Raspberry Pi: Hands On with Arch Linux and Pidora

Raspberry Pi: Hands On with Arch Linux and Pidora

Summary: Exploring two more general-purpose Linux versions on the Raspberry Pi.


In the first post about my new Raspberry Pi, I explored about NOOBS (the New Out Of Box Software package) and Raspbian, the Debian GNU/Linux spin customised for the Pi.

This time I want to take a look at the other two general-purpose Linux distributions which have been customised and packaged for the Pi, Arch Linux ARM and Pidora.

First I will start by reviewing the NOOBS boot/installation process. After downloading the NOOBS package, which is a ZIP file, you simply have to extract the contents to a blank SD card of at least 4GB in size.

Nothing special is required for this, either in terms of knowledge or equipment; you can do it on pretty much any Linux or Windows system.

If you don't even want to do this much yourself, you can buy an SD card preloaded with NOOBS from most Raspberry Pi retailers, such as the Pi Shop in Switzerland, where I got mine (I found them to be very friendly, knowlegeable and helpful.) 

Then just stick the SD card in the Pi, plug in power and it boots to an installer menu. Honestly, I can't imagine how it could be easier.

On the first boot I chose to install Raspbian, and everything went very smoothly. After that, of course, when the Pi is booted Debian comes up (or whatever you chose to install). The interesting thing now, though, is that even after installing whatever operating system you choose, every time you boot it will remind you that by holding the Shift key during boot you can get to 'Recovery Mode'.

That is nothing more than the initial operating system selection/installation menu that you got the first time NOOBS was booted. There you can choose one of the other operating systems to install, and it will wipe the SD card and install that. 

In fact, if the SD card is large enough, you can even choose more than one to install.

I'm sure you know by now what is coming next: with the large (16GB) SD card I am using, I chose all six operating systems, and it happily installed all of them. Sure, that's a little extreme (or maybe more than a little) but some things are worth doing just because you can, and it's cool.

Of course, that got me curious about what the partitioning on the SD card actually looked like after such a feat, so I had to check it out with gparted.  Here is what it looks like:

Raspberry Pi NOOBS
All NOOBS Versions on One SD Card

 You have to admit, that's pretty cool.

When you boot with more than one NOOBS operating system installed, you get a boot selection menu so that you can choose which one you want to run, with the default set to whichever one was most recently booted and with a 10 second timeout.

The first of the two Linux distributions I want to look at this time is Arch Linux ARM. This is a Linux distribution that is intended for people who are already really familiar with Linux, or are really interested in learning about Linux. 

I mean really learning about Linux, starting from the Command Line Interface (CLI), not a graphical desktop. Of course you can get a GUI desktop with Arch, but you have to learn how to do that yourself, just like you have to learn everything else about administration and configuration. When you install Arch Linux ARM and then boot it, you get a text-mode login prompt. Period. The release notes contain exactly this one gem of advice:

        The default username is 'root' with a password 'root'

Don't misunderstand what I am saying here: I am not trying to be critical and I'm not saying this is a bad thing, quite the contrary I think it is very good, and I like it.  But I think it is important to make it clear what you are getting into. 

Personally I am pleased, because I have thought about trying Arch Linux a number of times in the past, and this is a very easy way to get it installed and try it out. You can go to the Arch Linux web page and find lots more useful information, a beginner's guide, and a very friendly and helpful community. Like I said, if you are really interested in learning about Linux, Arch is an excellent starting point.

The other distribution I want to look at here is Pidora, a remix of Fedora specifically for the Raspberry Pi by the Seneca Centre for Development of Open Technology

This is sort of the opposite extreme to Arch Linux - it is a full-featured, completely functional Linux distribution, based on Fedora 18 and the Xfce desktop. When you boot the first time after installation, it walks you through the usual procedure configure the installation and create a user account. Once you have completed that, and then login with the account you created, this is the desktop you will get:

Pidora Xfce Desktop

 That is a very standard Xfce desktop. Pidora is clean, simple, and very lightweight. As you can see in the screen shot, it has the Midori web browser, Thunar file manager, and Xfce terminal emulator. Also included are gedit and Leafpad for simple text editing, and Abiword for more complex document handling. Software and package management is handled by yum and yum extender (duh, this is Fedora).

