A complete guide to Raspbian

Raspberry Pi devices are tiny computers doing very big things. Since the introduction of the first model in 2012, the tech has attracted somewhat of a cult following and has become one of the most popular platforms for app development. Wallet-sized and relatively cheap, these microcomputers make for a convenient first foray into coding, although, like most other computers, you'll need to get to grips with the operating system first.

Raspian is the bespoke, open source operating system that's also an unofficial Debian Squeeze Wheezy distro. It's developed and maintained predominantly by the developer power duo of Mike Thompson and Peter Green with a little helping hand from the Raspbian (Raspberry Pi + Debian) community, which also occasionally contributes to the code. Raspbian is not an official partner of the Raspberry Pi Foundation but it is now the Foundation's officially supported operating system.

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?

For those completely in the dark about what a Raspberry Pi even is, it's a tiny device that packs all the fundamental parts of a basic modern-day computer into a single board. It has a few USB ports, an HDMI port, wireless LAN adapter, a processor - essentially the building blocks you'll need for input, process, output. We regularly review Raspberry Pi models as they become available, which consistently score top marks and usually pick up our Editors Choice award.

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 RPi 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.

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.

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.

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.

Raspbian Wheezy

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

Although the majority of changes were under-the-hood, such as regular security patches, the Jessie update did bring with it a handful of more noticeable features.

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

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.

Raspbian Pixel

Raspbian released arguably its biggest update ever in 2016 with the PIXEL (Pi Improved Xwindow Environment, Lightweight) desktop. It 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 other systems.

The GUI was meant to mimic the friendly design of the Raspberry Pi's website as opposed to that of Windows and Mac, which looked a bit dated in comparison, according to Sam Alder, one of the artists that helped design the Raspberry Pi site. 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.