Wednesday 18th July saw the first release of the new official Raspberry Pi Linux distribution, Raspbian. This post covers initial experiences with Raspbian and looks at the major differences between this and Debian.
A number of developer images of Raspbian have been around for a little while, but it wasn't until Wednesday that the first official release, “wheezy”, was announced by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The process for getting up and running with the Raspbian image is the same as it was for Debian and simply involves writing it out to an SD card. However, the Raspbian project are also working on an installer and if you prefer to start with nothing and build from the ground up then this may be for you. Although it's worth noting that they say that at this stage in development it can take 8 or 9 hours to set up a fully configured desktop system!
The simple configuration menu provided by Raspbian
Tailored for the Raspberry Pi hardware
Perhaps the biggest benefit of using Raspbian over Debian is performance, as while the former is based upon the latter, what the developers have done is to compile the sources with optimisation for the Pi's ARM v6 CPU and floating point hardware. This has resulted in a general speed-up, but is likely to be most noticeable when running applications that make heavy use of floating point maths. And in benchmarking Adam Armstrong found that the performance improvement varied from between 4 to 40%.
One downside of the move to a hardware floating point or “armhf” architecture is that it's incompatible with the “armel” ABI used by the Debian image, which means that old applications will have to be recompiled. In general this shouldn't be a problem, although I have run into architecture-related issues when attempting to build GNU Radio from source. However, it may be that this is due to the GNU Radio source or build system making incorrect assumptions about the capabilities of the ARM hardware. And problems such as this should be ironed out in due course as Raspbian gains a growing user base.
The Raspbian project provide the required compilation options as part of their FAQ.
It's great to have a Linux distribution which is optimised for the specific hardware capabilities of the Raspberry Pi, and that will act as a focal point for Linux-based development. There are bound to be teething problems to start with, but given the energy that exists in the community these shouldn't be around for very long!
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