The team at the Raspberry Pi foundation recently released their new PIXEL distribution of the Raspberry Pi operating system as a bootable system for x86 PCs and Macs! If you’ve got an old laptop or Mac around that you don’t really use anymore, you could use it to boot into Raspberry Pi PIXEL! Here’s how.

A shot of my old laptop running the PIXEL OS alongside a shot of the PIXEL OS loading screen

Raspberry Pi’s PIXEL can now run on old PCs and Macs!

Finding an old computer

Any old PC or Mac should work, as long as it’s an old x86 system. 64 bit systems won’t work with this (yet)! An important note here — I did not create the PIXEL image, nor can I guarantee it will not cause harm to your PC or Mac. Please only use it on a system you don’t care too much about losing data on. Even the Raspberry Pi foundation say:

“One of the great benefits of the Raspberry Pi is that it is a low-consequence environment for messing about: if you trash your SD card you can just flash another one. This is not always true of your PC or Mac. Consider backing up your system before trying this image.” — Raspberry Pi foundation

So, before continuing on, please note that both myself and Raspberry Pi can accept no liability for any loss of data or damage to computer systems from using the image. It’s fun to do, just know that there could be risk involved in trying it out. Don’t try it on your main computer!

Downloading PIXEL

You’ll want to download the PIXEL .iso file. You can download that here: http://downloads.raspberrypi.org/pixel_x86/images/pixel_x86-2016-12-13/2016-12-13-pixel-x86-jessie.iso. Save that to somewhere you can find on your main computer (not the one you want to install it on!).

Download and install Etcher

Etcher is a fantastic open-source program that can burn images to SD cards and USB drives. We’ll be using it to put the PIXEL ISO file onto a USB drive so that we can boot from it. To get started, head to Etcher.io and click the big download button for your OS. Throughout this, I’ll be using Windows as that’s the environment I had on both my main computer and on the laptop I planned to run PIXEL on. For this download — choose the OS (either Windows, Mac or Linux) which is your main computer you are using right now.

A screenshot of etcher.io's homepage with download button

Download Etcher for your operating system at https://etcher.io/

Once you’ve downloaded that file, open up the Etcher setup and run through it like any other install. For the Windows install, just click “Install” in the bottom right:

Screenshot of the install wizard with the Install button highlighted

It’s quite simple, just click “Install”

Then, Etcher will run through its install really quickly. Once it’s done, tick the “Start Etcher” checkbox and then click “Finish”. This way, we’ll have Etcher load up straight away ready for us to use!

Screenshot of the finished install with Start Etcher ticked

Check that “Start Etcher” is ticked and then click “Finish”

Prepare your USB drive/SD card!

Insert your USB drive that you’d like to use into your main computer (I think SD cards also work if you’d rather use one of those) and make sure that it is completely empty. I personally went and formatted mine to completely start from scratch. Keep your USB drive/SD card in your main computer for now and we’ll put Raspberry Pi’s PIXEL on there using Etcher.

Using Etcher

Etcher’s interface is a really nice and clean one which guides you most of the way. To get started, click the “Select image” button on the left.

The select image button on Etcher

Click “Select Image”

From there, it’ll open up your file system and you can find the ISO file that you downloaded from the Raspberry Pi website. Choose that file:

Windows Explorer with the downloaded file

Select the iso file you downloaded from the Raspberry Pi website

From there, Etcher very kindly detects the USB drive you’d like to use (if you’ve only got one connected to your computer). Check and DOUBLE CHECK that this is the right drive — you don’t want to end up flashing your main hard drive for your computer… or any others for that matter. A good sign of whether the drive is the right one is whether it matches the size of your USB drive or SD card. If you’ve got a 1TB hard drive appearing there and your USB is only 64GB… then that’s not the right drive! If the wrong one is showing, click the small “Change” link underneath it. If it’s all looking correct (be absolutely certain!!!), then click “Flash!”:

The final stage of the Etcher set up process, choose Flash! when you are ready to move to the next step

Check that it’s the correct drive (your USB drive and not your hard drive!) and then click “Flash!”

