How to Set Up Raspberry Pi OS on a Raspberry Pi

Pi Os Hed

If you’re looking to get cracking on a Raspberry Pi project, the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (previously called Raspbian) should be on your radar. It’s optimized to run on Raspberry Pi’s hardware, and it bundles a lot of useful software to help you get started. This makes it a great go-to OS for Pi consumers at any experience level. Here, we show you how to set up Raspberry Pi OS on a Raspberry Pi.

The below instructions apply to installing Raspberry Pi OS on a Pi that can be connected to a screen, keyboard and mouse. If you want to do a headless install, you’ll need to look up instructions for enabling Wi-Fi and SSH by editing files on the system’s microSD card.

What You’ll Need

  • Raspberry Pi board
  • microSD card
  • Computer
  • microSD card reader
  • 5V power supply for the Pi
  • Monitor
  • HDMI cable
  • Keyboard and/or mouse (If they’re Bluetooth-enabled, they should have a dongle that plugs into the Pi.)

How to Pick a microSD Card

SD cards can come in different sizes and speeds. For size, you should pick the smallest microSD card you can find. For speed class, it would be best to have either a C10 or U1 card. Both ratings can read and write at least 10MB/s. You can go with a 30MB/s U3 card, but bear in mind that the maximum speed of the Raspberry Pi’s hardware is less than that, at only around 25MB/s.

As for Application Performance Class, the Raspberry Pi’s hardware can only support A1 cards, so you won’t get any performance boosts on an A2 card.

Set Up Raspberry Pi OS With Raspberry Pi Imager

Before Raspberry Pi Imager came on the scene, flashing Raspberry Pi OS onto a microSD card meant downloading the operating system image from the site and using a third-party tool like BalenaEtcher to write it to a microSD card. Pi Imager essentially combines those two steps and streamlines the process. It finds the latest version of the operating system you’re installing and writes it directly to your microSD card.

Raspberry Pi Imager Preparing To Write

Pi Imager also caches the download so that if you do another install, it will use a locally-saved copy of the file rather than downloading it again. It will save you some bandwidth and time on multiple installs or reflashes.

Pi Imager even comes with a FAT32 formatting tool to erase the card and EEPROM Recovery for boot problems that are unique to the Pi 4. There’s really no reason to use something else unless you need or would like to, as this is the fastest and easiest way to get started.

  1. Download Raspberry Pi Imager for your OS. (It works on Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.)
  2. Run the installer and follow through the on-screen prompts to set it up.
Raspberry Pi Imager Setup Wizard
  1. Plug a microSD card into your computer.
  2. Launch Raspberry Pi Imager.
Raspberry Pi Imager V 1 7 1
  1. Choose your operating system. (Raspberry Pi OS is at the very top; the option to install a custom image from your computer is at the bottom.)
Raspberry Pi Imager Choose Os
  1. Choose the microSD card you want to write the operating system to.
Raspberry Pi Imager Choose Storage
  1. Check your final configuration.
Raspberry Pi Imager Ready To Write
  1. Click “Write” and wait for the process to finish.
Raspberry Pi Imager Finished

Set Up Raspberry Pi OS With BalenaEtcher

BalenaEtcher is one of the earliest methods to install an OS on the Raspberry Pi. You can still do this to install Raspberry Pi OS, as well as most Linux distros.

Balena Etcher Logo

You can also try installing Balena OS with it, which lets you manage multiple devices connected to your Raspberry Pi.

  1. Download BalenaEtcher.
Balena Etcher Download Button
  1. Open the file to run the setup wizard.
Balena Etcher Installation Wizard
  1. Visit the Raspberry Pi website and pick a Raspberry Pi OS image to download.

There are two options for moving forward: choose to download the OS on your current device first or have BalenaEtcher download it automatically.

  1. BalenaEtcher should automatically run after the setup wizard finishes installing.
Balena Etcher

If you planned to download the Raspberry Pi OS image file first, click on “Flash from file” and select the disk image file.

If you haven’t downloaded it, click on “Flash from URL” and paste the download link on the URL bar.

