PIXEL, the latest Raspberry Pi OS ... for x86!

Merry Pi-mas! Santa's got your present: A highly modified version of x86 Debian from the RPi Foundation that will (eventually) run on everything. You must have been good.

raspberry pi raspberries by zach inglis via unsplash
Zach Inglis

Apparently Santa thought that Raspberry Pi users deserved something special this Christmas because there, underneath the digital Christmas tree, was the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s x86 port of its Debian + PIXEL Linux desktop environment designed to run on pretty much any hardware even old, pensioned-off gear. Lovers of horrible backronyms might have rejoiced at the name PIXEL which is derived from “Pi Improved Xwindows Environment, Lightweight” but as clumsy as the name’s derivation might be, the PIXEL distro is way cool and a seriously good idea. 

PIXEL is a highly modified version of the LXDE X11 desktop environment on Debian “Jessie” and was originally released in September 2016 but only for Raspberry Pi boards. This Christmas release now allows you to run PIXEL on most X86 devices including many machines that are veritable antiques.

Eben Upton, the founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, explained in his December 21st blog post:

PIXEL represents our best guess as to what the majority of users are looking for in a desktop environment: a clean, modern user interface; a curated suite of productivity software and programming tools, both free and proprietary; and the Chromium web browser with useful plugins, including Adobe Flash, preinstalled. And all of this is built on top of Debian, providing instant access to thousands of free applications. 

Put simply, it’s the GNU/Linux we would want to use.

I’m sure Eben will be delighted to know that I wholeheartedly agree; PIXEL is a nicely skinnied-down version of Raspbian with a slick UI that’s going to be a huge force in the Raspberry Pi world as well as in end user computing in general. 

The 1.3GB PIXEL ISO image can be downloaded from the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s servers but you could be in for a long wait; this release is really popular and the Foundation’s servers were, at the time of writing, getting thoroughly hammered. Alternatively, you can get a copy via BitTorrent.

Once you have the ISO in your sweaty hands, you can either create a live image on a DVD or a USB drive. If you create a USB version you can select “Run with persistence” at boot time to keep file system changes (by default spare space on the USB device is used for a persistence partition).

This release is billed as “experimental” which means:

  1. you run PIXEL at your own risk
  2. you should have a backup of the machine you run it on (du’oh)
  3. expect a few bugs (for example, some modern Macs apparently don’t see the media created from the download as bootable).

There are also missing features of which the most important is an installer, something that users are  pressuring the Foundation into producing. On the other hand, that’s not to say you can’t install PIXEL on your hard disk, it’s just that you’ll have to do it from the command line. There’s a how-to in a comment by an Egon Rath in response to Upton’s post but the end result won’t be a true disk installation, it will simply copy the installation media to the target machine which will still see the copied media on the hard disk as if it were a USB drive.

Other things left out of this release of PIXEL are Minecraft and Wolfram Mathematica because the Foundation’s licenses for that software only covers use on Raspberry Pi platforms. Included in the programming tools is the Sense HAT emulator (the Sense HAT is a multipurpose add-on board for the Raspberry Pi) which comes with example Python applications.  

While testing on old hardware obviously appeals to many people (the comments to Eban’s post contain many accounts of testing on seriously ancient machines), if you just want to try out PIXEL then I’d suggest using VirtualBox.

Here’s my easy method: Assuming your downloaded installation media is named VBOXADDITIONS_5.0.30_112061.iso then, with VirtualBox installed and assuming the ISO file is in your current directory, you can enter the following on the command line to convert the ISO into a VirtualBox Disk Image:

mgibbs$ VBoxManage convertfromraw VBOXADDITIONS_5.0.30_112061.iso pixel.vdi

Now, create a new VirtualBox virtual machine as follows:

  • Type: Linux
  • Operating system: Debian (32-bit)
  • Memory size: 768MB or larger
  • Hard disk: Select "Use an existing ..." then select the newly created VDI file

All of the other default settings should work but make sure the network adapter is enabled and either set to NAT or bridged mode if you want to access anything on the ‘Net.

I’d also recommend enabling remote display (remember VirtualBox's built-in remote display uses RDP, not VNC) because although you can set up VirtualBox Guest Additions to support mouse integration, etc., you can expect lots of PIXEL updates in the very near future and to have to keep installing the Guest Additions will quickly get old.

Hopefully you’ll get a chance to test PIXEL and tell the Raspberry Pi Foundation what a great idea the project is. The more enthusiasm, the more effort they'll be encouraged to put into the engineering of what could become one of the most important and widely used open source operating systems of all time.

Nice Christmas present, eh? And here's to a Happy New Year!

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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