Now that you have a Raspberry Pi and want to set it up with an operating system (need to buy a Raspberry Pi? Get one on Amazon), you have several choices. If you're primarily using the Raspberry Pi as a media center, you may want to consider installing RaspBMC, a custom distribution of XBMC. This will allow your Raspberry Pi to boot directly into a media center interface.

But if you're looking to use your Raspberry Pi as a general computer, you may want to consider the Raspbian distribution. Raspbian is a version of Debian Linux specifically configured to run on the Raspberry Pi and is recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation as the operating system to install.

You may also want to learn about NOOBS, an even easier way to install operating systems on your Raspberry Pi.

Downloading Raspbian

Raspbian is available for free from the Raspberry Pi website. Under the header "Raspbian 'wheezy'", download either the torrent or direct download. The torrent has the potential to be faster, but some firewalls may block the required ports and you may have to use the direct download instead.

Once you have the ZIP file downloaded to your computer, unarchive it. There will be a single .img file inside. This is the disk image you will flash to the Raspberry Pi's SD card. To install Raspbian, you will need an SD card that has 2 GB of space or more-- this cheap 16 GB Class 10 SD card works great on the Raspberry Pi, and gives you plenty of room to add media and other programs once Raspbian is installed.

Mac OS X

On Mac OS X, we will use a utility called dd. This is a Unix tool for flashing disk images, among other things.

Once you've plugged in the SD card to your Mac, Open the "Disk Utility" application from the Utilities folder in Applications. You'll see a screen similar to the one below, listing your Mac's hard drive, any external hard drives plugged in, and your SD card. You can see my Raspberry Pi SD card is a 4GB SD card.

Disk Utility

Format the SD Card

If you haven't already, format the drive to FAT-32. This can be done from Disk Utility by clicking the "4.01 GB APPLE SD Card Reader Media" item in the list on the left. On your computer, it may be called something different if your SD card model or capacity is different than mine. Make sure you select the SD card and not your hard drive.

Once you've highlighted the SD card in the list, click the "Erase" tab that appeared on the right hand pane. You'll see a "Format" option and a "Name" field. Choose "MS-DOS (FAT)" as the format and enter a name. For the FAT-32 format, the name must be uppercase and you will not be able to enter lowercase letters. I chose "RASPBIAN."

Format Options

After you've verified the selected item is actually your SD card and you have entered a name and selected "MS-DOS (FAT)," click the erase button to begin the format process. This should be fairly quick as long as you do not use a Secure Erase.

At this point, make sure you have a little bit of time to keep your computer on or awake. This process will likely take ten to twenty minutes or more.

Find the Disk Image

Open the Terminal application from the Utilities folder in Applications, and navigate to the directory where you extracted the .img file earlier. For those that used Safari, it will likely be the ~/Downloads folder. If you are unfamiliar with the Terminal and used Safari or another web browser that placed the file in your Downloads folder, you can use the following command: cd ~/Downloads.

Now, type ls in the Terminal and hit enter to list all of the files in the directory, If you see the Raspbian image file (not the .zip file-- this one will end in .img), you're in the right place. If not, try the step above again and make sure you cd into the right directory. Remember or write down the exact file name of the .img file.

We're going to list all of the attached disks to find the SD card's mount point. We do this with the command df -h. You'll see a list like the one below. Notice how I have a ton of different disks, but only one has a cell with the value /Volumes/RASPBIAN. If you named your drive something else, look for that instead.

The item I am looking for is the bottom row. Make a note of the first column value, which is /dev/disk1s4 for me. Now, because we want to write to the raw disk, we need to change the value we're going to use. Essentially, you want to add an "r" before "disk" and remove the "s4" at the end. So, while we see the value /dev/disk1s4, we'll need to remember the value /dev/rdisk1.

Once you've made a note of this value, we can now unmount the partition so that dd can flash the disk image.

