A complete guide to Raspbian

Everything you need to know about the software that powers the world's favourite tiny computer

Image of Raspberry Pi running Raspbian

Wihle they may be tiny, Raspberry Pi computers have had a gargantuan impact on the technology and education sectors in the short time they've existed. The original model kicked everything off in 2012 and  the popularity of the wallet-sized, low-priced computer has grown every year since, with the recent launch of the third iteration of the computer, the Raspberry Pi 3, giving sales a further boost.

Although it just looks like a motherboard, the Raspberry Pi needs an operating system just like any other fully-fledged computer, which is where Raspbian comes in. The open source firmware, run mainly by Mike Thompson and Peter Green with occasional input from the Raspberry Pi and Debian communities, is an unofficial Debian Squeeze Wheezy distro. The Raspbian project has no association with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, but it is now the official OS of the tiny PC.

Much like Chromium, there's a massive community that relies on the work of a small dev team to keep a highly popular product running, so let's take a deeper dive into the intricacies of Raspbian.

What is Raspberry Pi?

Raspberry Pis are microcomputers that pack in all the essentials you'd find in a more traditional PC with a hard outer casing. It supports USB connections for peripherals and HDMI for high-definition visuals, as well as all the usual hardware components, but without the loud whirring fans accompanying high-spec CPUs. 

The device is the work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK-based computer science charity that aims to deliver the power of computing to everyone in the world. Its low-cost take on the computer can be easily transported to and used by people of any age and economic background. A full Raspberry Pi will cost you just 35 and all you'll need to get started is a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse (although depending on how you plan to use it, you may not even require these). If you're looking for a cheap but effective means of getting kids into coding, you'll struggle to find anything quite as good as the Raspberry Pi.

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To give you an idea of the sorts of things you can do with a Raspberry Pi device, check out our best projects hub.

Download and install Raspbian

Being a Linux-based distro, the OS isn't limited to installs on Raspberry Pis - you can install Raspbian on any typical computer fitted with an x86 processor. You can create a live disc, run it in a virtual machine or simply install on it a PC's hard drive.

Raspbian can be downloaded from the Raspberry Pi Foundation's website for PC, Mac, or a range of other third-party operating systems. Those taking their first dive into the OS are encouraged to download the NOOBS package (new out of the box software) which provides an easy installer and some helpful Raspian tips.

To get the OS onto the Raspberry Pi, you'll be using an SD card. The SD card should have at least 8GB of storage or 4GB for Raspbian Lite. The Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends an SD card rather than a USB or alternative as it's the most compatible with Raspberry Pis out of the box - unfortunately, that means you'll need an SD card reader fitted on your PC or laptop.

The class of the SD card isn't necessarily important in terms of how the OS will perform but in any case, the higher is usually better.

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If using NOOBS, then the installer will do all the hard work for you, just follow the instructions. However, if you're downloading the ISO (advanced users) you will need to follow some extra steps.

Firstly, you'll need an image writing tool - the Raspberry Pi foundation recommends Etcher, which can be downloaded for free from its website.

  • Download Etcher
  • Insert your SD card into the PC
  • Open Etcher and select the Raspberry Pi image (.img file)
  • Select the SD card on which you want the OS
  • Click 'Flash!' to begin writing the OS to the card

And that's it, you can then insert the SD card into your device and start exploring what Raspbian has to offer.

Raspbian versions

Since Raspbian's inception in 2013, there have been a few different versions released by the developers behind it. Because it's a Linux-based distro, it's easy enough to make modifications to it and release periodic improvements.

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Raspbian Wheezy

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The very first iteration of Raspbian was largely built upon Debian Wheezy and was officially supported by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2015. Wheezy is an unofficial port of Debian Wheezy armhf and prior to the official support, Raspberry Pis came pre-packaged with Debian Squeeze as the official OS but was eventually replaced with Raspbian Wheezy. This is because the developers behind Wheezy realised that Squeeze was used to support less-capable ARM devices which meant the Pis CPU wasn't performing optimally during floating point-intensive applications such as graphics programs.

Raspian Jessie

Along with the regular security patches and under-the-hood improvements, Jessie brought some more noticeable features in too.

In a bid to make Raspberry Pis not just cheap computers for education, but cheap computers in their own right, the Foundation made some small changes to make it feel more like a 'real' PC. For example, LibreOffice suite and Claws Mail were installed as standard so users could use word processors, create spreadsheets and manage their email from within Raspbian. Also, instead of booting to a Linux command line, Raspberry Pis booted to a Raspbian desktop GUI by default for the first time as a result of an update to the distro.

In September 2016, Raspbian Jessie with PIXEL was made available to those who wanted a GUI desktop. The forcibly acronymed PIXEL (Pi Improved Xwindow Environment, Lightweight) desktop was the first time the OS received a GUI desktop when before it was just a Linux code screen - it even received a boot splash page like a proper OS too.

Performance indicators were also added. For example, when the Pi was being overworked in older versions, red and yellow pixels would appear in the screen. This was redesigned to show a lightning bolt to indicate Undervoltage or a thermometer for overtemperature.

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Raspbian Stretch

Debian releases new official distros on a two-year cycle and, as Raspbian has always been based on Debian, it does the same, kind of. Stretch was released just before the two-year anniversary of Jessie, and like its previous version, the improvements made to Stretch were supposed to go largely unnoticed by the end user.

However, one of the more noticeable upgrades was to the onboard Bluetooth audio manager. Jessie used PulseAudio, but this was scrapped in favour of bluez-alsa as the former was clumsy and didn't do a great job of encoding different audio sources.

Stretch also brought with it a change to its base code layer following the discovery of a firmware vulnerability in Pi 3 and Pi Zero W wireless chipsets.

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