5 Raspberry Pi Operating Systems

By Richard Wentk

There is intelligent life beyond the mind of Raspbian, and you can give your Raspberry Pi a brain transplant to change its personality and get a whole new computer for free!

Alternative brains do a lot more than change the color of the desktop and the shape of the windows. They’re more like ready‐made mini‐projects. Some turn your Pi into a music streaming box. Others convert it into a retro games machine. Or you can use one to make your Pi respond to voice commands.

Some of the options listed are included in NOOBS (New Out Of the Box Software). Others aren’t. To make them work, you’ll have to download files from a website and copy the files to a memory card. If you need extra instructions, you can find them near the file links on each website.

Pidora

Pidora is a version of Linux, and it’s included in NOOBS. But it’s not Raspbian. Pidora is based on a Linux distro called Fedora. Pidora is more experimental than Raspbian and is famous for including all the most recent developments in Linux. It’s not as friendly as Raspbian, but it includes better tools for developing software.

You’ll want Pidora if you’d like to get more serious about using Linux for school, fun, or profit or if you just want to explore a ­different distro.

Different Linux distros use different package managers, so if you try to apt-get in Pidora, it will have no idea what you mean. The equivalent command in Pidora is yum. It does similar stuff, but some packages that are available in Raspbian aren’t available in Pidora and vice versa. This kind of semi‐compatibility is normal for distros. The core Linux commands are usually the same. Other features, especially package managers and the list of packages they support, can be very different.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux is another Linux! It’s also included in NOOBS. Arch Linux is a good choice when you become a Linux expert. There’s a special web page for small‐board versions.

Upside? You can make Arch Linux look good and do clever, useful things. Downside? You can spend a long time setting it up. If you’re already an expert, expect to spend at least a few hours online researching how to get it working. If you’re a beginner you should start elsewhere and come back later.

Arch Linux is very configurable, which means it’s like a big kit you have to put together yourself. Raspbian won’t take as much of your time, and you can do more with it right away. But you can’t customize it as much.

Arch Linux was designed to run well on other small‐board computers like the BeagleBone/BeagleBoard series and the Cubie range. (If these terms mean nothing to you, try searching for them online.) Arch Linux starts small and simple with plenty of room to grow if you decide you want it, which makes it a good choice for grown‐up projects that use small‐board technology. Raspbian is better for hands‐on learning and fun.

RetroPie

RetroPie is a collection of game emulators for fans of retro‐gaming. It turns your Pi into a one‐stop do‐everything console emulator, which mimics the features of classic gaming products such as the Nintendo 64, the Sega Master System, the Game Boy. It also does good impersonations of 1980s computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Commodore Amiga, and the Atari 2600, from the days when hardware was terrible but games were great.

There’s an optional GPIO Adapter you can buy/build to connect real console buttons for a real console button experience. It’s not really optional if you want a good Nintendo experience. But some old computer games were keyboard driven, and you don’t need it for those.

Jasper

Would you like to talk to your Pi? Do you want your Pi to talk to you? You need Jasper — the best (only . . .) voice‐controlled ­distro for the Pi. You also need a microphone, a loudspeaker, and the disk image for Jasper, which you can download from the Jasper Documentation page.

Jasper is a good example of a very cool project. You can use it to ask your Pi the time, get a weather update, play music, and check your email and Facebook notifications. It’s not quite as good at recognizing speech as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo/Alexa. But considering it’s running on $50 of hardware and not on a supercomputer the size of an aircraft carrier, it’s an impressive achievement.

If you want to see how Jasper works on the inside, the link includes access to all the source code. You can customize Jasper, but getting a finished version from the source code is difficult and complicated. If you want an adventure, the site includes good instructions.

PiMusicBox

PiMusicBox is a variant of Raspbian designed to make music streaming easy. It’s like a cut‐down version OpenELEC designed exclusively for music. It works with Spotify, SoundCloud, Last.fm, and various Webradio sources and is compatible with AirTunes/AirPlay so that you can control it and connect to it from your mobile phone or tablet.

Pi boards and audio add‐ons are so cheap you can use PiMusicBox to make an audio streamer that will do at least as much as a store‐bought streamer for a tiny fraction of the cost. And you can build it into a case of your choice.