A better, faster way to write a Raspberry Pi SD card image

The standard way of writing an SD card image for a Raspberry Pi (or any other purpose that requires writing a whole disk image to the card) from any unix-like system (eg Linux or Mac OSX) is to use the venerable dd(1) utility.

dd has been around, basically unchanged, since the dawn of time. It has an arcane syntax that’s completely different to every other unix command, and its screen output is spectacularly unhelpful. While it’s working, it remains silent. You have no idea how fast it’s going or how long it’s going to take, until it eventually finishes and tells you how many blocks came in and went out – and even that minimal information is presented in a rather obscure format.

On my Mac I found using dd to write a Raspi boot image to an SD card to be very slow and unreliable. For some reason it refused to write to the raw disk device (/dev/rdiskn), even though there were no active mounts. Using the buffered device file instead (/dev/diskn) it took a full 30 minutes to write a 650MB image… and even then, when I pulled the card and put it in my Raspi, somehow it still booted the old OS that was on there before.

Then I discovered a lovely utility called pv, which stands for Pipe Viewer. On a Mac it’s available in Homebrew (brew install pv) and Macports (port install pv).

Using this, instead of dd if=osimage.img of=/dev/diskn (30 minutes, remember), I did pv osimage.img > /dev/rdiskn and it took just over 2 minutes, and the card worked perfectly. (These commands need to run as root, of course).

The other big advantage of pv over dd, is that it shows you what’s going on – it provides a progress bar, data transfer rate, ETA and so on (this is actually its raison d’etre, it just seems to be much more efficient than dd at piping data too) – whereas dd just sits there saying nothing until it’s finished.

pv has a ton of potential uses, and is a shining example of the strength of the UNIX philosophy: a small program that does one thing and does it well, interconnecting with other programs in a standard way to make them better. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but I love the fact that even after 20 years of using Linux I can still stumble upon something new and neat that I know will immediately become a well-used part of my toolkit and make life easier. And I have to laugh, because I’ve just found out it was written by Andrew Wood, an old friend from years ago. Looks like it’s been around for quite a while, and is still being actively maintained. Kudos.

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* Wherever you see n in this article, you’ll need to replace it with the appropriate number for the SD card on your system. On my Macbook Pro it’s 2, but your system may be different, and if you get it wrong, you could overwrite a critical system disk. My first ever big data loss event back in 1994 was caused by an error like this, which is why I’ve not put the number in above, I wouldn’t want anyone to blindly copy&paste – find out the correct number for your system, double, triple and quadruple check the commandline before you hit enter, take backups and take care!