Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.
The Raspberry Pi has so many strengths. It’s flexible, suitable for acting as a desktop computer just as easily as it can capture stop motion video. The Pi’s versatility and portability transcends pretty much any small form computer, thanks to an imaginative user base, and great support from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
But it does have one weakness. Relying on the SD card means that the Pi is locked to a certain configuration. This can prove problematic if you’re working on, say, a camera project and want to switch to a Bluetooth speaker.
Usually, you have two options here: you can back up the OS, reformat the SD card, and write a fresh new version, or just buy a new SD card. The problem here, of course, is keeping an index of what is on which card, not to mention the cost of buying new cards.
A third option is available, but it’s usually overlooked: installing multiple operating systems on your Pi. Let’s look at how that works.
1. Multiple Pi Operating Systems with NOOBS
Perhaps the most widely-used tool for anyone wanting to install more than one operating system on a Raspberry Pi, NOOBS is available free from the Raspberry Pi website.
Ostensibly an installation tool, NOOBS can be used to simply install one or more operating systems on your Raspberry Pi SD card. The official limit of the Raspberry Pi 3’s microSD card support is 32 GB, so there should be plenty of space here for multiple OSs to be installed and booted.
To use NOOBS, all you need to do is download the installer, unzip the contents, and copy them to your SD card. You can then insert the card in your Raspberry Pi, boot up, and use the NOOBS menu to select one or more operating systems to be installed. Several operating systems are available, from the standard Raspbian to media center options like OpenElec. You have a choice of two NOOBS versions: an online installer that download the OSs you choose, and an offline installer with all of the operating systems pre-loaded for you to select from.
Our guide to installing Raspberry Pi operating systems with NOOBS will illustrate this in more detail.
When you’re done, each time you boot the Pi you can choose which OS you want to run. It’s a really simple way to run multiple operating systems on your Raspberry Pi, and is the best place to start.
2. Multi-boot Your Raspberry Pi with BerryBoot
Before NOOBS there was BerryBoot. It’s a bootloader, as opposed to an installer. This slight difference means that it is optimized to run multiple operating systems.
Like NOOBS, BerryBoot requires you to download a file, unzip, and copy the contents to a formatted SD card. Unlike NOOBS, however, BerryBoot has no offline installer. You’ll need to ensure your Raspberry Pi is connected to the internet to download your preferred operating systems.
From this point on, you’ll need to configure the BerryBoot installation. BerryBoot supports installation to SD card, USB devices, and even network drives. Our BerryBoot tutorial will guide you through the required steps.
Once you’re done, you’ll have a multiboot Raspberry Pi, restricted only by the size of your SD card.
3. Run Multiple Operating Systems on Your Pi with a HDD
We already know that the maximum microSD card storage space on a Pi is 32 GB. What if you need more space? Fortunately, there is no such limit for USB disks. Several such HDDs are available, but we’re particularly impressed by Western Digital’s PiDrive.
Shipping with a 4 GB microSD card, the WDLabs PiDrive is compatible with a Raspberry Pi 2, 3, or even a Pi Zero. Note that you’ll need a USB hub for additional devices on the Pi Zero. A dedicated cable is also included, designed to provide enough power to the Pi, the PiDrive, and any connected peripherals. You’ll need to provide your own mains adaptor and cable, however.
We’ve tried out the PiDrive, and the results are impressive. On the included microSD card you’ll find a customized version of NOOBS. You can use this to install your preferred OS, including the option to install various Raspbian Lite partitions.
Using the PiDrive requires a display, keyboard and mouse for initial setup, but once this is done and you’ve got the PiDrive online, it makes a great solution. It’s purposely designed to let you to run multiple Pi operating systems, each for a different task or project. No more SD card formatting — simply boot an OS from the HDD!
Uses for this device might go beyond maintaining various Pi images. The vast 375 GB of storage make it ideal for retro video game emulation projects, photographic projects and anything else you can think of requiring such large data capacity.
Multiboot – the Future of Raspberry Pi Computing!
The days of having to repeatedly reformat your Raspberry Pi’s SD card to start a new project are now over. All you need is a multiple boot tool!
While NOOBS and BerryBoot are particularly useful and make good use out of your existing SD card, the Western Digital USB HDD solution is probably our favorite. It’s one of the top accessories to buy to get more out of your Raspberry Pi.
How many Raspberry Pi operating systems do you use concurrently? Do you prefer to multiboot or use multiple SD cards? Tell us in the comments.