The Raspberry Pi Foundation announced today that it has brought its PIXEL desktop environment to PC and Mac.
So. What does that mean?
The Raspberry Pi Foundation makes a variety of low-cost Raspberry Pi computer boards, the most recent being the Raspberry Pi 3, which costs just $35. They’re billed as full-featured computers, but it’s more nuanced than that: These devices still require a case, power supply, storage, and various peripherals, of course. But they’re still very inexpensive.
Aside from the peripherals, budding Pi users will also need an operating system of some kind. And in addition to such things as Windows 10 IoT Core, which is a stripped-down Windows version with no GUI, and various Ubuntu Linux variants, and more, the Raspberry Pi Foundation offers two OSes of its own, NOOBS and Raspbian.
As its name suggests, NOOBS is aimed at beginners. But Raspbian is a Debian Linux-based OS distribution aimed at more mainstream and technical users. And its desktop environment—what you may think of as the shell–is called PIXEL. (You might think of PIXEL as the equivalent of the Windows desktop or, more directly, the GNOME and KDE environments for Linux.)
Introduced in September, PIXEL serves as Raspbian’s user interface, of course, but it also provides another usual function for the developers, creators, and makers who would be attracted to this type of device: It includes a suite of software tools aimed at software development, and at software development education.
Or, as Raspberry Pi Founder Eben Upton puts it:
“PIXEL represents our best guess as to what the majority of users are looking for in a desktop environment: a clean, modern user interface; a curated suite of productivity software and programming tools, both free and proprietary; and the Chromium web browser with useful plugins, including Adobe Flash, preinstalled. And all of this is built on top of Debian, providing instant access to thousands of free applications. Put simply, it’s the GNU/Linux we would want to use.”
To date, of course, you’ve needed a Raspberry Pi computer (and peripherals) to run PIXEL on the Raspbian OS. This isn’t a huge financial leap, and I’d argue its not a major technical feat either. But in order to make PIXEL even more accessible, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has brought this environment to PC and Mac.
No, it doesn’t run on top of Windows or macOS. You’re also getting a full Debian Linux environment, plus the full Raspberry Pi software stack, and you can install or run it on an existing computer. This means you get (almost) all those developer/education tools, too. Which I think is a huge reason for this new offering.
“We have a Christmas treat for you: an experimental version of Debian+PIXEL for x86 platforms,” Upton explains. “Simply download the image, burn it onto a DVD or flash it onto a USB stick, and boot straight into the familiar PIXEL desktop environment on your PC or Mac. Or go out and buy this month’s issue of The MagPi magazine, in stores tomorrow, which has this rather stylish bootable DVD on the cover.”
The only things missing, Upton says, are Minecraft and Wolfram Mathematica, because the foundation doesn’t have a licence to put those on non-Raspberry Pi devices. But there are lots of upsides, too: The Debian distribution that Pi is using is an older i386-based variant, so it will run on really old PCs. Which is very much in keeping with the foundation’s goals of bringing technology to the masses cheaply.
Upton says that Raspberry Pi did the work to bring PIXEL and its toolsets to PCs and Macs for two reasons: Many schools and students have older PCs sitting around doing nothing, and this can breathe new life into them. And porting PIXEL beyond Raspberry Pi will help ensure it’s as good as it can be. “We don’t just want to create the best desktop environment for the Raspberry Pi,” Upton says, “we want to create the best desktop environment, period.”
This initial release is considered a prototype and not a final release version. But if you want to get started early, you can do so today.