DIY Linux

Upgrade Raspberry Pi’s Raspbian OS With the PIXEL Desktop Environment

Christian Cawley 20-10-2016

Since its release in 2012, the Raspberry Pi’s Raspbian operating system has had a few revisions, but the desktop environment had remained largely the same. Pixel changes that.


Raspbian Pixel Desktop

Available for Raspbian Jessie 5 Ways New Raspbian Jessie Makes Raspberry Pi Even Easier to Use Following the release of Debian Jessie in July, the Raspberry Pi community has been blessed with a new release of the Raspbian variant, based on the "parent" distro. Read More , PIXEL (Pi Improved XWindows Environment, Lightweight) brings a stylish new desktop experience to the Raspberry Pi, and is the handiwork of Simon Long. We think you’ll agree that he’s done a great job of bringing a polished user interface to the Pi desktop.

Installing PIXEL

To get started, you’ll need a Raspberry Pi. Any version, from the Raspberry Pi 1 through to the Raspberry Pi 3 How to Upgrade to a Raspberry Pi 3 Upgrading from an older Pi to the new Pi 3 is almost as simple as swapping out the microSD card. Almost - but not quite. Here's what you'll need to do first. Read More , including the Raspberry Pi Zero, can run Raspbian Jessie with the PIXEL desktop. In the development of this post, we’ve installed it on the Raspberry Pi Model B+ The Raspberry Pi B+ Is Here. What's Changed? Read More .

If you want to use the PIXEL desktop for the Raspbian Jessie, you have two options.

The first is to upgrade your current system. If you’re already running Raspbian Jessie, you can open a terminal window (or logout to the command line) and enter:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install -y rpi-chromium-mods
sudo apt-get install -y python-sense-emu python3-sense-emu

The upgrade process is quite slow, so you’ll have time to make a hot drink, even on fast cable internet connections. Note that you may receive notification of installation of the Plymouth theme — just tap Q to exit and continue the installation.

Raspbian Pixel Upgrade

Once this is done, restart your Raspberry Pi:

sudo reboot

Raspbian will be upgraded with the new desktop environment when you restart.


Meanwhile, if you would rather start from scratch, you can download the Raspbian Jessie + PIXEL image from the Raspberry Pi website. You can then write this to SD card in the usual way How to Install an Operating System on a Raspberry Pi Here's how to install an OS on your Raspberry Pi and how to clone your perfect setup for quick disaster recovery. Read More . At this point you might use the Pi Bakery tool Configure Your Raspberry Pi Installation With PiBakery What if you could configure Raspbian before you booted your Raspberry Pi? Wouldn't it be great to have the wireless network set up so it works right out of the box? Here's how. Read More  to configure aspects of your setup.

Remote Desktop With PIXEL

Along with the new desktop environment for Raspbian, Pixel’s arrival heralds the addition of some new software and features. Depending upon how you use your Pi, one of the most interesting additions might be RealVNC support. This is included to enable you to remote connect to another system from your Raspberry Pi. To install this, use:

sudo apt-get install -y python-sense-emu-doc realvnc-vnc-viewer

Note that any existing xrdp installation will not run alongside with RealVNC, so either ignore the above step, or first remove xrdp from Raspbian.

Use our previous guide to remotely control your Raspberry Pi VNC, SSH and HDMI: Three Options for Viewing Your Raspberry Pi The Raspberry Pi is a remarkable little computer, but it can be time consuming to set it up and connect it to your monitor. Read More from your main PC.


What’s New With PIXEL?

The first thing you’ll see when booting your upgraded Raspberry Pi is a splash screen. This replaces the majority of the code lines you previously saw when booting, and is a lot prettier. You’ll also notice the addition of a version number in the bottom right corner, which should help users spot easily which version of Raspbian they’re running.

What else should you look out for?

Login Screen Options

If you log in manually when booting (as opposed to booting straight to the desktop) you’ll spot a new greeter login box, along with the selected desktop background.

