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The 11 Best Raspberry Pi Operating Systems for Different Uses

While it is often used for electronics projects, in much the same way as a microcontroller, the Raspberry Pi is a complete computer capable of running a full operating system.

With the wide selection of operating systems available for the line of single-board computers, Raspberry Pi users can be said to be spoilt for choice. Not every operating system will fit your specific use case though, so it is necessary to choose one that has been optimized to serve your purpose.

General-Purpose Operating Systems

Operating systems in this class are not optimized for a particular purpose but are rather created to serve the average computer user’s needs, which typically includes internet browsing, basic productivity tasks, media consumption, and light gaming.

Raspberry Pi OS Bullseye desktop welcome wizard

Based on Debian Linux, the Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) is the official operating system for the Raspberry Pi family. It is available for free download and comes preloaded on a microSD card in most Raspberry Pi kits. According to Raspberry Pi’s Imager stats website, Raspberry Pi OS is the most-used operating system on the Raspberry Pi by far, followed by Ubuntu.

It comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. There are only subtle differences, but the 64-bit Raspberry Pi OS offers certain key benefits.

Raspberry Pi OS uses a modified version of the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE), which is simple to navigate. It also comes with over 35,000 pre-compiled software packages for easy installation on your Raspberry Pi.

Ubuntu MATE Featured

Ubuntu MATE is an official derivative of Ubuntu Linux that uses the lightweight MATE desktop environment as its default user interface, which means it’s less taxing on the Raspberry Pi’s modest resources than vanilla Ubuntu.

Ubuntu MATE is more suited for users who already have a Linux background and are looking for something a bit closer to that experience on Raspberry Pi. It offers a complete desktop environment for desktop computing and hardware tinkering.

Alternatively, you can opt for the standard version of the Ubuntu Desktop OS. Our guide walks you through the process of installing Ubuntu Desktop, Server, and Core on a Raspberry Pi, along with Ubuntu MATE.

Raspberry Pi computers are often used as media centers to serve videos, music, and images to other devices. A media center operating system makes it much easier to organize those files and share them to connected users.

LibreELEC is a Linux JeOS (Just enough Operating System) for the Kodi media player. It is a fork of the now-discontinued OpenELEC project and comes with a preconfigured version of Kodi and several other optional third-party, personal video recorder (PVR) back-end software applications.

The LibreELEC operating system is small, lightweight and optimized for flash-based storage. If you want to run only Kodi on your Raspberry Pi, it is arguably the best option for you.

OSMC on a Raspberry Pi 400

OSMC (Open Source Media Center) is a Debian-based media center which mainly ships a Kodi front-end for Raspberry Pis and other devices. It is easy to use, quick to install and offers more functionality than LibreELEC. If you want to use your Raspberry Pi for a home theater PC primarily, but you also want to run other projects from time to time, OSMC might be the best choice for you.

Internet of Things and Home Automation

A Raspberry Pi can be used to control a network of internet-enabled devices with the help of home automation platforms such as Home Assistant.

flash sdcard with home assistant os

The Home Assistant OS (HAOS) is free and open source software that is optimized to run Home Assistant and its add-ons on SBCs and x86-64 systems. Home Assistant puts you in charge of your smart home network by enabling local access to your devices.

OpenHAB (Open Home Automation Bus) is an open-source platform for home automation. It allows you to control your smart home devices, regardless of the manufacturer. To use it on a Raspberry Pi, download the preconfigured image and flash it onto an microSD card or a USB flash drive.

Retro Operating Systems

You can also run classic operating systems such as RISC OS, MS DOS, and Amiga on a Raspberry Pi, which can be useful for emulation and education purposes.

RISC OS was first developed in the 1980s and harkens back to the days of Acorn’s Archimedes and A7000 personal computers. Named after the Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture, RISC OS was the first operating system for ARM-based computers.

It is now open source and is available for download on just about every Raspberry Pi model. It is not the most advanced operating system out there, but it could be a way to get into the nostalgia of retro computing and contribute to a growing community of users.

Specialized Projects

Raspberry Pi computers can also be used for specialized projects such as retro gaming, 3D printing, or penetration testing.

retropie-better-gaming

RetroPie is an open-source collection of software that allows you to emulate retro games on your Raspberry Pi. It is built on top of Raspberry Pi OS Lite and several emulators such as EmulationStation and RetroArch. Be sure to take a look at our how-to guide on building a retro gaming console using RetroPie.

Raspberry Pi for Octoprint
Image Credit: Colaborativa dot eu/Flickr

OctoPrint is an application that allows you to remotely monitor and control your 3D printer. An OctoPrint server can be run on an old smartphone or a Raspberry Pi, to name a few. All you need to do is flash the OctoPi image on your Raspberry Pi and connect it to your 3D printer.

Server and Network Applications

If you are interested in building a file server or a network attached storage on your Raspberry Pi. you should consider installing an operating system well-suited for that purpose.

OpenMediaVault is based on Debian Linux and includes certain key features such as web-based administration, email statistic reports, user and group management, and a plug-in system. It offers a simple and easy-to-use interface that allows you to create a file server without hassle. Installing OpenMediaVault on a Raspberry Pi is quite straightforward.

DietPi is an extremely lightweight Debian-based Linux distribution, even smaller than Raspberry Pi OS Lite and much more configurable. DietPi is optimized for minimal resource usage and is well-suited for self-hosting projects. You can read more about what this OS offers in our guide on how to install DietPi on a Raspberry Pi.

There Are Other Great Options Out There

If you use your Raspberry Pi for a wide variety of projects, you will quickly find that there is no one-size-fits-all option with operating systems. In fact, having different OS microSD cards preloaded and ready to go when the need for them arises is fairly popular among Raspberry Pi users.


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