That is the good news.  Now here comes the less than good news.  There seems to be some significant discussion about the future of Pidora. On their web page it clearly states: "Pidora is maintained by the Open Source Technology for Emerging Platforms (OSTEP) project within the Seneca Centre for Development of Open Technology (CDOT). We will produce and maintain releases corresponding to Fedora releases at least through Fedora 20."

That sounds promising. However, the "current" Pidora distribution is still based on Fedora 18, but Fedora 20 was released a few weeks ago. Second, the "official" Fedora ARM project has moved on to processor versions which are not compatible with the Raspberry Pi processor. Third, if you search for "Pidora future" on the web, or specifically on the Pi web page, you will find some enlightening discussions, to say the least.

For my part, it seems like this: Pidora was a nice idea, and seeing one of my favorite distributions running on the Pi was cool. But without any official support or commitment from either the Raspberry Pi organisation or Fedora themselves, it was always going to be a tough row to hoe. In addition, the Pi is seriously underpowered for a full-featured Linux desktop (even Xfce), much less whatever applications might be bundled with it. So take it for what it is worth, right now, but perhaps don't expect much more of it in the future.

One more thing, to wrap this all up. I have talked about all of these distributions in connection with the NOOBS software package. They are all also available as stand-alone distributions with their own installer (or at least with their own installation instructions). 

So if you decide on one, and you are going to run only that one and don't want to go through the NOOBS boot (and possible recovery or reinstallation) process every time, you can do that. I have included links above, and in my previous post on this, and of course the Raspnberry Pi web page contains all the links and lots more information as well.

It's fun looking at the Pi web page just to see the things people are doing with the Raspberry Pi: things like the Bioscope, which looks like an old toy movie projector and lets you view digital videos by turning a crank on the side to move forward, backward or stop. And I'm not even going to mention No More Woof. Oops, I did. Well, for a good laugh, check it out.

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Topics: Linux, Hardware, Open Source, Operating Systems

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Arch Rules

    I find Arch to be the only usable distro on the Pi. Everything else is a dog. I've been running Arch for almost a year now, and it has served me well. It is relatively easy for beginners -- just use the Arch Wiki! Pidora is unusable in comparison, and Raspbian isn't much better.
  • Low-footprint X-windows

    The lowest footprint I've seen for X-windows is Sawfish. I assume that this desktop would work well with Pi.
    Roger Ramjet
  • I'm really enjoying this series

    Thanks to this man's Christmas present being a Pi, I now have a Raspberry PI on the way. Along with an SD card, USB hub, etc. :)
    I'm a long-time Linux user, so I'm really looking forward to it.
    • Agreed

      Mine arrived in the mail today - what perfect timing for this article! :-)

      Still exploring various potential projects around the web. I'm as excited as when I first installed Linux on an old PC back in 2000 - anything is possible!
  • Thank You, Mr Watson.

    When I became interested in the Rπ, I was hoping that you would also. I know of no one else who will do as good a job of exposition and explanation.
    I bought one and a complete kit--except for the monitor--but immediately gave it to a friend who I felt could make better use of it at the time.

    I've been ardently following the device, and collecting information (and a 1080p 22' HDMI TV set) so that I'll be ready when I purchase another one, for ME, this time.

    I will be sharing this with you and your readers when I get a chance. Keep your expectations low.

    The ONE piece of information which your readers may find useful is that Eben Upton conceived of, and brought to fruition, the Rπ for one purpose only: the education of small children.
    He did NOT have us computer hobbyists--we're now called 'makers'--in mind, nor is the Raspberry Pi Foundation doing much to support this type of activity. This is, in no way, a negative comment, and I certainly do NOT want it interpreted as such. We 'makers' simply MUST realize that we are NOT supposed to be the recipients of the wonderful characteristics of the Pi.

    To his very great credit, Mr Upton is keeping his vision firmly fixed on his original goal of introducing COMPUTING TO YOUNGSTERS..
    There is a section for us on the Raspberry Pi Forums called "Bare Metal", and there are starting to appear more and more books for us 'makers'.
    I'll send along more details as they occur to me.
    Thank you once again from all of us, and
    Warmest regards...
    • History is Very Important

      Hi. First of all, thanks very much for mentioning and outlining the history of the Raspberry Pi project, I was remiss in not dong so myself. The editor here at ZDNet also did an excellent job by including the Read This link to a background article.

