We use Raspberry Pi's around the office and at home for a variety of tasks, but other than my daughter's Pi 4, none of us are using them as a desktop. I have been wondering for a while if I could use a Pi 4 as my primary machine. So I figured now would be an excellent time to try it out. In fact, I am writing this blog post using a Pi 4!
What you'll need
Of course a Pi 4 on its own can do nothing. You'll need an SD card and a power supply, as well as a USB keyboard and mouse (the Raspberry Pi keyboard and mouse are great, but any USB device will work). A case is strongly advised, and we recommend our SecurePi case. If you have an HDMI capable monitor, you'll need a microHDMI to HDMI cable.
Speaking of monitors, just about any monitor will do, and if you want to be fancy you can run two at the same time off the Pi 4. Make your life easy by getting an HDMI capable monitor. DVI is fine if you get a DVI to HDMI connector. We don't recommend a VGA-only monitor, as the adapters can be fussy
If you are starting out with nothing, consider the Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit. It has everything you'll need except a monitor, and it comes with a handy guide as well.
Operating System and Setup
We recommend running the latest version of Raspbian with "desktop and recommended software". Just use the default installation which will give you a nice windows-like environment. You can obtain Raspbian with one of our NOOBS (New Out of Box Software) SD cards. Your first boot will take a while as the system updates itself. It will prompt you to enter locale information, change the default password, setup WiFi, and a few other things. These can be entered later but it is best to do it during installation.
You will note that Raspbian, by default, boots straight into the desktop. If security is a concern, you may want to require a password by default. You can change the setting by clicking the Pi icon in the top left corner, then Preferences, then Raspberry Pi Configuration. Uncheck "auto login" as shown in the screen shot below. Now would also be a good time to change the default password from "raspberry" if you had not done so already.
Browsing the Web
I find that most everything I use these days runs in a web browser, and the latest version of Chromium, which comes with Raspbian, is amazingly good. I have been able to run 2 GMail clients, 1 Outlook client, Shopify, our backend inventory software, our shipping software, and Google sheets all at the same time. Some websites take a little longer to load than on $2,000 Macbook, but the experience amazingly good. The experience is comparable to a Chromebook.
With Chromium, you can even authenticate to your Google profile, so all of your bookmarks will automatically load. This makes the transition quite easy. So far we have not found a site that did not load properly.
But what about Microsoft Office?
I grew up using Microsoft Office for spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations. While there is not a Debian package for Office, there are several options available.
1) You can run the online versions of Office via an Office 365 subscription. We have tested them and they work pretty well on a Pi.
2) You can use Google Docs, Google Sheets, etc. They work in a similar manner to Office 365
3) You can use LibreOffice, which works way better than we remember. The last time I used LibreOffice I was unimpressed, but this latest version works great and feels almost like the "real" Office. LibreOffice is installed by default with Raspbian.
This is one area that could be a little frustrating to a new Linux user. For some reason, the software that allows you to print things is not installed in Raspbian by default. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to install.
Click the Raspberry at the top left, then accessories, then Terminal
If you have your Pi connected to an HDMI monitor with built-in audio, this is a breeze. Your sound should work by default. If not, right click the volume icon at the top right of the screen. There you can choose your audio output.
Another option is to pair a Bluetooth speaker. This is thankfully easy. Put your speaker into pairing mode, click the Bluetooth icon at the top right of your screen, and pair the speaker. You can then select it as an audio output.
Pro tip: to get audio out of Chromium, you will likely have to restart Chromium after making any speaker changes.
What's it like?
So far so good! Right now I am composing this blog post, listening to Pandora, running Inkscape, and I have a variety of browser tabs open with GMail and other memory-intensive sites. I still have 840MB of free memory and I am experiencing no lag. Very impressive!
Click here to learn what it was like to use a Pi 4 as a desktop for one week.
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