Otherwise, these are the only three desktops currently available that are suitable for the Raspberry Pi. Unity and Ubuntu-GNOME will not run on the Raspberry Pi (likely due to the need for 3D compositing).
Ubuntu on the Raspberry Pi: Try It!
Who knew how easy it was to run Ubuntu on the Raspberry Pi? Best of all, you have two options, desktop and server, that can be easily installed. Have you tried Ubuntu MATE on your Raspberry Pi? Perhaps you opted to use Ubuntu Server?
Whatever your experience of Ubuntu on the Raspberry Pi, we want to hear from you. Tell us about it in the comments.
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