I recently reviewed the Pi 400 Complete Computer Kit, with its ‘out of the box’ configuration running on Raspberry Pi OS. Now, I’m reviewing an alternative operating system, Ubuntu 20.10, running on the Pi 400.
Ubuntu Desktop, initially released in 2004, may be the most popular Linux desktop distribution in the world. It’s backed by Canonical, a UK-based private company that sells commercial support and services for Ubuntu-based products. Ubuntu comes pre-installed on desktop and laptop computers from various hardware vendors, including System76, Lenovo, and Dell. Ubuntu can also be installed on many other current and legacy computers.
With millions of people using Ubuntu daily, there is no doubt that this world-class operating system could be a good option for Pi 400 desktop users. Let’s find out if it is.
Raspberry Pi and Canonical
The Pi 4, which came to the market in 2019, has hardware components found in a desktop computer, notably a Quad-core CPU, two HDMI ports, Wi-fi, and Bluetooth. Regarding the Pi 4, Martin Wimpress, Desktop Engineering Director at Canonical, said “[there is] plenty of CPU and plenty of RAM, and an upgraded GPU,” and “we really have to start considering the Raspberry Pi Foundation as a PC vendor,” ¹ and they did just that. Teams at Canonical and Raspberry Pi Foundation collaborated to release the first Ubuntu Desktop image on October 22, 2020, for the Pi 4 and Pi 400.
When installing Ubuntu on a Pi 400, start with preparing a microSD. Raspberry Pi Foundation made this easy by providing the Pi Imager application, which prepares a MicroSD, or USB drive, as a boot disk. Pi Imager currently installs two desktop distributions, Raspberry OS (32-bit) and Ubuntu Desktop (64-bit), from a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. While other third-party desktop distributions are available, such as Manjaro ARM, only Ubuntu is endorsed by Raspberry Pi foundation.
With the Ubuntu microSD installed in the Pi 400, the installation is straightforward, prompting for Language, Keyboard, Wifi, Timezone, Username, and Password. Unlike the Raspberry Pi OS, you can set up multiple user accounts, which helps a family computer. Each family member can have separate accounts and application settings.
When the installation is complete, the Pi 400 will reboot. Upon the initial login, you are prompted for account-specific settings: Online Accounts setup (more about this below), an option to send information to Canonical, and enable Location Services.
All systems go!
Look and Feel
Ubuntu uses GNOME for its desktop environment. GNOME describes itself “as an easy and elegant way to use your computer.” I agree. If you are familiar with Windows or Mac OS’s current version, using GNOME will be a comfortable transition.
You will be struck by the default background, which is a gorilla wearing sunglasses. Groovy Gorilla is the code name for Ubuntu 20.10. The next version of Ubuntu 21.04 is Hirsute Hippo.
Using Appearance Settings, you can set windows to dark mode and move the dock from its default location on the left of the screen to the bottom or right. A bar at the top of the window gives you quick access to wireless/network, sound, and Bluetooth settings.
Ubuntu includes the software applications needed for everyday computing, including a word processor, spreadsheet, web browser, and e-mail program. Canonical has a partnership with Mozilla; therefore, the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client are installed.
Since the Pi is an ARM-based computer, there are not yet as many applications as on an X86 computer. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands, to choose from in the Ubuntu Software “store.” It’s unlikely you cannot find an application that fits your needs. All applications are free to install.
Gimp and Snap Store
I’ve been using the Pi 400 with Ubuntu 20.10 for daily computing tasks, like e-mail (via browser), YouTube videos, research, and writing this review. This article’s images were modified using Gimp, which could not be installed via the Ubuntu Software store. The software store installs Snap versions of applications, and I received an error during installation.
I successfully installed the .deb version of Gimp from the command line with the following command: sudo apt install gimp. I don’t know how wide-spread this type of Snap problem is, but I expect it will be corrected in the future.
What is a Snap? Simplified explanation: Snap packages, known as ‘snaps’, are self-contained software packages, meaning all application dependencies are included within the install. On the other hand, .deb files, the traditional packaging for Ubuntu applications, do not include dependencies, and they must be installed separately. If you are using .deb packaging and two applications require different versions of the same dependency, you have problems. Snaps resolve that issue. You can learn more about snaps on the Snapcraft website.
Video and Premium Content
While the Pi 400 is a desktop computer and not a media server, there is a reasonable expectation of watching videos. Premium content from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Spotify, and others is not available on a Pi 400 with Ubuntu 20.10. This issue is not the fault of the Pi or Ubuntu. These streaming services use the Digital Rights Management (DRM) software WideVine, to prevent non-subscriber access to content. The WideVine software is not available for 64-bit ARM environments, like the Pi 4 and Pi 400. Until WideVine makes these libraries available, DRM content cannot be accessed.
