Basics of installing an operating system to a Raspberry Pi

Installing an operating system to the Raspberry Pi
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Raspberry Pi

Out of the box, the Raspberry Pi comes without an operating system. Fortunately, there are various (mostly free) operating systems available to choose from. This post will show the basics of installing an operating system to a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a little computer that, like any other, needs software to tell it what to do. For computers, this is called the operating system (OS). For the Raspberry Pi, the operating system is installed and loaded from a MicroSD card placed into the onboard MicroSD card slot.

Raspberry Pi MicroSD card
The Raspberry Pi Model B’s onboard MicroSD card slot is situated on the back of the board.

Popular Linux based operating systems include Raspbian, Ubuntu Mate, OpenELEC / LibreELEC and RetroPie. Windows 10 IoT Core (which is a limited version of Windows 10) is also available for the Raspberry Pi.

Most of these Raspberry Pi operating systems are downloaded from the internet and is installed onto the MicroSD card in one of two ways:

  • Using NOOBS and an SD card formatting software tool
  • Using a single/stand-alone distribution, an SD card formatting software tool and a disk imaging software tool

The first method, using NOOBS, is the easier of the two, but is limited to only the operating systems that are pre-configured with NOOBS (see later). Both these methods will need a PC with an existing operating system that is compatible with the software tools and an SD card reader.

In this case, Windows 10 was used to format, copy and/or install the operating system onto the MicroSD card. Initially, the Raspberry Pi running the operating system will need a screen, keyboard and mouse. Connectivity to the internet and/or local network (LAN) is operating system dependent.

Formatting the MicroSD card

Raspberry Pi operating systems are installed onto FAT32 formatted SD cards. MicroSD cards need to be formatted using an SD card formatting software tool and a MicroSD card reader. For this post, the SD Association’s SD Memory Card Formatter was used.

SD Memory Card Formatter

After inserting the MicroSD card into the SD card reader/PC, SD Memory Card Formatter can either be used to do a Quick format or an Overwrite format. Any one of the two can be selected. The Volume label does not matter at this point in time. Note that everything on the SD card will be deleted after this operation.

Installing an operating system to a Raspberry Pi using NOOBS

NOOBS is short for New Out Of the Box Software. It can either be downloaded or can come pre-installed on certain MicroSD/Raspberry Pi package deals. NOOBS offers a list of reputable and popular operating systems to be installed.

Using NOOBS is the preferred way for first-time users and is the easiest way to install an operating system to a Raspberry Pi.

NOOBS can either be downloaded or come pre-installed on certain MicroSD/Raspberry Pi package deals.

After its installation, NOOBS basically boots up with a menu where the desired operating system can be selected for the final installation. To install NOOBS, its downloaded distribution file is simply uncompressed and copied onto a FAT32 formatted SD card. All the files required to boot and launch the NOOBS menu and start the installation of the final operating system will be in the download file.

Depending on the built, NOOBS contains options to install Raspbian (Raspbian Stretch at the time of updating), LibraELEC, Lakka, Data Partition, OSMC, recalboxOS, Screenly OSE, Windows 10 IoT Core and TLXOS.

From its official downloads location (the Raspberrypi.org NOOBS downloads page), the NOOBS distribution file can be downloaded as either the offline and network install or the network install only. The distribution file itself is compressed as a zip file and can either be downloaded directly or by using a Torrent manager.

Raspberry Pi NOOBS download pageBy using the offline and network install file, NOOBS can be installed without the necessity of the internet. It is much larger in size (about 1.7 GB) than the network install-only file but will contain all the required files to install any of its listed operating systems. The network install-only file is much smaller to download (about 35 MB) but will need an internet connection to actually continue to download and install the desired operating system.

If you’re planning to back up the file and/or install NOOBS on more than one Raspberry Pi at a time, the offline and network install file is worth downloading, but for single installs, the network install-only file will be faster.

After the MicroSD card has been formatted (see earlier) and the desired NOOBS distribution file is downloaded, the contents of the file are simply copied (drag-and-drop) onto the SD card. After safe removal, the SD card can be inserted into the Raspberry Pi.

If the network install-only distribution file was used, the first thing NOOBS will ask is for a network connection. Either an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi can be used.

NOOBS network access

NOOBS will then give a menu with the options available which is selected to install the desired operating system.

After confirming that the operating system installation has been completed, the Raspberry Pi will boot into the new operating system.

Installing an operating system to a Raspberry Pi using an image file

If NOOBS are too simple for your taste, or you need to install a non-NOOBS listed operating system, a standalone operating system can be downloaded and installed. Raspberry Pi supported operating systems can also be downloaded as image (.img) files and installed onto the SD card using a disk imaging software tool.

Supported Raspberry Pi operating system image files can be downloaded from various sources on the internet and are all installed in more or less the same way. They are usually downloaded as compressed files (often zip files) and needs to be uncompressed first.

When choosing an operating system, give preference to reputable builds from reputable websites. Also note the compatibility of these operating systems with the exact Raspberry Pi model that you intend to use it for. A great source to start is, once again, Raspberrypi.org’s download page.

Raspberry Pi third party operating systems
The RaspberryPi.org downloads page also has a couple of Raspberry Pi supported, third party operating systems to choose from.

The difference between using NOOBS and using an image file is that the image file has to be copied onto the SD card using specialised disk imaging software. After the MicroSD card has been formatted (see earlier), the downloaded image file can be written to it. Currently, two disk imaging software tools are popularly used — Win32DiskImager and Etcher.

Windows32DiskImager is the more traditional imaging software and slightly more complex when compared with Etcher. I prefer using, Etcher on Windows 10.

Disk imager

The location of the uncompressed image (.img) file is selected by using the browse (folder icon) button and the drive letter of the SD card is choosable under Device. None of the other settings needs to be changed. The image is written to the SD card by using the Write (as suppose to the Read) button.

The process for Etcher is much the same, choose the image, choose the drive and Flash.

Using Etcher to flash a Raspberry Pi image to a SDcard

After writing to the SD card was successfully completed and its safe removal, the SD card can be inserted into the Raspberry Pi where it will boot into the installed operating system.

Installing multiple operating systems to the Raspberry Pi

BerryBoot bootloader allows the installation of multiple operating systems onto one SD card. BerryBoot is similar to NOOBS, but instead of wiping the selection menu after an operating system was installed, it will boot back into BerryBoot.

BerryBoot was somewhat glitchy at the time of testing. The operating systems were somewhat outdated and, as with NOOBS, only had a limited amount of operating systems to choose from.

On the other hand, it is easy to use and comes in quite handy if you want to compare and/or test different operating systems. BerryBoot is also simply installed by copying the contents of the downloaded zip file to a FAT32 formatted SD card.

About the author
Renier busies himself with improving his English writing, creative web design and his websites, photoshopping, micro-electronics, multiple genres of music, superhero movies and badass series.
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