Looking for a way to get the most out of your Raspberry Pi? Running a project that just needs something more? Odd as it may seem, Linux might be the problem, so why not consider a non-Linux operating system? Several have been released, or adapted, for use on the Raspberry Pi.
1. Plan 9
Released as an open-source operating system in 1992, Plan 9 has a small footprint and is targeted at developers. Its lightweight presence makes it ideal for the Raspberry Pi.
A descendent of UNIX, Plan 9 is easy to install on the Pi, much like any other compatible operating system. Simply download the disk image, and write it to the microSD card.
Once running, you’ll initially see a command line, before the mouse driven user interface (a windowing system) known as “rio”, loads up. Beware, Plan 9 appears very rudimentary, and has very little visual relationship with any operating system you’ve previously used. There is, perhaps, a similarity with RISC OS (below) which requires a three-button mouse). However, Plan 9’s UNIX heritage will help anyone with experience of its forerunner.
This newbie guide to Plan 9 should help you get started.
Download: Plan 9 for Raspberry Pi (Direct link)
2. NetBSD and OpenBSD
Also derived from UNIX are NetBSD and OpenBSD, which are more closely related to BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution), an extension of UNIX. Several versions of BSD are available, all of which offer a variation on a theme.
But what does BSD offer the Raspberry Pi user? Well, like Linux, BSD is open source, and Unix-like. Many of the same apps and utilities will work on both, which means switching to BSD is the easiest option in this list. BSD has particular strengths that Linux does not, such as better connectivity through the GPIO, for example. It’s also an excellent choice for a network server.
However, with several versions of BSD available for the Raspberry Pi, which of those strengths you enjoy will depend on which fork you choose.
Our Linux vs. BSD comparison will help you out here if you’re new to BSD.
3. RISC OS
Another excellent choice is RISC OS, which has its roots in the 1980s home computing boom. Interestingly, it was developed in Cambridge, close to where the Raspberry Pi was conceived, and where the Raspberry Pi Foundation has its headquarters (which we visited in 2013).
Indeed, RISC OS is one of only two operating systems in this list to be among the “approved” list if you’re installing via the NOOBS installation tool. RISC OS is fast, has a consistent user interface, and includes a structured BASIC interpreter. If your experience of programming is firmly rooted in the 1980s, and BASIC is your only anchor to coding, this can prove quite useful.
Despite its age, there are some good applications available for RISC OS, including a web browser. Note that you will need a three-button mouse to use RISC OS; if your mouse has a clickable scroll wheel, this should suffice.
Download: RISC OS for Raspberry Pi
You’ll find out more about RISC OS (including how to install and use it) in our dedicated installation guide.
4. Android and Android Things
Amazingly, it’s possible to run Android on the Raspberry Pi. While Android uses the Linux kernel, the jury is out as to whether it can be considered a Linux distribution.
Although not an official version (and lacking optimization for the Raspberry Pi), being able to install Android is a big plus. Combine Android with the Raspberry Pi and a touchscreen device and you have a great new way to use the Raspberry Pi. It’s possible to set up the Google Play store, giving you access to all of your favorite games and apps.
Several Raspberry Pi-based projects are available, and if you can find one that is prepackaged for a specific Pi model, the better.
Download: Android N for Raspberry Pi
Meanwhile, Android Things is also available for the Raspberry Pi. This is an embedded operating system aimed at low memory and power-limited IoT devices. It supports Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi networking, and features Weave, which Google hopes will become the default protocol for IoT devices.
Download: Android Things for Raspberry Pi
5. Windows 10 IoT Core
Finally, it’s Windows 10. Not the version you’re used to however, but a dedicated internet of Things version from Microsoft. Compatible with the Raspberry Pi (and an option in NOOBS), Windows 10 IoT Core is, according to Microsoft: “…a version of Windows 10 that is optimized for smaller devices with or without a display, and that runs on the Raspberry Pi 2 and 3, Arrow DragonBoard 410c & MinnowBoard MAX. Windows 10 IoT Core utilizes the rich, extensible Universal Windows Platform (UWP) API for building great solutions.”
This makes it similar in many ways to Android Things.
The difference with Windows 10 IoT Core and the other operating systems listed here is that this is less an operating system as a deployment system. Once you’ve deployed an app (from the default selection, or one you’ve built in Visual Studio), the Raspberry Pi essentially becomes the app. This could have considerable implications for your DIY projects!
Download: Windows 10 IoT Core
Strong Alternatives to Linux on the Raspberry Pi
If you’re looking for alternative operating systems for the Raspberry Pi, there are other options. However, these are almost all Linux distributions, ported to the ARM architecture. Even those that claim to be something else (such as the Raspberry Pi version of AROS, an open source version of AmigaOS 3.1 from the early 1990s) relies on Linux for drivers.
Instead, if you simply must eschew Linux, use one of these operating systems:
- Plan 9
- A compatible fork of BSD
- RISC OS
- Android, or Android Things
- Windows 10 IoT Core
Android aside, these operating systems are lightweight alternatives to Raspbian Stretch. If you’re wedded to Linux but looking for a Raspberry Pi distro with a small footprint, however, our guide to lightweight Raspberry Pi operating systems is worth a read.
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