NOTE: If premium content is a must, you can access Netflix and others on a Pi 400 running Raspberry PiOS (32-bit). WideVine libraries are available for ARM 32-bit that run on older versions of the Chromium browser. Thanks to Veselin at blog.vpetkov.net, with just a few terminal commands, 32-bit WideVine is installed and configured for a special installation of Chromium.
YouTube videos play well in Firefox. 480p and 720p are both usable, with some frames dropped. The lower the resolutions, the better the video experience. 4k video is not usable.
During the setup process, you are prompted to connect your Online Accounts, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Foursquare, and more. The idea behind this feature is to make it easier to connect your online services to applications. For example, after connecting to your Google account, the Calendar application automatically uses your Google calendar. Conceptually, this feature makes sense, but I found the implementation to be disjointed and confusing.
Wait, What? Did I say Foursquare? That’s still a thing? It sure is — with 55 million monthly active users! ²
I connected Online Accounts to G-Mail and enabled that connection for Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Documents, Photos, Files, and Printers. I proceeded to open Thunderbird, the default e-mail client, and expected it to load my e-mail, but it didn’t. Thunderbird was ‘not aware’ of my G-Mail account. After some research, I learned that a limited number of applications use Online Accounts, and most are not the default applications installed. It’s misleading and confusing to setup Online Accounts that don’t work with default applications. I tested the 20.10 Ubuntu installation on an Intel computer and had the same problem. This issue is not specific to the Pi 400 implementation of Ubuntu Desktop.
Then, I installed Evolution, an e-mail client that works with Online Accounts. Upon startup, it connected to my G-Mail, which is what I expected. While my e-mail and calendar were working in Evolution, the performance of the Pi 400 had a noticeable decline. I uninstalled Evolution, but performance did not improve until I removed Google from Online Accounts.
The Pi 400 hardware may not be powerful enough for the Online Accounts feature of Ubuntu, and maybe IMAP e-mail clients should be avoided as well.
Technical Details: When Online Accounts were connected to Google, the “evolution-calendar-factory” process used a significant amount of CPU and Memory. This process is part of GNOME and cannot be removed. When Online Accounts are not connected to any services, the evolution processes still run but use minimal resources.
Sound and Printing
Ubuntu 20.10 recognized my HP network printer, connected to it, and printed flawlessly.
The Pi 400 does not have a 3.5mm audio jack; therefore, sound comes from speakers connected through HDMI, USB, or Bluetooth. I attached a USB speaker for testing. By default, Ubuntu 20.10 is configured to use the “Headphones — Built-in Audio” audio output, which does not exist. I had to change the audio output device manually.
Outside of the issues I found with Online Accounts, Ubuntu 20.10 performs well on the Pi400. I did not benchmark the performance of Ubuntu or Raspberry Pi OS, but used them regularly. Pi OS feels snappier. I know that’s not very technical, but it is a useful measurement. Like I said in my previous review, “While it’s not as quick as my high-end computers, it performs well. It’s an uncompromising solution for everyday computer tasks.”
Ubuntu is a fantastic desktop operating system. While I uncovered a few problem points with Ubuntu 20.10 on a Pi 400, its maturity shines. Keeping in mind that 20.10 was recently released, I expected there would be issues and they will be resolved with time.
Ubuntu 20.10 Desktop for Pi strengths:
- Mature desktop environment
- Support for multiple user accounts
- Vast number of applications available
Ubuntu 20.10 Desktop for Pi weaknesses:
- No support for premium content providers (Netflix, Amazon Prime…)
- Just beyond beta — there are clearly issues that need to be worked out.
- Lack of support for the unique features of the Raspberry Pi. Ubuntu 20.10 does fully support the ‘maker tools’ for interfacing the GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output). See Ubuntu 21.04 below for more details.
Dual-booting a computer is when it’s configured to run two different operating systems, such as Mac OS and Windows. With the cost of a microSD and ease of loading a new operating system on it, the Pi 400 is a multi-boot system. You can explore different desktop operating systems and use the one that works best for the tasks at hand. Next up for me, Manjaro. Stay tuned!
Ubuntu Desktop 21.04
Ubuntu is planning ¹ the following updates for the April 2021 release:
- Finalize the GPIO implementation
- Track and implement the improvements made to the kernel by the Raspberry Pi Foundation
- (Hopefully) Making a full transition to the full KMS drivers to provide better hardware support.
¹ “Ubuntu Desktop on Raspberry Pi” — Rhys Davies, Product Manager Canonical, Martin Wimpress, Engineering Director Ubuntu Desktop. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pT4-RcTERU&t=879s