As any experienced Raspberry Pi user can tell you, the popular single-board computer doesn’t come with a preloaded operating system. Unless you buy a third party kit/card that comes with Raspberry Pi OS on it, you will need to download the OS on a PC or Mac and write it to a microSD card or USB storage device for the Pi. We have articles about how to set up a raspberry pi and how? make a headless Raspberry Pi that show you how to do this.
But what if you don’t have access to a computer (or a card reader)? A new version of the Raspberry Pi bootloader, now available in beta, lets you download the operating system and write it to a microSD card using the BIOS and an Ethernet connection.
This new bootloader is designed for the Raspberry Pi 4 and 400, and we ran three tests to determine if this new tool is worth your time. The short answer: yes it is. When we used the network installation tool to install Raspberry Pi OS 32-bit and 64-bit on a Raspberry Pi 4 8GB, we encountered no problems at all. We then used the tool to install the 32-bit OS on a Raspberry Pi 4 with 1 GB of RAM. We expected this to fail because the downloaded OS image was 1.2 GB – more than the RAM – but everything worked as expected, albeit slightly slower than in the previous two tests.
There is only one catch. At this point, you still need a PC to update the firmware on your Raspberry Pi so it can do the online setup. However, after the firmware is a release version, newly produced Pis will be included.
Below we explain how to upgrade the firmware of your Raspberry Pi 4 or 400 and how to perform an online installation of Raspberry Pi OS.
For this project you will need:
- Raspberry Pi 4 or 400
- 16 GB or larger micro SD card
- PC or Mac (but only for firmware update)
Updating to the Beta Bootloader on Raspberry Pi
The new beta bootloader that brings network boot to the Raspberry Pi must be installed on the Raspberry Pi. This is only for current Raspberry Pis as future models will have this feature by default.
Updating the bootloader isn’t difficult, thanks to Raspberry Pi Imager that offers an automated process that makes it as simple as inserting a micro SD card and booting our Pi.
1. Download and install Raspberry Pi Imager on your computer. As of version 1.7.1, there is a special mention for the beta firmware.
2. Insert a 16 GB micro SD card. This card will be erased, so make sure to back up all files before using it.
3. Open Raspberry Pi Imager and click CHOOSE OS.
4. Scroll down and select Miscellaneous utility images.
5. Select Beta Test Bootloader.
6. Select Network Boot.
7. Click on CHOOSE STORAGE.
8. Select your microSD card.
9. Write the picture to the microSD card.
10. When completed, insert the card into your Raspberry Pi†
11. Connect your Raspberry Pi to a display, then Startup and wait for the screen to turn green.
12. Turn off the Raspberry Pi. The bootloader is now updated.
13. Format the microSD card as a FAT32 drive into your computer and then bring it back to the Raspberry Pi.
Network Booting the Raspberry Pi
Our Raspberry Pi is now ready to download and write to microSD cards with no further action on our computer.
1. Power on the Raspberry Pi with all peripherals connected, including a monitor and Ethernet†
2. Wait for the Pi’s “BIOS” to finish loading† It may take about 30 seconds.
3. Hold Shift . pressed when prompted and then press the space bar. This will trigger the Pi to download a special boot image version of Raspberry Pi Imager which is copied to RAM.
4. Click on CHOOSE OS and select the operating system you want to install. We chose the latest 32-bit image, but you can also install the new 64-bit OS or another OS from the list.
5. Click on CHOOSE STORAGE and select your microSD card. You can also select a USB drive as your intended boot device.
6. Click WRITE to download the operating system and write it to your disk. This can take about 10 minutes.
Once the download and installation is complete, the Pi will reboot a few times and in a few moments you will be presented with the Raspberry Pi OS desktop.
If you need to reinstall an operating system, repeat steps 1 through 6 with a blank microSD card / USB flash drive. You no longer need to use your computer to download the images and write them to SD/USB.
While not essential to the installation process, we can customize our Raspberry Pi OS installation using the settings gear.
This will open a new menu where we can change our installation language, set up Wi-Fi, SSH and change the password.