Raspbian Pixel Appearance


Stunning Desktop Backgrounds

Kiss goodbye to the boring old Rasbpian desktop backgrounds. PIXEL delivers a collection of 16 background options, which can be found in the /usr/share/pixel-wallpaper/ directory. These have been snapped by the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Greg Annandale, and are utterly sumptuous. New wallpapers can be set in Preferences > Appearance Settings, where you can also reposition the menu bar.

Refreshed Icons

The PIXEL desktop environment brings a collection of revised icons to Raspbian, delivering an entirely new flavor to the Raspberry Pi. Meanwhile, application menus are cleaner, and more readable. All in all, things are just more polished… more suited to a modern operating system.

Raspbian Pixel Curved Window


Whether you’re browsing a directory or running an app, the window system has been improved to reflect modern design standards. The border is thinner, and the corners have a curve. While the design clearly takes a few cues from Mac OS and Windows, it doesn’t try to mimic their current styles.


While Raspbian Jessie has used the Roboto font for a while now, PIXEL brings with it the Infinality font rendering software. The job of this tool is to improve how fonts look when mapped to pixels. Although a subtle effect, it plays a useful role in the overall “redecoration” of Raspbian.

New Apps and Utilities in Raspbian + PIXEL

A number of applications and features can be found in this new update.

For instance, wireless networking and Bluetooth can now be completely disabled via a new menu option. If you’re running a Raspberry Pi 3 on battery power, this will prove very useful for extending battery life.

Another feature to look for is the SenseHAT emulator, which will prove vital for any application development that features a SenseHAT that you don’t yet own.

Raspbian Pixel MakeUseOf

Perhaps the most important inclusion in this new update, however, is Chromium. Bring a better web browsing experience, Chromium for Pi runs better on the Pi 2 and Pi 3 than on the Pi 1 and Pi Zero Raspberry Pi Launches $5 Model Zero: Here's How It Compares The Raspberry Pi foundation just announced the Raspberry Pi Zero: it's essentially a cut-down Raspberry Pi, with a price tag to match: each one costs $5. That isn’t a typo. Read More , although Epiphany remains available should you need it. Chromium comes with an adblocker, but most importantly, there’s a useful extension, h264ify, which forces YouTube to serve videos that the Pi’s hardware can playback.

But Should You Upgrade?

It all sounds like a very nice collection of tweaks, improvements, ands apps. But should you upgrade to Raspbian + PIXEL, or remain with your existing Raspbian installation? Perhaps now is the time to consider one of the many alternative OSes for the Raspberry Pi Not Just Raspbian: 10 Linux Distros Your Pi Can Run You're presumably running the latest version of Raspbian on your Raspberry Pi. But is it the best Linux distro for the device? Could there be an alternative that you might find suits you better? Read More ?

Raspbian Pixel Desktop Again

Well, perhaps it is. But if you’re going to experiment, at least take a look at what PIXEL brings to Raspbian first. You might love it. If you don’t, the Raspbian Jessie Lite distro remains available, enabling you to use Raspbian without PIXEL.

But as PIXEL doesn’t deliver any performance degradation, it would be crazy not to upgrade for good.

Have you tried Raspbian + PIXEL? Did you enjoy what it brought to the Raspberry Pi experience? Would you like to see the desktop environment added to other distros? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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  1. Howard
    November 17, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Using Pixel desktop already (downloaded from Raspbian website). After "apt-get -y update && apt-get -y upgrade", pixel-wallpapers disappeared. How to restore?

  2. J.ST
    January 8, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    The update worked very well. Then you have to update the system by his own. Omxplayer has to be installed. The Ch-Browser works well but Youtube sometimes flickers. This depends although on the resolution as well as the screen size. When I expand it to full size it wont work. When you try different resolutions, its possible, that the ch-browser freez/system.

  3. Ex-IBM
    October 25, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    Cannot get the header (or footer if you change the location) menu bar to display. Also, when I attempt to configure WiFi I get the following message: "Invalid desktop entry file..."

    • Christian Cawley
      October 26, 2016 at 6:47 am

      Did you update or was this a fresh Jessie + PIXEL install?