x86 Raspberry Pi Desktop is a great way to revive an old PC

The OS Formerly Known As Raspbian isn't just for the diminutive computer

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has updated its lightweight Linux for 32-bit PCs.

When the first Raspberry Pi launched just over a decade ago, the Raspberry Pi Foundation offered an ARMv6 version of Debian 7. It worked, but it had a problem: while the Pi 1 had a hardware floating-point unit, the ARMv6 version of Debian couldn't use it. FPU support needed the ARMv7 edition.

Fortunately, Mike Thompson and Peter Green rose to the challenge and created Raspbian – later officially adopted by the manufacturer and renamed the Raspberry Pi OS. It started out as a seriously cut-down edition of Debian, recompiled for ARMv6 plus hardfp support – because the fairly feeble SoC in the early Pi needed all the help it could get.

Both the Raspberry Pi and its OS have been huge successes, and both the hardware and software are regularly upgraded. What gets less attention is that for five years, there's also been a PC OS version. It's called the Raspberry Pi Desktop. Barring a couple of Pi-native components, such as Mathematica, it's the same set of customizations applied to the x86-32 edition of Debian.

Now the PC edition has received an update to the same Debian 11 basis as the Pi edition. However, unlike the Pi edition, it hasn't gone 64-bit: this is still a 32-bit OS for 32-bit PCs (and elderly Intel Macs), and it doesn't use the fancy 3D Mutter window manager.

Most mainstream distros are now 64-bit only. Ubuntu, for example, dropped 32-bit support in 2019. The ones that still support the architecture are often more technical distros for more skilled users, such as Debian and the minimal Alpine Linux.

The Raspberry Pi Desktop is a welcome exception. It asks almost no questions during installation and has very few options to tweak. There's no choice of desktop or components, the only thing you can adjust is the disk partitioning. You get the PIXEL desktop environment, which is a lightly customized version of LXDE and some basic tools: the Chromium browser, Claws email, LibreOffice, and some educational and programming-related tools.

Although the installation program hasn't been branded – it still says Debian everywhere – the resulting OS has. It's rather simpler than the default Debian installation process. It configures a Raspberry Pi-themed graphical startup screen and so on, and once installed, a first-run wizard automatically starts which installs updates, creates a user account and finalizes the config.

We found installation very slow, but to be fair, we were trying it on two very old PCs: a Thinkpad X61 convertible and a Sony Vaio P, a sub-netbook powered by an elderly Atom. With only 2GB of RAM each, both worked perfectly. The OS automatically used Wi-Fi adapters, Bluetooth and so on. On the Vaio, the installer didn't pick up the installation of Windows Thin PC with which it shared a hard disk, but the command sudo update-grub fixed that automatically and it dual-booted fine.

For a low-end PC for a not-very-technical user, Raspberry Pi Desktop is a great little OS. It won't magically make an old PC quick again, but it works pretty well. Programs launch slowly from old rotating hard disks, but once they stagger into memory, they run quite usably. It can handle light web browsing, for instance, but for bashing out emails or basic productivity duties, it should cope fine.

There are other 32-bit distros still out there. Debian itself, and Linux Mint Debian Edition 5, both support x86-32 – but you'll need a fairly quick machine, with 3-4GB of RAM and hardware 3D, for Cinnamon to be responsive. Although ZorinOS 16 is 64-bit only, ZorinOS Lite 15.3 is still available in a 32-bit edition, with Xfce.

The Pi OS, with its customized LXDE desktop, uses around 200MB of RAM at idle, and it will run in just 1GB. Slightly more than antiX Linux, for example, but it's much more complete and well integrated. Even Alpine uses more than that, and it definitely requires some tech chops to install and configure, whereas the Pi OS needs next to none. We tried adding Xfce to our install of the Pi OS, only to find that its RAM usage nearly doubled.

Since ChromeOS Flex now needs a 64-bit machine and 4GB of RAM, we'd say the Pi OS is the best way to revive an old PC for a non-technical user. ®

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