From there, Etcher will do its thing. Go enjoy yourself. See the outside world. Have a caffeine fix. Do a little jig. Watch some YouTube. It’ll be done usually within 5-10 minutes (depending on how big your USB drive or SD card is I assume).

Etcher's in progress percentage bar

Etcher working its magic on your USB drive

If you are watching it intently wondering how to know when it’s close to ready — it’ll get to “Validating” which means it’s close! It’s just checking everything was flashed over correctly.

Etcher at the Validating step

Getting closer!

Next up, it safely removes (unmounts) your USB drive or SD card from your computer. Let it do this process, that’ll look like so:

Etcher unmounting the drive

Let it safely remove your USB drive

Once it is done, it’ll say the wonderful words “Flash Complete!” which means it’s ready and you can remove your USB drive or SD card from your computer:

The final screen of the Etcher process showing the flash is complete

All complete and ready to go!

Booting into PIXEL from your USB drive or SD card

To boot into PIXEL, insert your USB drive into your old PC/Mac and set it up to boot from your USB drive. This process will be different for every laptop! For me, I had to tap F10 or F11 for this to work (I had to try a bunch of times so I can’t for the life of me remember which it was now!). If you’re not sure, try searching online for your computer’s manufacturer and “boot sequence settings” to see if you can find how to do it on your computer.

If it boots successfully from your USB drive or SD card, it’ll look like below with three options:

  • Run with persistence — this means that it’ll set up a file system on your USB drive/SD card to store your files when you use PIXEL. That allows it to be more like a functional computer you can use day to day.
  • Run and reset persistence — this will reset any previous persistence that you had set up if you’ve run PIXEL on your USB drive or SD card before, it’ll reset it to the default state.
  • Run without persistence — this will prevent anything from saving at all while you use it, which will be more like if you booted from a CD or DVD.
The PIXEL boot screen

The screen you should see when you boot into your USB drive

While it is loading, you’ll see this screen below. For those who’ve worked with Raspberry Pis and Linux before, you’ll be used to a whole stream of commands and text that flows up the screen. PIXEL hides all that to be a bit more user-friendly to the non-technical who might be a bit scared off by the technical jibberish streaming on their screen!

PIXEL's loading screen

PIXEL’s simple loading screen

Once that’s done, we can see the typical Linux-based PIXEL desktop with a bunch nicer default background!

The PIXEL OS desktop on first load

Our PIXEL’s first boot!

Getting an Internet connection

Chances are in this day and age, the main thing you’ll want for your PIXEL is an Internet connection! To get this, click on the Wi-Fi button on the top right (it’ll have two lines with Xs on alternate sides) and select your Wi-Fi:

A shot of the PIXEL's available Wi-Fi connections

Connecting to Wi-Fi for the all important Internet

If all goes well, you should now be able to click the globe icon on the top left and access the Internet!

A screenshot of the Dev Diner website loading successfully on the PIXEL

Our Internet is working! Hooray!

Getting sound to work

My laptop didn’t quite work with sound initially, the audio icon showed a cross through it on the top right and wouldn’t let me increase or decrease the volume. To fix this, I went to the audio settings by clicking the Raspberry Pi icon on the top left and choosing Preferences > Audio Device Settings:

Preferences > Audio Device Settings

Finding the audio settings

In “Audio Device Settings”, I changed the sound card from “HD-Audio Generic (Alsa mixer)” to “HDA ATI SB (Alsa mixer)” and clicked “Make Default” at the center, bottom of the screen. Then I clicked “OK”:

The settings to select HDA ATI SB (Alsa mixer)

Choosing HDA ATI SB (Alsa mixer)

Once I’d done that, audio worked successfully!

A screenshot of the Meri Amber YouTube running on PIXEL

Sound is now working! I can hear one of my favourite YouTube channels once more!

Final thoughts

I used a 32GB USB drive and to be honest, the operating system ran rather slowly. It could have been my laptop, or it could have been that the USB drive itself was super slow. Even still, it’s wonderful that this is now possible with what was a Raspberry Pi-centric Linux distro! It also provides a neat way of having a portable (yet modern) OS you can carry around on a portable USB drive!

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