How to install “Raspbian” on the Raspberry Pi

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A lot of our tutorials here on The Pi start the same way – with a link to this one. That’s because a huge number of great Raspberry Pi projects start with installing Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi. Raspbian is the Raspberry Pi’s most popular operating system, a spin off of the Linux distribution Debian that works well on the Raspberry Pi’s hardware.

Raspbian is a competent and versatile operating system that gives your Raspberry Pi all the comforts of a PC: a command line, a browser, and tons of other programs. You can use a Raspberry Pi running Raspbian as a cheap and effective home computer, or you can use it as a springboard and turn your Raspberry Pi into any of countless other functional devices, from wireless access points to retro gaming machines. Here’s how to install Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi.

How to install Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi

Installing Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi is pretty straightforward. We’ll be downloading Raspbian and writing the disc image to a microSD card, then booting the Raspberry Pi to that microSD card. For this project, you’ll need a microSD card (go with at least 8 GB), a computer with a slot for it, and, of course, a Raspberry Pi and basic peripherals (a mouse, keyboard, screen, and power source). This isn’t the only method for installing Raspbian (more on that in a moment), but it’s a useful technique to learn because it can also be used to install so many other operating systems on the Raspberry Pi. Once you know how to write a disc image to a microSD card, you open up a lot of options for fun Raspberry Pi projects.

A word about NOOBS

It’s worth noting that the method described here isn’t your only option for installing Raspbian. You can also opt to use NOOBS, an operating system installation manager that makes it easy to install Raspbian, as well as a few other operating systems. If you really want to make things easy, you can even buy SD cards that come pre-loaded with NOOBS.

Step 1: Download Raspbian

Raspbian Download

I promised to show you how to install Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi, so it’s about time that we got started! First things first: hop onto your computer (Mac and PC are both fine) and download the Raspbian disc image. You can find the latest version of Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s website here. Give yourself some time for this, especially if you plan to use the traditional download option rather than the torrent. It can easily take a half hour or more to download.

Step 2: Unzip the file

The Raspbian disc image is compressed, so you’ll need to unzip it. The file uses the ZIP64 format, so depending on how current your built-in utilities are, you need to use certain programs to unzip it. If you have any trouble, try these programs recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation:

  • Windows users, you’ll want 7-Zip.
  • Mac users, The Unarchiver is your best bet.
  • Linux users will use the appropriately named Unzip.

Step 3: Formatting sdCard

According to the SD specifications, any SD card larger than 32GB is an SDXC card and has to be formatted with the exFAT filesystem. This means the official SD Formatter tool will always format cards that are 64GB or larger as exFAT.

The Raspberry Pi’s bootloader, built into the GPU and non-updateable, only has support for reading from FAT filesystems (both FAT16 and FAT32), and is unable to boot from an exFAT filesystem. So if you want to use NOOBS on a card that is 64GB or larger, you need to reformat it as FAT32 first before copying the NOOBS files to it.

Linux and Mac OS:

The standard formatting tools built into these operating systems are able to create FAT32 partitions; they might also be labelled as FAT or MS-DOS. Simply delete the existing exFAT partition and create and format a new FAT32 primary partition, before proceeding with the rest of the NOOBS instructions. On a Mac, this means using the built-in Disk Utility application.

Windows:

The standard formatting tools built into Windows are limited, as they only allow partitions up to 32GB to be formatted as FAT32, so to format a 64GB partition as FAT32 you need to use a third-party formatting tool. A simple tool to do this is FAT32 Format which downloads as a single file named guiformat.exe – no installation is necessary.

Run the SD Formatter tool first to ensure that any other partitions on the SD card are deleted. Then run the FAT32 Format (guiformat.exe) tool, ensure you choose the correct drive letter, leave the other options at their default settings, and click “Start”. After it has finished, you can proceed with the rest of the NOOBS instructions.

If the FAT32 Format tool doesn’t work for you, alternative options are MiniTool Partition Wizard Free Edition and EaseUS Partition Master Free which are “home user” versions of fully featured partition editor tools, and so not as straightforward to use.

Step 4: Write the disc image to your microSD card

win32-disk-imager-raspbian
Next, pop your microSD card into your computer and write the disc image to it. You’ll need a specific program to do this:

  • Windows users, your answer is Win32 Disk Imager.
  • Mac users, you can use the disk utility that’s already on your machine.
  • Linux people, Etcher – which also works on Mac and Windows – is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends.

The process of actually writing the image will be slightly different across these programs, but it’s pretty self-explanatory no matter what you’re using. Each of these programs will have you select the destination (make sure you’ve picked your microSD card!) and the disc image (the unzipped Raspbian file). Choose, double-check, and then hit the button to write.

Step 5: Put the microSD card in your Pi and boot up

Once the disc image has been written to the microSD card, you’re ready to go! Put that sucker into your Rasberry Pi, plug in the peripherals and power source, and enjoy. The current edition to Raspbian will boot directly to the desktop. Your default credentials are username pi and password raspberry.

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