Raspberry Pi OS is the default operating system for Raspberry Pi computers. While others can be installed, there is the risk of losing some Pi-specific functionality. You might also be running various projects on your Pi and don’t want to simply switch to a new OS.
But what if you wanted a new look? Like other Linux distros, you can change the desktop environment on your Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi OS Uses PIXEL
Based on Debian, the Raspberry Pi OS has a modified version of the LXDE desktop environment. This is accompanied by a unique theme and the Openbox stacking window manager. Together, this is known as PIXEL.
On the whole, PIXEL is a fine desktop environment. Introduced back in 2017, PIXEL brought a degree of polish to the Raspbian (as it was then called) operating system. Prior to that, things had been a bit basic and ropey.
But if you’re tired of PIXEL, don’t like it, or just want to change to a more modern-looking Linux desktop environment, these alternatives are available:
- KDE plasma
Below is a look at each in depth. Before installing, ensure your Pi is running Raspberry Pi OS Lite, and you’re using a Raspberry Pi 3 or later (unless otherwise instructed).
Installing multiple Raspberry Pi desktop environments alongside another is not recommended, as it will typically lead to conflicts and poor responsiveness.
How to Set the Raspberry Pi to Boot into the Desktop Mode
With a desktop environment installed, you may also like Raspberry Pi OS to boot directly to the desktop rather than the command line. To do this from the command line:
- Run sudo raspi-config
- Use the keyboard to select System Options and hit enter
- Choose Boot/Auto Login, then enter
- Select Desktop or Desktop Autologin and tap enter depending on preference
- Select Finish, hit enter, then Reboot when prompted
This will result in Raspberry Pi OS launching in desktop mode, booting into the installed desktop environment.
Fancy turning your Raspberry Pi into a super-slick, modern-looking computer?
Installing GNOME as the Pi’s desktop environment will do exactly that.
You have different options here, from installing GNOME as an alternative to PIXEL, to installing it as the sole desktop on a basic Raspberry Pi OS Lite system. This last (arguably better) option uses the GNOME for Pi project.
For the best results with GNOME, your Raspberry Pi should be installed on an SSD rather than on microSD.
Note that before logging in, you should click the cog wheel and select GNOME on Xorg. This will improve performance from GNOME on your Raspberry Pi.
2. KDE Plasma
Regarded as perhaps the best-looking Linux desktop environment around, KDE Plasma can be installed on the Raspberry Pi OS.
Known for its sharp lines and stunning selection of desktop backgrounds, KDE Plasma will totally refresh your Raspberry Pi. It’s almost the antithesis of PIXEL, and will change the way you think about the Pi.
To install KDE Plasma:
sudo apt install kde-standard
It is worth disabling the compositor after installation. Press Alt+Shift+F12 to test—things should move a lot slicker on the KDE Plasma desktop. To permanently disable this:
- Click the menu
- Type “compositor”
- Click Compositor
- Clear the box labeled Enable compositor on startup
- Click Apply then OK
KDE Plasma needs the 64-bit Raspberry Pi OS Lite to run reliably, so ensure this is installed.
The Xfce desktop environment is a tidy alternative to the LXDE-based PIXEL. Sporting a compact dock in across the bottom of the screen and with a top-left applications menu, it is perhaps the closest alternative to PIXEL.
Just as lightweight as PIXEL, Xfce looks far better than the default desktop.
You can easily install Xfce on your Raspberry Pi with:
sudo apt install xfce4 x-window-system
This will add the Xfce desktop to your Raspberry Pi.
Crisp and functional, LXQt is often overlooked as an alternative desktop environment across the entire Linux family. As alternatives to GNOME go, KDE Plasma and Xfce tend to get all the attention.
The same is the same on the Raspberry Pi, where the PIXEL desktop reigns supreme. But LXQt is a smart environment without frills and distractions.
You can install LXQt on the Raspberry Pi with:
sudo apt install lxqt-core lxqt oxygen-icon-theme xorg xinit xserver-xorg-video-fbdev
That will ensure the desktop installs without bring any unnecessary tools and apps with it. If you want them, simply use
sudo apt install lxqt-core xinit
This will install the full set of packages.
Another option is the other Ubuntu desktop environment, MATE. This enjoyed increased popularity when Ubuntu developers Canonical were abandoning the Unity desktop environment in favor of GNOME Shell.
MATE is forked from the GNOME 2 code, and has a more traditional desktop focus than the current GNOME 4x generation. Its low system footprint makes MATE a smart choice for the Raspberry Pi.
You can use MATE on any Raspberry Pi 2 or later device, the newer, the better. However, first generation Raspberry Pis cannot handle MATE.
Install MATE with
sudo apt install mate-desktop-environment-extras -y
You can also install the full Ubuntu OS (GNOME or MATE) on a Raspberry Pi.
Known mainly as the desktop environment found on Linux Mint, Cinnamon is another Windows-like desktop compatible with Raspberry Pi OS.
Installing Cinnamon on the Pi is straightforward:
sudo apt install cinnamon-desktop-environment
However, the main installation option might leave you with a somewhat bloated system. Instead, there are two further installation options:
sudo apt install cinnamon
This installs just the minimum collection of software required to run Cinnamon. If you’re looking for an even lighter desktop environment for your Raspberry Pi, use
sudo apt install cinnamon-core
This will deliver the Cinnamon desktop and not much else. The result should be a slick, lightweight computing experience on the Raspberry Pi.
Change Your Raspberry Pi Desktop Environment Today
Each of these alternative Raspberry Pi desktop environments can be installed manually or using dedicated software. Tasksel, a Debian-based tool for automated configuration, features a number of desktop environments. Compatible with Raspberry Pi OS, Tasksel can be used to install most Debian-friendly desktops.
As noted, it is smarter to start with the compact Raspberry Pi OS Lite rather than the full version. Doing so will avoid conflicts and misconfiguration.
Of course, you don’t have to rely on a Linux-style desktop environment for your Raspberry Pi. You could make it look like Windows or macOS instead.