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The Race for 64-Bit Raspberry Pi 4 Linux

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When the Raspberry Pi 4 was announced and shipped this past June, it caught everyone by surprise. No one was expecting a new Pi until next year sometime, if we were lucky. The Raspberry Pi 4 has updated faster components, including an updated ARM processor and USB 3.0. Raspbian, the official version version of Linux for the Pi was updated to be based on Debian Buster and shipped before the official Debian Buster actually shipped. However, Raspbian is still 32-bit, where the Raspberry foundation say this is so they only have to support one version of Linux for all Raspberry Pi devices.

Others in the Linux community, have then figured out how to run 64-bit Linux’s on the Raspberry Pi. For instance there are 64-bit versions of Ubuntu Mate, Ubuntu Server and Kali Linux. These work on the Raspberry Pi 3, but due to changes in the Raspberry architecture, didn’t work on the Raspberry Pi 4 when it shipped. We still don’t have official 64-bit releases, but we are reaching the point where the test builds are starting to work quite well.

Why 64-Bit?

To be honest, 64-bit Linux never ran very well on the Raspberry Pi 3. 64-bit Linux and 64-bit programs requires quite a bit more memory than their 32-bit equivalents. Each memory address is now 64-bits instead of 32-bits and there is a tendency to use 64-bit integers rather than 32-bit integers. The ARM processor instructions are 32-bits in both 32-bit and 64-bit mode, so programs tend to be about the same size, though 64-bit doesn’t have use of the 16-bit ARM thumb instructions. The Raspberry Pi 3 is limited to 1Gig of memory, that can just barely run a 64-bit Linux, and tends to run out of memory quickly as you run programs, like web browsers. The Raspberry Pi 4 now supports up to 4Gig of memory and that is sufficient to run 64-bit Linux along with a respectable number of programs. Plus the Raspberry Pi 4 has faster access to the SDCard and USB 3, so you can attach an even faster external drive, so if you do get swapping, it isn’t as painful.

In spite of these limitations, there are reasons to run 64-bit. The main one is that you can get better performance, especially if you actually need to work with 64-bit integers. Further the 64-bit instruction set has been optimised to work better with the execution pipeline, so you don’t get as many stalls when you perform jumps. For instance in 32-bit ARM, there is no function return instructions, so people use regular branches, pop the return address from the stack directly into the program counter or do a number of other tricks. As a result, function returns causes the execution pipeline to be flushed. In 64-bit, the pipeline knows about return instruction and knows where to get the next few instructions.

If 64-Bit Worked on the Pi 3, What’s the Problem?

If we had 64-bit working for the Pi 3, why doesn’t it just work on the Pi 4? There are a few reasons for this. The first obstacle was that Raspberry changed the whole Pi boot process. The Raspberry Pi 3 booted using the GPU. When it started the Pi 3’s GPU runs a program that knows how to read the boot folder on an SDCard and will load this into memory and then start the ARM CPU to run what it loaded into memory. The Raspberry Pi 4 now has a slightly larger EEPROM, this contains ARM code that executes on startup and then loads a further step from the SDCard. The volunteers with the other Linux distributions had to figure out this new process and adapt their code to fit into it. Sadly, the original EEPROM program didn’t provide a good way to do this, so the Linux volunteers have been working with Raspberry to get the support they need in newer versions of the EEPROM software. The most recent version seems to be working reliably finally.

The Raspberry Pi 4 then has all new hardware, so new drivers are required for bluetooth, wifi and everything else. To keep the price down, Raspberry uses older standard components, so there are drivers already written for all these devices. It’s just a matter of including the correct drivers and providing default configurations that work and settings dialogs if anything might need user input. This is all being worked on in parallel, and the consensus is that we are already in a better place than we were for the Pi 3.

It’s All Open Source so Why not Copy from Rasbian?

The Raspbian kernel is open source so anyone can look at that source code, but the EEPROM firmware is not open source. This can be reverse engineered, but that takes time. The Raspberry Pi foundation has been quite helpful in supporting people, but that is no substitute for reading the source code. This again shows the importance of open source BIOS.

Development got off to a slow start, because the Raspberry Pi foundation didn’t give anyone a heads up that this was coming. The developers of Ubuntu Mate had to order their Raspberry Pi 4’s just like everyone else when the announcement happened. This meant no one really got started until into July.

In spite of claiming up and down that they will never produce a 64-bit version of Raspbian, the Raspberry Pi foundation has produced a test Raspbian 64-bit Linux kernel. This then tests out that the Raspberry Pi firmware will support 64-bits and that all the device drivers are available. I couldn’t get this kernel to work, but it is proving very helpful for other developers. It also makes people excited that maybe Raspbian will go 64-bit sooner than later.

How Are We Doing?

The first distribution to get all this going is Gentoo Linux. They have a very smart developer Sakaki who provided the first image that actually worked. This then led to Arch and Majaro Linux releases based on Gentoo. This was a good first step, though these distributions are more for the DIY crowd due to their preference to always installing software from source code.

Next James Chambers put together a guide and images to allow you to install Ubuntu Server 64-bit on the Pi 4. Ubuntu Server is character based, but installing a desktop is no problem. The main limitation of this release is that you need a hardwired Internet connection to start. You can’t start with Wifi as the Wifi software isn’t installed with the base image. If you do have a wired Internet connection, getting it installed and installing the desktop is quite straightforward and works well. Once you have the desktop installed, then you can configure Wifi and ditch the ethernet cable.

The changes required for the Raspberry Pi 4 are being submitted to the standard Linux kernel for version 5.4. When this ships it will have available drivers for the Pi 4 hardware and official support for the Broadcom chips used in the Pi. Version 5.3 of the Linux kernel just shipped and added support for the NVidia Jetson Nano. Hopefully the wait for Linux 5.4 won’t be too long.


I’ve been running the 64-bit version of Ubuntu Linux Server, with the Xubuntu desktop for a few days now and it works really well on my Raspberry Pi 4 with 4Gig of RAM. Performance is great and everything is working. I’ve installed various software, including CubicSDR which works great. This is the first time I’ve been happy with Software Defined Radio running on a Pi.

I look forward to the official releases, and given the state of the current builds, think we are getting quite close.

Written by smist08

September 20, 2019 at 6:38 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Are you lucky or a magician: I have installed an xubuntu 64bit follow the guide by James Chambers on my rpi 4 with 4Gb of ram, but is very very slow … practically not usable … I don’t know while is as slow: the raspbian working perfectly


    December 22, 2019 at 7:51 am

    • I haven’t tried Ubuntu since they fixed their 4gig bug. With their earlier version it worked fine for me, but I was limited to 3gig usable RAM. Since then I installed Kali Linux 64-Bit and it has worked so well, I haven’t looked at anything else since.


      December 22, 2019 at 7:02 pm

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