Revamped Raspberry Pi OS boasts Wayland desktop and improved imager tool

Complete rebuild of Debian distro optimized for diminutive computer

Raspberry Pi OS has undergone more than a modest version upgrade including a new set of tools for writing it to a bootable SD card.

You might have missed it in the excitement over the announcement of the Raspberry Pi 5 at the end of September, but a couple of weeks later, the Raspberry Pi Foundation also updated Raspberry Pi OS. The new release is quite significantly different from previous versions, so we thought we should take it for a spin.

Raspberry Pi OS 5.0 is based on Debian 12 "Bookworm," with a completely new Wayland desktop environment replacing PIXEL, the older desktop based on LXDE and, augmented with Mutter in its previous release. There's also a new version of the Raspberry Pi Imager available for Windows, Linux, and macOS, which not only writes to SD cards but can also download the OS image for you as well.

Raspberry Pi OS 5.0

Raspberry Pi OS desktop

Like many a techie with a modest toy budget, The Reg FOSS desk has multiple Raspberry Pis lying around, but, oddly enough, none run the official OS.

This isn't because we don't like it. The x86 Raspberry Pi Desktop is this vulture's recommended lightweight distro for low-end PCs. It just so happens that we had various specific projects in mind, and used suitable OSes for them. So, among others, we have a Pi 3 running XBian that works as a streaming music player, a Pi 4 running Ubuntu Server which used to run a NAS, and a Pi 400 running RISC OS Direct. (Setting up a Pi-hole is on our to-do list, too.)

The differences in the updated OS made it sound worth a look, but we must confess that the initial steps are intimidating. There are now no fewer than 12 different downloads available (plus the PC version, which hasn't been updated to Debian 12 yet). There is both a 32-bit version, described as suitable for all versions of the Pi – which we think excludes the Raspberry Pi Pico models – and a 64-bit one for the Pi 3A+, 3B, and later. Each of these comes in three variants: Standard, Light, and Full. What's more, all six are also available in "Legacy" versions, the older Debian 11-based release. Sadly, the old NOOBS tool, which offered a choice of distros and OSes, is no more. Its GitHub page says it's deprecated, replaced by the third-party PINN.

If you're lucky enough to have a Pi 4 with 8 GB of RAM, the 64-bit edition is probably what you want. This vulture is not among that select crew, but it's what we picked anyway. We decided to reuse the Pi 4's 16 GB card, replacing Ubuntu Server 20.04, since that box has been replaced with an old HP Microserver running TrueNAS Core now.

Raspberry Pi OS imager

The Imager app's download process is menu-driven, making it difficult to pick something your Pi won't be able to run – and maybe saving you large wasted downloads

The rather overwhelming choice of downloads led us to the Imager tool, which downloaded and installed in seconds on a laptop running Ubuntu 23.10. The new Imager lets you choose your target device first and uses that to restrict the choice of suitable OS images. Once you've picked a version, the tool lets you preset various configuration options: Hostname, username, whether to enable the SSH server, locale settings, and so on. All that worked very smoothly for us, even picking up the username of our Ubuntu account and proposing it. The sole exception was Wi-Fi configuration: We entered our network name and passphrase, but the newly imaged Pi 400 didn't connect. Doing it manually was easy, though.

Raspberry Pi OS imager

Although NOOBS is no more, you can still download some alternative Pi OSes through the official app. For more outré things like the BSDs, though, you should go it alone

The new desktop looks very much like the old one we know from its PC incarnation. The compositor (Waylandese for "window manager") is Wayfire, and there's a new panel, derived from Wayfire's wf-shell which replaces the LXDE panel. We were sad to find that this new panel can't be relocated to be vertical any more. There are no fancy features like window-snapping, but there weren't before. Although the OS isn't using LXDE any more, the distro still uses some of its accessories, such as the PCManFM file manager, LXTerm terminal emulator, LXTask task manager, and so on.

RPi OS always offered Chromium as its default browser. That was a good choice. About six years ago, testing Lubuntu 16.04 on a Pi 3B, we found that thanks to its multithreading support, Chromium was noticeably faster than Firefox, whose Electrolysis multithreaded rendering engine wasn't ready yet. Well, Firefox deemed Electrolysis complete in 2018 and now the Pi OS includes Firefox 118.

The desktop works well. It both reproduces the PC version's combination of OpenBox and LXPanel adequately, and adds snazzy touches like a 3D-effect switcher on Alt-Tab. It's especially good given Wayland's relative paucity of full desktop environments. You can have GNOME, KDE Plasma, or build your own around Enlightenment. Those aside, you have a wide choice of tiling window managers and terminal emulators. There are other, less-visible changes under the hood, including NetworkManager handling LAN connections and Pipewire for audio. We'd still prefer a more complete environment such as Xfce, but we'd already take the Pi environment in preference to either GNOME or KDE Plasma.

We did hit some teething troubles. As always, the first thing we did after a new installation was to update the OS, but this process crashed out when trying to update the wolfram-engine component of Mathematica. Despite repairing the package database, this repeatedly failed to update. In the end, we had to remove the package and reinstall it, which worked fine and resolved the issue. Easy enough to work around for a moderately skilled user, but not at all beginner-friendly.

On our Pi 400, Pi OS 5 idled at about 450 MB of RAM in use, and it used about 12 GB of a 16 GB card. It's not as lightweight as it used to be – those numbers are nearly twice the freshly updated PC version. Saying that, it has a lot more bundled apps than the PC version, notably including Mathematica, which is a handsome freebie – the standalone home/hobby edition starts at some $385/£315.

The differences from the previous version are not as visible on the surface as they are under it, which is a good thing. It's been substantially reworked, and the announcement ends with a stern warning not to try to upgrade from the Bullseye-based version:

This time, because the changes to the underlying architecture are so significant, we are not suggesting any procedure for upgrading a Bullseye image to Bookworm; any attempt to do this will almost certainly end up with a non-booting desktop and data loss. The only way to get Bookworm is either to create an SD card using Raspberry Pi Imager, or to download and flash a Bookworm image from here with your tool of choice.

Even so, several more intrepid types have already published how-to guides, including 9to5 Linux and Iustin Pop. The latter even covers cross-grading from 32-bit to 64-bit for the brave.

Pi OS 5 works well, and it shows that it is possible to make a lightweight Wayland-based desktop that's still easy to use. ®

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