Unmount the Volume

Open Disk Utility again and you'll see the SD card in the list to the left with the name you chose earlier. Right click the name of the SD card this time. In my case, it is "RASPBIAN." Do not click the "4.01 GB APPLE SD Card Reader Media" list item, because we are selecting the partition in this case. In the menu that pops up, click "Unmount."

Flash the Disk Image

Go back to the Terminal and type the following command, ensuring you replace the "[FILESYSTEM]" value with the one you noted earlier and the "[DISK IMAGE NAME]" with the proper file name obtained above.

sudo dd bs=1m if=[DISK IMAGE NAME] of=[FILESYSTEM]

For me, the command would look something like this:

sudo dd bs=1m if=2012-12-16-wheezy-raspbian.img of=/dev/rdisk4

Hit enter, and wait until the command completes. Once dd flashes the disk image, you can remove it from your Mac and plug it into your Raspberry Pi. The default username is pi and the default password is raspberry.


Q: I receive the error "dd: bs: illegal numeric value"

A: Ensure the value of the bs parameter in the command above is 1m (e.g. lowercase "m"). For those curious, the bs value is the "block size" of the partition.

Q: I receive the error "dd: /dev/disk4s1: Resource busy"

A: Make sure you unmounted the SD card's partition through Disk Utility.


The recommended method for flashing an SD for use in a Raspberry Pi is a program called Win32DiskImager. The latest version can be found on the official website. Personally I recommend version 0.5, since the latest version (0.6) has a bug that may cause your entire hard drive to be flashed instead of the SD card.

Once you've downloaded the Win32DiskImager application and extracted the ZIP file, download the Raspbian distribution. This can be found on the Raspberry Pi website under the heading "Raspbian 'wheezy'". Once the ZIP file downloads, extract the .img from the .zip.

In Win32DiskImager, ensure you select the correct drive letter for your SD card. In my case, the SD card was drive F:/. Yours may be different, so check in Windows Explorer to make sure you have the correct letter. Do not choose C:\, since that is your main hard drive.

Also, select the .img file you extracted from the Raspbian distribution above using the file picker. Once you have made sure you have the correct .img file and drive letter for your SD card, click "Write" (not read) to flash the SD card. This will take less than five minutes on average and you can see the current progress in the Win32DiskImager window. Once the flash completes, you can exit the program.


Setting Up Raspberry Pi

Once you've flashed the disk image using the methods above, place the SD card into your Raspberry Pi, plug in the HDMI monitor, any keyboards and mice, and then the power cable. Your Raspberry Pi should begin to boot and you should be able to see Raspbian on your screen.

Complete the Raspbian setup, and your Raspberry Pi is now ready to be used!

NOOBS is a system designed by the Raspberry Pi foundation for installing operating systems onto your Raspberry Pi's SD card. Not only are you able to install an operating system with a single click, but you can install it over a network or even install multiple operating systems on multiple partitions.

For example, if you ever wished you could install both Raspbian and OpenELEC, NOOBS not only makes this possible, but easy to switch back and forth between the two.

NOOBS OS Selector


NOOBS requires a couple of things, most of which you probably already have:

  • A Raspberry Pi (any model from the original to the newest Raspberry Pi 2)
  • An SD card (or a Micro SD for the newer models) that is 4 GB or larger
  • A computer with an SD card slot

One thing you must take note of is the 4 GB SD card requirement. If you have a smaller SD card or you simply need a new one, there are several cheap models that you can purchase:

All of the above micro SD cards come with adapters, so if you want to purchase the micro SD you can use it in your original Raspberry Pi and later move it to a model A+/B+ or newer at a later time.

