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It was just over two years ago when I walked into Pi Towers for the first time. I only had the vaguest idea of what I was going to be doing, but on the first day Eben and I sat down and played with the Raspbian desktop for half an hour, then he asked me “do you think you can make it better?”
Bear in mind that at this point I’d barely ever used Linux or Xwindows, never mind made any changes to them, so when I answered “hmmm – I think so”, it was with rather more confidence than I actually felt. It was obvious that there was a lot that could be done in terms of making it a better experience for the user, and I spent many years working in user interface design in previous jobs. But I had no idea where to start in terms of changing Raspbian. I clearly had a bit of a learning curve in front of me…
Well, that was two years ago, and I’ve learnt an awful lot since then. It’s actually surprisingly easy to hack about with the LXDE desktop once you get your head around what all the bits do, and since then I’ve been slowly chipping away at the bits that I felt would most benefit from tweaking. Stuff has slowly been becoming more and more like my original concept for the desktop; with the latest changes, I think the desktop has reached the point where it’s a complete product in its own right and should have its own name. So today, we’re announcing the release of the PIXEL desktop, which will ship with the Foundation’s Raspbian image from now on.
One of the things I said (at least partly in jest) to my colleagues in those first few weeks was that I’d quite like to rename the desktop environment once it was a bit more Pi-specific, and I had the name “pixel” in my mind about two weeks in. It was a nice reminder of my days learning to program in BASIC on the Sinclair ZX81; nowadays, everything from your TV to your phone has pixels on it, but back then it was a uniquely “computer-y” word and concept. I also like crosswords and word games, and once it occurred to me that “pixel” could be made up from the initials of words like Pi and Xwindows, the name stuck in my head and never quite went away. So PIXEL it is, which now officially stands for “Pi Improved Xwindows Environment, Lightweight”.
The latest set of changes are almost entirely to do with the appearance of the desktop; there are some functional changes and a few new applications, about which more below, but this is mostly about making things look nicer.
The first thing you’ll notice on rebooting is that the trail of cryptic boot messages has (mostly) gone, replaced by a splash screen. One feature which has frequently been requested is an obvious version number for our Raspbian image, and this can now be seen at the bottom-right of the splash image. We’ll update this whenever we release a new version of the image, so it should hopefully be slightly easier to know exactly what version you’re running in future.
I should mention that the code for the splash screen has been carefully written and tested, and should not slow down the Pi’s boot process; the time to go from powering on to the desktop appearing is identical, whether the splash is shown or not.
Once the desktop appears, the first thing you’ll notice is the rather stunning background image. We’re very fortunate in that Greg Annandale, one of the Foundation’s developers, is also a very talented (and very well-travelled) photographer, and he has kindly allowed us to use some of his work as desktop pictures for PIXEL. There are 16 images to choose from; you can find them in /usr/share/pixel-wallpaper/, and you can use the Appearance Settings application to choose which one you prefer. Do have a look through them, as Greg’s work is well worth seeing! If you’re curious, the EXIF data in each image will tell you where it was taken.
You’ll also notice that the icons on the taskbar, menu, and file manager have had a makeover. Sam Alder and Alex Carter, the guys responsible for all the cartoons and graphics you see on our website, have been sweating blood over these for the last few months, with Eben providing a watchful eye to make sure every pixel was exactly the right colour! We wanted something that looked businesslike enough to be appropriate for those people who use the Pi desktop for serious work, but with just a touch of playfulness, and Sam and Alex did a great job. (Some of the icons you don’t see immediately are even nicer; it’s almost worth installing some education or engineering applications just so those categories appear in the menu…)
Speaking of icons, the default is now not to show icons in individual application menus. These always made menus look a bit crowded, and didn’t really offer any improvement in usability, not least because it wasn’t always that obvious what the icon was supposed to represent… The menus look cleaner and more readable as a result, since the lack of visual clutter now makes them easier to use.
Finally on the subject of icons, in the past if your Pi was working particularly hard, you might have noticed some yellow and red squares appearing in the top-right corner of the screen, which were indications of overtemperature or undervoltage. These have now been replaced with some new symbols that make it a bit more obvious what’s actually happening; there’s a lightning bolt for undervoltage, and a thermometer for overtemperature.
