How to Install a Desktop on Raspberry Pi OS Lite

Installing Raspberry Pi OS Lite is a great way to get the most out of any Raspberry Pi computer. It’s especially useful on older models and the Pi Zero series.


But what if you suddenly need to use a desktop? Raspberry Pi OS Lite doesn’t come with a desktop environment, so what should you do?

Well, you don’t have to switch to the standard Raspberry Pi operating system. Instead, you can simply install the Raspberry Pi’s own desktop environment, PIXEL.


What is Raspberry Pi OS Lite?

There are many operating systems available for the Raspberry Pi today, but the recommended option is Raspberry Pi OS. It comes in three flavors:

  • Raspberry Pi OS Lite
  • Raspberry Pi OS full
  • Raspberry Pi OS Extended

In most cases, when installing a Raspberry Pi operating system, you will probably rely on the full version or the extended version, which come complete with a desktop environment and various apps. (The advanced version has more apps than the full version).

But for scenarios that don’t require a desktop environment – such as running a server or controlling a robot – Raspberry Pi OS Lite is the best option.

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Based on Debian 11 (at the time of writing) and only 338MB in size (preinstalled), Raspberry Pi OS Lite is not the lightest option for the Raspberry Pi, but it is the official lightweight operating system.

Note that there are 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Raspberry Pi OS Lite.

Why you might switch from Lite to Desktop

As you might have guessed, Raspberry Pi OS Lite is so lightweight because it doesn’t have a desktop environment. But maybe you need this to change. There might be an app you need to run or a service that’s easier to manage with a mouse than a keyboard.

You may simply need to access the internet and prefer a desktop web browser to the text-based Lynx browser (or the other slower methods of accessing the internet without a browser). There are many reasons for installing a desktop environment on Raspberry Pi OS Lite.

For example, I recently used Raspberry Pi OS Lite for a barebones project. After running into trouble and realizing I needed additional desktop-only software, it became necessary to install a desktop environment.

While in many cases it’s preferable to stick to the Pi’s command line interface, sometimes all you need is a desktop.

What is the Raspberry Pi OS desktop environment?

When you think of the Raspberry Pi operating system, you probably picture PIXEL.

PIXEL uses a modified version of LXDE with the Openbox Stacking Window Manager and has a unique theme that gives it the Raspberry Pi feel. Introduced in 2017, it’s certainly an improvement over the basic desktop that came with the original Raspbian operating system.

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As you know, the Raspberry Pi OS Full and Extended versions have the PIXEL desktop. Since Raspberry Pi OS Lite doesn’t do this, you’ll need to install it if you need to use the desktop environment.

How to install official PIXEL desktop on Raspberry Pi OS Lite

The decision to install a desktop on Raspberry Pi OS Lite is not uncommon. Consequently, the instructions on how to do this are relatively simple.

At the command prompt, type the following:

sudo apt install xserver-xorg raspberrypi-ui-mods

Beat Y when prompted to confirm the installation. Note that this may take a while, but no further interaction is required, so you can keep yourself busy until it’s completed.

Once the basic desktop is installed, use

startx

…to boot into the desktop user interface. If you prefer to permanently boot into the desktop:

  1. To run sudo raspi-config
  2. Choose system options
  3. Choose Boot/Auto Login
  4. Choose writing desk or Desktop Autologin depending on your preference
  5. Choose Finishedthen reboot when prompted

To return to the command line (as opposed to running a terminal window), press Ctrl+Alt+F2. This immediately exits the desktop environment and returns you to the text-based command line interface.

You can also undo the persistent boot to desktop:

  1. To run sudo raspi-config
  2. Choose system options
  3. Choose Boot/Auto Login
  4. Choose console or Console Autologin depending on your preference
  5. Choose Finishedthen reboot when prompted

(The above can also be done on the desktop using the Raspberry Pi Configuration Tool. Select System > Boot choose between To the desk and To the CLI.)

BONUS: How to install GNOME on Raspberry Pi OS Lite

What if you wanted to install a completely different desktop environment on Raspberry Pi OS Lite? There are many alternatives, but for a typically modern Linux look, GNOME is a strong contender.

Better still, installing it on Raspberry Pi OS Lite is relatively easy. However, note that this is more suitable for the 64-bit version of Raspberry Pi OS Lite. In fact, it probably won’t be usable on the 32-bit version.

To do this, enter the following:

wget https:

Then unpack the ZIP file:

unzip stable.zip

Change direction:

cd gnomeforpi-stable

Finally, run the installation script. You have two options here:

  • sudo ./gnomeforpi-install
  • sudo ./gnomeforpi-install –lite

If you select the first, the default installation will be used; the second installs fewer packages, which speeds up the process. For example, the Chromium browser is installed with the full option. Whichever you choose, it will take a few minutes to install.

Halfway through the process, you’ll be prompted to choose between the following options as your default display manager


Both options are fine, but you may prefer gdm3 as that is designed to be used with GNOME.

The Raspberry Pi should restart automatically. On the login screen, you can use your usual credentials but log in with the Xorg display server. In order to do this:

  1. press the settings Tooth
  2. Choose GNOME on Xorg
  3. Enter your credentials
  4. click OK

You should now see the GNOME desktop running on your Raspberry Pi.

Installing a desktop environment on Raspberry Pi OS Lite is easy

The main takeaway from this is that while reinstalling your Pi’s SD card might seem easier with a full operating system, it’s not. It only takes a few minutes to install a desktop environment on the Raspberry Pi OS Lite. That makes it a much faster solution that doesn’t overwrite any saved data on the device.

Better still, you are not limited to the standard PIXEL desktop as many other desktop environments can be installed on Raspberry Pi OS.

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