      Your history with the RPi is not dissimilar to my own. My first exposure to one was when a colleague who was a dedicated and extremely knowledgeable Linux guru and early adopter (and is miss him very much!) ordered one within days of the initial release. I then started thinking seriously about the RPi's possibilities when another good friend who is a great photographer was going to Africa, and I was considering ways to make a small/cheap/light/easy/reliable device to copy and save very large numbers of digital photos from camera cards; that was followed quickly by another colleague asking for help when he got one for XBMC use, and at that point I knew that I had to get (at least) one for myself and really learn about it.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, as always. Happy New Year!

  • While I'm Thinking about it...

    There was an EXTREMELY good article on Ars Technica about the creation of Raspbian. What made the article so unique was that it was in the form of a dialogue by the TWO gentlemen who built Raspbian, almost from scratch, with the two creator involved in a "back-and-forth" with the readers through the comments section.
    Their motivation was the fact that no available software took advantage of the Rπ's BCM2835 SoC built-in hardware math coprocessor.
    Raspbian does, now.
    The two developers are Mike Thompson and Peter Green.
    This fascinating story shouldn't be too hard to find.
    Thanks again, Mr Watson, and

    Warmest regards...
  • Raspian and Arch

    I am running 3 Raspberry Pi as webserver, media center and private cloud. For most users Raspian is the best solution. Configured correctly it won't use more resources than Arch. For less adventurous users I recommend Raspian. Arch on the Raspberry Pi is a great alternative (depending on your Linux skill level). Arch is a very impressive distro but requires a solid command line interface knowledge. For getting a better understanding how a Linux distro is structured Arch is the perfect system. The maturity and quality of the Arch repositories is comparable with Raspian (for most users). I found the new service management of Arch a bit difficult to understand but beside that I really enjoy to work with Arch (for ARM). The Arch documentation is fantastic. I found all answers I ever needed in the manuals. I am using Raspian primarily because my desktop OS is Ubuntu and it is easier for me to work with the (homogeneous) Debian based structure on all of my PCs. But from the quality perspective Arch is at least on the same level than Raspian. That I can't report from other distros I tested, where I am immediately losing my interest when dependency failures in the repositories occur (for software which I want to install).
  • SOME Raspberry Pi Resources...

    For all us 'more mature' RPi 'makers', I have found the following books and distributor invaluable as sources of information:

    " Raspberry Pi User Guide" by Eben Upton and Gareth Halfacree (Dec 4, 2013) (second edition). make absolutely certain you get the 2nd ed.

    " Raspberry Pi Projects for the Evil Genius" by Norris (Aug 14, 2013). Really good source of otherwise hard-to-obtain info, such as how the GPS SYSTEM works, how NFC & RFID works, and other neat stuff.

    "Raspberry Pi Assembly Language Raspbian Hands On Guide", by Bruce Smith.

    "Learn Python the Hard Way", 3rd ed., Zed A. Shaw.

    (A so-far free RPi magazine called 'MagPi' is a great source of information)

    One REALLY GREAT resource is the organization called Adafruit Industries. I hesitate to call them a distributor; they are that, but much, much more. You will find all sorts of informatiori and in-depth tutorials on the RPi, as well as hard(er) to locate, reasonably priced RPi devices and peripherals such as accelerometers, weather sensors, displays, wi-fi goodies, cases, and...and... Check out Adafruit.com.
    For us US-based guys and gals, Newark Electronics/Premier(e?) 51 is our official geographical distributor.
    Hope this is informative.
    (Caveat: I am not qualified to comment on the material available for young 'makers', but I DO feel--as an 'educator'--that Zed Shaw's book on Python is well within the comprehension range of a motivated 10-year-old, and is a better choice than a book which 'talks down to' the highly-motivated youngster. As Einstein said, "If you can't explain it to a small child, then you don't understand the subject")

    Warmest regards...
  • GUI performance

    If you're not concerned with power consumption, you may find Raspbian performs nicely at 900Mhz (though most of the time I just ssh into my Pi).