Balena Etcher Use Image Url

If you are flashing from URL, be sure to paste the download link and not the link to the download page.

  1. Pick up a freshly-formatted microSD card and plug it in to your PC to install the OS on this microSD card. In Balena Etcher, click “Select Target.”
Balena Etcher Select Target
  1. Choose your memory card from the list of memory drives that shows up, then click “Select.”
Balena Etcher Choose Memory Card
  1. Click “Flash.”
Balena Etcher Flash Button
  1. BalenaEtcher should start flashing the Raspberry Pi OS to your memory card. This can take a while.
Balena Etcher Flashing Raspberry Pi Os Image

What to Do After Installing Raspberry Pi OS

Once you have Raspberry Pi OS successfully installed on the microSD card, you can remove it from your computer, insert it into your Raspberry Pi, and boot up the device. If everything went well, it should take you directly to the Raspberry Pi setup wizard before bringing you to the desktop.

Raspberry Pi Desktop Setup Wizard

Password-protected accounts are now mandatory in Raspberry Pi OS. As in the past, the default username was “pi” and the password “raspberry,” you’ll need to set your own custom login details. But this is a good thing.

Raspberry Pi Desktop Setup Wizard User Account Setup

You can use third-party disk imagers other than Balena Etcher, like Win32 Disk Imager. However, you will still have to download the Raspberry Pi OS image first and use that as your source when writing to the microSD card.

It didn’t work. What’s wrong?

If something goes wrong with your Raspberry Pi setup, don’t worry: you probably didn’t brick it. It’s not easy to break a Pi accidentally, and wiping the microSD card and starting over won’t have adverse effects.

Make sure your microSD card is properly inserted, your power supply is adequate, your HDMI cable is plugged into the first (left) port, and that you’re installing the latest version of the OS. If the full install of Raspberry Pi OS fails repeatedly, try Raspberry Pi OS Lite instead.

If you’re still in doubt, Google your problem. There are tons of people sharing experience and tips online, and the more you do with your Pi, the more you’ll find yourself leaning on the collective experience of the community.

Once you set up Raspberry Pi OS on your Raspberry Pi, you can work on neat projects like turning your Raspberry Pi into a music server, a wireless access point, or even a retro gaming console.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my memory card show up as multiple drives after I use it to set up Raspberry Pi OS through Windows?

Disk imagers flash the Raspberry Pi OS on your memory card so that it cuts up the memory card into smaller drives where it installs certain parts of the OS. You will get even more drives if you install multiple OSes in one memory card. If Windows shows a prompt recommending that you format your memory card, don’t do it. Windows just doesn’t understand what’s written on the memory card.

What should I do if BalenaEtcher gets stuck while flashing Raspberry Pi OS?

This is a problem that can come from multiple sources. First, make sure that your microSD card and card reader work properly. Try changing card readers. If you are using a USB hub, try connecting your card reader straight to the USB port instead of plugging it in through the hub. And if you’re flashing from a URL, try downloading the image to your PC first then flashing it from the file. But if that still doesn’t work, then you might have to install via the official Raspberry Pi Imager instead.

Where can I download NOOBS?

NOOBS (New Out Of the Box Software) can no longer be found on the Raspberry Pi downloads section. However, you can still access the NOOBS GitHub repository.

Would you recommend using NOOBS?

Despite its name, NOOBS is not particularly noob-friendly. The way that you use NOOBS is that you’re supposed to paste the files on the memory card, then run the NOOBS software on your Raspberry Pi while it boots up. Raspberry Pi Imager is actually easier to use.

What is the difference between an SD card and a microSD card?

If you’ve seen a larger memory card placed into a camera or laptop, that is an SD card. The microSD card is the smaller type – it probably also came with a microSD-to-SD card adapter when you bought it.

Terenz Jomar Dela Cruz
Terenz Jomar Dela Cruz

Terenz is a hobbyist roboticist trying to build the most awesome robot the world has ever seen. He could have done that already if he wasn't so busy burning through LEDs as a second hobby.

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