The Raspberry Pi Foundation has updated its lightweight Linux for 32-bit PCs.
When the first Raspberry Pi was launched a little over a decade ago, the Raspberry Pi Foundation offered an ARMv6 version of Debian 7. It worked, but there was a problem: while the Pi 1 had a hardware unit to floating point, the ARMv6 version of Debian could not use it. FPU support required the ARMv7 edition.
Fortunately, Mike Thompson and Peter Green rose to the challenge and created Raspbian – later officially adopted by the manufacturer and renamed Raspberry Pi OS. It started out as a seriously downsized edition of Debian, recompiled for ARMv6 plus
hardfp support – because the rather weak SoC of the first Pi needed all the help it could get.
The Raspberry Pi and its operating system have been huge successes, and the hardware and software are regularly updated. What attracts less attention is that for five years there has also been a PC OS version. This is called the Raspberry Pi desktop. Except for a few native Pi components, such as Mathematica, this is the same set of customizations applied to the x86-32 edition of Debian.
Now, the PC edition has received an update on the same Debian 11 base as the Pi edition. However, unlike the Pi edition, it hasn’t gone 64-bit: it’s still a 32-bit operating system for 32-bit PCs (and older Intel Macs), and it doesn’t use the fancy 3D Mutter window manager.
Most mainstream distributions are now 64-bit only. Ubuntu, for example, dropped 32-bit support in 2019. Those that still support the architecture are often more technical distros for more experienced users, like Debian and the minimal Alpine Linux.
The Rasberry Pi desktop is a welcome exception. It asks almost no questions during installation and has very few options to modify. There are no desktop or component choices, the only thing you can adjust is the disk partitioning. You get the PIXEL desktop environment, which is a slightly customized version of LXDE, and a few basic tools: the Chromium browser, Claws email, LibreOffice, and some educational and programming-related tools.
Although the installer was not branded – it still says Debian everywhere – the resulting OS was. It’s rather simpler than the default Debian installation process. It sets up a graphical Raspberry Pi-themed splash screen and so on, and once installed, a first-run wizard automatically starts that installs updates, creates a user account, and completes setup.
We found the installation very slow, but to be fair, we were trying it out on two very old PCs: a Thinkpad X61 convertible and a Sony Vaio P, an aging Atom-powered sub-netbook. With just 2GB of RAM each, both worked flawlessly. The operating system automatically used Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc. adapters. On the Vaio, the installer did not pick up the Windows Thin PC installation it shared a hard drive with, but the command
sudo update-grub fixed that automatically and it started double fine.
For a low-end PC for a low-tech user, Rasperry Pi Desktop is a great little OS. It won’t make an old PC magically fast, but it works pretty well. Programs launch slowly from old spinning hard drives, but once they get into memory, they run quite usably. It can handle light web browsing, for example, but for bashing email or basic productivity tasks, it should work well.
There are still other 32-bit distributions. Debian itself and Linux Mint Debian Edition 5 both support x86-32 – but you’ll need a fairly fast machine, with 3-4GB of RAM and 3D hardware, 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 custom LXDE desktop, uses around 200MB of RAM at rest, and it’ll run in just 1GB. A bit more than Linux antiX, for example, but it’s much more comprehensive and well-integrated. Even Alpine uses more than that, and installing and configuring setup and configuration certainly requires a few techniques, whereas the Pi OS hardly needs any. We tried adding Xfce to our Pi OS install, only to find that its RAM usage nearly doubled.
Given that ChromeOS Flex now requires 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. ®