If you open a window, you’ll see that the window frame design has now changed significantly. The old window design always looked a bit dated compared to what Apple and Microsoft are now shipping, so I was keen to update it. Windows now have a subtle curve on the corners, a cleaner title bar with new close / minimise / maximise icons, and a much thinner frame. One reason the frame was quite thick on the old windows was so that the grab handles for resizing were big enough to find with the mouse. To avoid this problem, the grab handles now extend slightly outside the window; if you hold the mouse pointer just outside the window which has focus, you’ll see the pointer change to show the handle.
Steve Jobs said that one thing he was insistent on about the Macintosh was that its typography was good, and it’s true that using the right fonts makes a big difference. We’ve been using the Roboto font in the desktop for the last couple of years; it’s a nice-looking modern font, and it hasn’t changed for this release. However, we have made it look better in PIXEL by including the Infinality font rendering package. This is a library of tweaks and customisations that optimises how fonts are mapped to pixels on the screen; the effect is quite subtle, but it does give a noticeable improvement in some places.
Most people have their Pi set up to automatically log in when the desktop starts, as this is the default setting for a new install. For those who prefer to log in manually each time, the login screen has been redesigned to visually match the rest of the desktop; you now see the login box (known as the “greeter”) over your chosen desktop design, with a seamless transition from greeter to desktop.
Wireless power switching
One request we have had in the past is to be able to shut off WiFi and/or Bluetooth completely, particularly on Pi 3. There are now options in the WiFi and Bluetooth menus to turn off the relevant devices. These work on the Pi 3’s onboard wireless hardware; they should also work on most external WiFi and Bluetooth dongles.
You can also now disconnect from an associated wireless access point by clicking on its entry in the WiFi menu.
There are a couple of new applications now included in the image.
RealVNC have ported their VNC server and viewer applications to Pi, and they are now integrated with the system. To enable the server, select the option on the Interfaces tab in Raspberry Pi Configuration; you’ll see the VNC menu appear on the taskbar, and you can then log in to your Pi and control it remotely from a VNC viewer.
The RealVNC viewer is also included – you can find it from the Internet section of the Applications menu – and it allows you to control other RealVNC clients, including other Pis. Have a look here on RealVNC’s site for more information.
Please note that if you already use xrdp to remotely access your Pi, this conflicts with the RealVNC server, so you shouldn’t install both at once. If you’re updating an existing image, don’t run the
sudo apt-get install realvnc-vnc-server line in the instructions below. If you want to use xrdp on a clean image, first uninstall the RealVNC server with
sudo apt-get purge realvnc-vnc-server before installing xrdp. (If the above paragraph means nothing to you, then you probably aren’t using xrdp, so you don’t have to worry about any of it!)
Also included is the new SenseHAT emulator, which was described in a blog post a couple of weeks ago; have a look here for all the details.
There are updates for a number of the built-in applications; these are mostly tweaks and bug fixes, but there have been improvements made to Scratch and Node-RED.
One more thing…
We’ve been shipping the Epiphany web browser for the last couple of years, but it’s now starting to show its age. So for this release (and with many thanks to Gustav Hansen from the forums for his invaluable help with this), we’re including an initial release of Chromium for the Pi. This uses the Pi’s hardware to accelerate playback of streaming video content.
We’ve preinstalled a couple of extensions; the uBlock Origin adblocker should hopefully keep intrusive adverts from slowing down your browsing experience, and the h264ify extension forces YouTube to serve videos in a format which can be accelerated by the Pi’s hardware.
Chromium is a much more demanding piece of software than Epiphany, but it runs well on Pi 2 and Pi 3; it can struggle slightly on the Pi 1 and Pi Zero, but it’s still usable. (Epiphany is still installed in case you find it useful; launch it from the command line by typing “epiphany-browser”.)
How do I get it?
The Raspbian + PIXEL image is available from the Downloads page on our website now. Note that the uncompressed image is over 4GB in size, and some older unzippers will fail to decompress it properly. If you have problems, use 7-Zip on Windows and The Unarchiver on Mac – both are free applications which have been tested to decompress the file correctly.
To update an existing Jessie image, type the following at the command line:
sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get dist-upgrade sudo apt-get install -y rpi-chromium-mods sudo apt-get install -y python-sense-emu python3-sense-emu sudo apt-get install -y python-sense-emu-doc realvnc-vnc-viewer
and then reboot.
If you don’t use xrdp and would like to use the RealVNC server to remotely access your Pi, type the following:
sudo apt-get install -y realvnc-vnc-server
As always, your feedback on the new release is very welcome; feel free to let us know what you think in the comments or on the forums.