Preinstalled NOOBS SD Cards

You can also purchase an SD/micro SD card with NOOBS preinstalled. This is more expensive than just loading NOOBS onto an SD card yourself, but is an option for convenience:

Installing NOOBS

First, you must download the NOOBS image from the Raspberry Pi website. There are a couple different options for download:

  • NOOBS (offline installer)
  • Torrent
  • Compressed ZIP
  • NOOBS LITE (online installer)
  • Torrent
  • Compressed ZIP

The offline installer is significantly larger than the "LITE" version, but comes with the ability to reinstall the Raspbian operating system without a network connection. This is because the actual OS image is saved onto the SD card when you install NOOBS for the first time. However, over time the OS image that is included in the NOOBS installation may become outdated unless you have a network connection, in which case the newer OS version will be downloaded and installed.

NOOBS LITE is significantly smaller in size, but requires a network connection to install the OS images. Both the regular NOOBS and NOOBS LITE installers allow for installing from a network.

Once you've downloaded the version of NOOBS you prefer (either the regular version or LITE), then you can simply extract the ZIP file.

Formatting Your SD Card

Before you can actually place NOOBS onto your SD card, you must format it. Note, formatting the card erases all data on it1.

Mac (the easy way)

On the Mac, you can use the built in "Disk Utility" application. Launch "Disk Utility" and insert your SD card into your Mac. You'll see it in the sidebar of the application, along with some items that are indented underneath it (what these items are and the number of them will vary based on how you previously used your SD card).

Disk Utility on Mac

Ensure you select the root SD card (that is, the top most item), and switch to the "Erase" tab on the right hand pane. Leave the format as "FAT" and choose a name for it, which will be all uppercase letters. Then, simply hit the "Erase..." button in the bottom right to format the card.

Windows or Mac

Because we want to format the entire card and not just a single partition, you may want to use the SD Card Formatter by the SD Association. Once you've downloaded the formatter from their website, insert your SD card and run the formatter tool.

When you open the formatter tool, you'll have a few options-- the SD device to format, the type of format operation, and the new name of the SD card. Make sure you select the right SD card if you have multiple SD cards plugged into your computer. You can choose either format type, though the quick format is usually sufficient if you are not trying to erase sensitive data. Finally, for the name, choose whatever you wish and fit the "format" button.

Copying NOOBS

Once you have a formatted FAT SD card, you can simply copy the files for NOOBS that you extracted earlier. A simple copy and paste is all that is needed. It might take a while to copy the regular version of NOOBS due to the slow speed of SD cards, but once it's done you can eject the card from your computer and insert it into your Raspberry Pi.


Installing an OS

Before you plug your Raspberry Pi into the power cable, attach a USB keyboard and mouse so that you can navigate the NOOBS interface. Once you have the keyboard and mouse plugged in, you can turn on the power to your Raspberry Pi and you should be greeted with a screen similar to the following:

NOOBS OS Selector

This is the operating system installation screen, and allows you to choose one or more OS images to install onto your SD card. Notice the icons on the right hand side-- those OS images with a picture of an SD card are already included with your NOOBS installation, while those with an Ethernet symbol can be downloaded over a network.

Simply check the boxes next to the OS images you wish to install, and hit the install button in the toolbar at the top of the window.

Boot Selection

Once you've installed one or more operating systems with NOOBS, rebooting your Raspberry Pi will result in one of two things happening automatically:

  • If you have a single OS installed, it will boot automatically
  • If you have more than one OS installed, a boot selector will be displayed

NOOBS OS Boot Selector

To get back to the OS installation screen, simply hold the "shift" key on your keyboard as you turn on your Raspberry Pi.

Other Resources

If you wish to just install a single operating system, you might find my tutorial on installing the Raspbian OS directly onto your SD card. With this method, the Raspberry Pi will automatically boot into Raspbian, though you do not get any sort of interface for reinstalling the operating system.

Advanced information on the NOOBS system can be found in the GitHub repository. This includes info on silent installation, as well as configuring advanced parameters such as choosing your auto-boot partition or forcing a display mode.

  1. Technically, if you do not overwrite the data (e.g. use a quick format) then you can recover the data, but I wouldn't count on it...