How to Set Up Raspberry Pi OS on a Raspberry Pi

The Debian-based Rasperry Pi OS (previously called Raspbian) is optimized to run on Raspberry Pi’s hardware. It bundles a lot of really useful software to help you get started. This makes it a great go-to OS for Pi consumers at any experience level. Installing Raspberry Pi OS has always been pretty straightforward, but it’s only gotten easier with the 2020 release of the Raspberry Pi Imager. Here we will show you how to set up Raspberry Pi OS on a Raspberry Pi.

The below instructions are for installing Raspberry Pi OS on a Pi that can be connected to a screen and a keyboard/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 SD card.

What you’ll need

  • Raspberry Pi
  • SD card (16GB required for full installation, minimum class 4 speed)
  • Computer
  • SD card reader
  • 5V power supply for the Pi
  • Monitor
  • HDMI cable
  • Keyboard and/or mouse (If they’re Bluetooth they should have a dongle that plugs into the Pi.)

How to use Raspberry Pi Imager

Before Raspberry Pi Imager came on the scene, flashing Raspberry Pi OS onto an SD card meant downloading the operating system image from their site and using a third-party tool like BalenaEtcher to write it to an SD 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 the SD card.

Pi Imager also caches the download. This means 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 if your Pi 4 is having boot problems. There’s really no reason to use something else unless you need/want 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 click through the prompts to set it up.

3. Plug an SD card into your computer.

4. Launch Raspberry Pi Imager.

5. 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.)

6. Choose the SD card you want to write the operating system to.

7. Check your final configuration.

8. Click “Write” and wait for the process to finish.

Once you have Raspberry Pi OS successfully installed on the SD card, you can take it out of your computer, put it into your Raspberry Pi and boot up. If everything went well, it should take you directly to a fully-functional desktop for some initial setup.

The most important part of this setup is setting your password, so if you skip the initial helper, make sure you do that in the settings later.

If you’d rather use third-party software, Balena Etcher and Win32 Disk Imager work quite similarly. However, you’ll have to download the Raspberry Pi OS image first and use that as your source when writing to the SD card.

How to set up Raspberry Pi OS using NOOBS

New Out Of the Box Software, or NOOBS, is an alternative way to set up a single Raspberry Pi. It essentially puts all the operating system files onto an SD card and lets you set up whichever one you like – Raspberry Pi OS, in this case. It’s a bit slower and more hands-on, but it’s still a popular way to get a fresh Pi.

1. Download the NOOBS ZIP file.

2. Extract it using whichever extraction program you like. I use 7-Zip.

3. Format your SD card to FAT32. Windows only lets you format drives of up to 32GB with FAT32, so you can use the Raspberry Pi Imager or another program, like the SD Memory Card Formatter, to format your card if it’s over 32GB.

4. Once NOOBS is extracted and the card is formatted, just move all the files from the NOOBS folder directly onto the SD card. Don’t move the NOOBS folder itself – just the files inside.

5. Eject the SD card from the computer, insert it into the Raspberry Pi, and boot.

6. Choose an operating system from the list above. (Raspberry Pi OS is on the top.)

7. Press “Install” and wait for the system to complete setup.

Once it’s complete, your Pi should boot to the Raspberry Pi OS desktop and walk you through a few initial setup steps.

It didn’t work. What’s wrong?

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

The good thing is that once you have set up Raspberry Pi OS on your Raspberry Pi, you can proceed to do projects like turning your Raspberry Pi into a music server, a wireless access point, or even a retro gaming console.


Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun is a lifelong tech enthusiast with a wide range of interests, including travel, economics, math, data analysis, fitness, and more. He is an advocate of cryptocurrencies and other decentralized technologies, and hopes to see new generations of innovation continue to outdo each other.

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