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Your Raspberry Pi isn’t like a standard PC. Sure, it can act as a desktop replacement, but generally speaking, it’s a more versatile device.
One of the trade-offs is that it doesn’t have massive resources. Take a look at Raspbian Stretch and compare it with Debian Stretch — there’s definitely a difference. Raspbian is more compact, with some features missing… it’s lightweight, and for good reason.
Many features usually found in Linux desktops aren’t required on a Raspberry Pi. By keeping the operating system (OS) lightweight, processing power and RAM can be dedicated to whatever project you plan to run.
But what if you need even more power? Well, you switch to an even lighter OS. Several versions of Linux and other operating systems have been developed for the Pi with a minimalist philosophy.
The most obvious choice for anyone looking for a lightweight Raspberry Pi distribution (“distro”) is Raspbian Stretch Lite. Offering the same underlying Debian base operating system, Raspbian Stretch Lite is a minimal image without the X-server window manager, related components, and other modules.
Overall, there’s less software on it, fewer modules, and the operating system uses fewer resources. The main result of this is that it uses fewer resources, which reduces battery use. While Raspbian Stretch is a 4GB image, Raspbian Stretch Lite is just 1.2GB.
As a result, this “lite” distribution is “headless” (i.e. it has no desktop) and ideal for server use. You’ll see some performance gains, particularly if if you use the Pi as a file server or any other headless task
Another lightweight Raspberry Pi distro that has its roots in Debian (this time Debian Jessie), DietPi is available for several single-board computers (such as the Raspberry Pi and its competitors), but primarily is for Raspberry Pi. DietPi is based on a compact 589MB version of Debian, and comes with a software tool for installing optimized apps.
This great chart compares DietPi with Raspbian Jessie Lite, illustrating everything from image size to system response times. Whereas Raspbian Jessie Lite (and the later Stretch Lite) requires a minimum 2 GB microSD card, Diet Pi can fit on a 1 GB card. Obviously bigger cards offer more storage, but with such a lightweight OS, that storage can be maximized for your project.
Optimized apps for the DietPi OS include desktops, remote desktop tools, media systems, gaming tools and servers, cloud servers, file servers, web servers, and much more.
You’ve probably heard of Tiny Core Linux, as it regularly appears on lists of the most compact Linux distributions. Incredibly lightweight, Tiny Core Linux’s Raspberry Pi version, piCore, has a remarkably small download. It’s just under 35MB.
It boots fast, too!
With the ultimate minimalist operating system philosophy, piCore is fast and flexible, but comes almost devoid of software. Instead, you’ll need to download and install your own web browser, email client, text editor, and other apps.
Fast and stable, piCore comes with internet connectivity and even manages to squeeze a traditional desktop into the compact package. Without the desktop, piCore will use even fewer resources!
Looking for a raw and dirty Linux operating system you can customize to any purpose? Look no further than Crux-ARM, the ARM version of the standard Crux 32-bit operating system based on Linux. The download file is a compact 81MB, but the finished footprint will depend on how you configure the OS.
Due to the complexities of Crux, some experience using Linux is required. One key shortcoming is that Crux-ARM is more complicated to install than most Raspberry Pi operating systems (usually it’s quite simple). However, you’ll still find a compact Linux OS ready to use with whatever project you’re planning.
Arch is probably the most popular alternative to Raspbian for Raspberry Pi users, and with good reason. An ARM-focused version of the 32-bit Arch Linux, it has all of the features and functionality of a Raspberry Pi board under Raspbian.
Manual installation is available, but a streamlined alternative is available with the NOOBs installer.
The end result is a lightweight Raspberry Pi distro complete with the Xfce desktop. It’s fast, efficient, and ideal for the various Raspberry Pi projects you might want to run. Full access to the GPIO is also available with Arch Linux, making it a great, lightweight Raspberry Pi operating system.
6. RISC OS
This is a lightweight, non-Linux operating system that you can run on the Raspberry Pi. The original ARM-based operating system, RISC OS dates back to the 1980s, but is still useful. Available for several devices, RISC OS has a compact footprint. On the Pi, you’ll need just 119MB of space on your microSD card, although a 2GB card will be needed.
If you have never previously used Linux, you’ll need to learn a few new commands. The GUI can be a little challenging at first, as there is no “start” button or dock. Instead, applications are grouped in desktop folders, and prefixed with “!” Meanwhile, make sure you’re using RISC OS with a three buttoned mouse (a clickable wheel will suffice as a middle button).
Like Arch Linux, RISC OS can be installed via NOOBs. See our walkthrough on installing RISC OS on the Raspberry Pi to find out more.
Which Lightweight OS Is on Your Pi?
With so many lightweight distros available for the Raspberry Pi, you shouldn’t have any difficulty running your projects with the maximum system resources. To recap, the lightest Raspberry Pi operating systems are:
- Raspbian Stretch Lite
- piCore/Tiny Core Linux
- RISC OS
Note: A few others were uncovered while researching this article. Most notable was Daylight Linux, but sadly the download page did not work.
Have you tried any of these out? For the lightest experience, you should take a look at piCore or Arch.
However, if you want something lightweight, but recognizably part of the Raspberry Pi experience, try Raspbian Stretch Lite. You might also consider installing Android on Raspberry Pi. For a Windows-like experience, set up Raspberry Pi as a Windows thin client.
And to get more out of your Pi device, consider buying a few of these top Raspberry Pi accessories.