Raspberry Pi: This new feature could help you get started more easily

Raspberry Pi's bootloader now lets you install an OS from the network.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The makers of Raspberry Pi computers have released a new boot loader that lets users install an operating system like the official OS directly on the compute board rather than via a separate computer.

Until now, Raspberry Pi owners needed the imager on a macOS, Windows or Ubuntu desktop to install the OS on a Pi device. It could also be done via another Pi device by connecting SD card readers on each of them. The new Raspberry Pi bootloader delivers network installation, cutting out the need for a second computer to install the OS. 

Raspberry Pi's makers have released the network installer as a beta and are seeking feedback from users about the experience of installing the OS onto a blank SD card from the network.

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"How do you get the operating system onto an SD card if you don't have another computer in the first place? It's the classic chicken and egg problem, and we've just solved it," says Raspberry Pi software engineer, Peter Harper.

With the tool, users don't need another computer to run Raspberry Pi Imager and can instead "start the application directly on a Raspberry Pi 4 or Raspberry Pi 400 by connecting it to the Internet with an Ethernet cable," according to a Raspberry Pi support note

There are several caveats to using the bootloader in its beta phase. It's only supports the latest hardware, such as Pi 4 and Raspberry Pi 400, but not Pi 3 and earlier. Also, users with existing boards need to update the bootloader. 

After the beta period ends, Raspberry Pi devices will ship with the new network bootloader installed, so users won't need to update it. Also, the SD card being used to update the Raspberry Pi's bootloader will be erased entirely. 

The support note includes the following flags:

  • To avoid slowing down "normal boot," the network installation feature is only enabled if there's no bootable media present, and you have USB mass storage boot in your boot order.
  • Updating the bootloader will be necessary for existing boards already in circulation. However, once the beta period has ended, Raspberry Pi boards will be shipped with the new network bootloader installed directly from the factory.
  • Installation of the beta bootloader "should be fairly safe", but you should keep a spare SD Card to restore the default bootloader in case you run into an issue. 

Users can try the beta bootloader by selecting it within the Imager application. After clicking on the "Choose OS" button, there's an "Operating System" list in the pop-up window. Users need to click on "Misc utility images", and then select "Beta Test Bootloader".

The network install option securely downloads an embedded version of the Raspberry Pi Imager from raspberrypi.com into memory and runs it as a RAM disk, according to Raspberry Pi.

Getting a new Raspberry Pi can be difficult these days due to the global chip shortage, which triggered the device's first price rise ever

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Despite multiple resellers reporting Raspberry Pi 4 units are out of stock, Raspberry Pi CEO Even Upton recently told ZDNet that it's facing a "demand" issue rather than a supply one. However, he conceded it is operating in a "tight market".  

"We're building Raspberry Pi 4 units as fast as we can, with roughly a million units being built in the first quarter (along with a bunch of Compute Modules and older products)," Upton told ZDNet in an email. 

"As with last year, this is more a story of high demand than low supply: we shipped just over 7 million Raspberry Pis in 2021, flat on 2020... So supply is getting out there, but it's definitely a tight market".

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