Raspberry Pi: Hands On with Arch Linux and Pidora

Exploring two more general-purpose Linux versions on the Raspberry Pi.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

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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