Lightweight Linux

A fellow Appropedian asked me about options for lightweight Linux distros, for using on old hardware. Thought I’d share my response here.

My knowledge is limited, but what I’ve learnt:

  • Join a local LUG – look out for days when they help people install Linux. Beware of installing Linux when you won’t be face-to-face with Linux geeks for a long time, especially if you’re doing something more problematic like installing on a laptop – I made this mistake, and it was a horrible time sink. Online support doesn’t cut it.
  • Vector & other Slackware distros don’t seem user friendly, and neither does DSL (Damn Small Linux) – I looked into it, but with only about 2 years experience in Linux, I didn’t feel up to any of these choices. With more experience, and the backing of geek friends, it may be an option for you. (DSL is also a much older distro, with much older packages a.k.a. program versions, but it works on very limited hardware, and is possibly more reliable than other ultralight distros such as Puppy Linux).
  • I recommend Openbox (window manager) and LXDE (desktop environment using Openbox – meaning Openbox is the lighter of these two light options). These are really nice and lean – lighter than XFCE, but nicer to use. Expect to see these become more popular. You can add them to any distro, but where they’re not one of the standard options, in some cases there can be clashes (probably a bigger problem on a laptop).
  • I like to find a distro where it’s set up to be lean, but it’s easy to use.
  • I’m not hung up on installing “free” (open source) only – I want Skype and I want video codecs. (I install Linux firstly because I want an operating system that does what I need, not to make a statement.) Ubuntu makes for a little hassle with this – you have to add repositories and certain packages (programs and codecs), and the new user doesn’t know this – they just wonder why things don’t work. Debian makes it really hard work for a newbie, especially if any of your hardware doesn’t have a perfectly free (open source) driver.
  • I strongly prefer something that is at least based on a major distro, and uses the package repositories of that distro. There’s the potential for better support and in theory for bug fixing (Ubuntu is buggy anyway, in my experience, but it does have good support). It also means far more software choice. This, with the previous points, leaves me with one distro:
  • CrunchBang Linux: it’s based on Ubuntu, but uses Openbox, but with some very cool usability tweaks, including partial use of LXDE. It also comes with Skype and video codecs installed. This is the only distro I know that comes with Openbox by default (excluding Debian and Knoppix which I don’t recommend – see below). I’m not usually a fan of Ubuntu, for several reasons including bugginess when I used it in the past – but in spite of that, it’s working quite well for me at the moment, and it has an active and helpful community. This is the most promising distro I’ve used.
  • Debian 5.0 comes with with LXDE as one of its standard options, which means it has Openbox – but Debian was unnecessarily difficult for me. When it didn’t even recognize the hard disk on my ThinkPad, I thought: if this is a sign of how things work in Debian, I’m trying something else.
  • And Knoppix also comes with LXDE standard.  It’s not designed for installation to hard disk though, unless you really know Linux. However, it’s apparently a great rescue disk, with a reputation for hardware recognition – the MacGyver of Linux distros – so I keep a Knoppix LiveCD handy, just in case. (I’d try the CrunchBang LiveCD first, but if things are really screwed up and that doesn’t work, I’ll try Knoppix.)
  • I’ve heard good things about Puppy Linux – it was flaky when I tried it ~2006, but may have improved. It’s also kind of a backwater in Linux development – a lot of non-standard stuff, running as root by default (which sounds like a bad idea to me and to many Linux people), with its own kind of installation, and far fewer packages than a major distro. So unless you need to go super-light (even lighter than Crunchbang) I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • I just discovered boxpup – looks like Puppy with Openbox. I’m guessing it’s a bit harder than CrunchBang, with less package choices, but probably even lighter than CrunchBang. I would still have some concerns about bugginess, security, package choice and maybe usability, but if you’re keen, you could try it out with some help from your LUG.
  • Anything I’ve said related to something being hard to use (e.g. Debian) becomes much less of an issue if you have geeky friends close by and/or belong to a LUG. My preference though: Get something you can mostly handle yourself. You’ll still need help, but there’s no need to make it harder than necessary.

So join a LUG, check out CrunchBang, and enjoy Linux!

Thanks to Jon Camfield for his input at the talk page where this started.

24 thoughts on “Lightweight Linux”

  1. Check out Slitaz. It’s very small (smaller than DSL), lightweight (not quite as lightweight as DSL), uses several components of LXDE, and works on a surprisingly large variety of computers.

    The downsides are that the package selection is fairly small (due to the small community), and you *will* have to learn something about Linux to be able to use it on a regular basis. Also, I found a really weird bug in the cooking version that disabled the home, end, and arrow keys. Note that cooking was way better than stable last time I checked.

  2. Check out Slitaz. It’s very small (smaller than DSL), lightweight (not quite as lightweight as DSL), uses several components of LXDE, and works on a surprisingly large variety of computers.

    The downsides are that the package selection is fairly small (due to the small community), and you *will* have to learn something about Linux to be able to use it on a regular basis. Also, I found a really weird bug in the cooking version that disabled the home, end, and arrow keys. Note that cooking was way better than stable last time I checked.

  3. I’ve looked up Slitaz, and it looks very cool. I haven’t tried it because of the limited packages, and limited community (meaning limited support).

    I’ll be in Taiwan soon, and I’ll be interested to learn what ideas the LXDE developers have about lightweight distros apart from the choice of desktop.

  4. I’ve looked up Slitaz, and it looks very cool. I haven’t tried it because of the limited packages, and limited community (meaning limited support).

    I’ll be in Taiwan soon, and I’ll be interested to learn what ideas the LXDE developers have about lightweight distros apart from the choice of desktop.

  5. TinyMe 2008.0 and the TinyXS remix use Openbox by default. Both were based on PCLinuxOS and are faster and more resource frugal than CrunchBang. OTOH, CrunchBang seems a bit more complete.

    Unfortunately, with many of the PCLinuxOS distro derivatives splitting away from PCLinuxOS, a 2009 version of TinyMe may not be available very soon.

    http://ideaboomer.com/tinyxs-max/

  6. Interesting. I tried PCLinuxOS and liked it, but the limited packages available was a drawback, and the fact that they deliberately make it difficult to install anything not “approved” is a dealbreaker for me. I want my freedom to install what I want.

    I’d like to see more work on a light desktop that isn’t limited to the one distro – I think the LXDE project is the one, but it could be even better with some cross-fertilization from CrunchBang.

  7. Interesting. I tried PCLinuxOS and liked it, but the limited packages available was a drawback, and the fact that they deliberately make it difficult to install anything not “approved” is a dealbreaker for me. I want my freedom to install what I want.

    I’d like to see more work on a light desktop that isn’t limited to the one distro – I think the LXDE project is the one, but it could be even better with some cross-fertilization from CrunchBang.

  8. I’m about to try MEPIS – it’s based on Debian (more closely than Ubuntu is) so it’ll have great repositories. And there’s an emphasis on ease of use. It uses KDE, and I should have no trouble installing LXDE, since LXDE is one of the supported desktops for Debian.

  9. I’m about to try MEPIS – it’s based on Debian (more closely than Ubuntu is) so it’ll have great repositories. And there’s an emphasis on ease of use. It uses KDE, and I should have no trouble installing LXDE, since LXDE is one of the supported desktops for Debian.

  10. You can also try Vector Linux… They also have a light version. But Vector by itself works great. The light version is way fast.

    Mepis is a great distro. Their light version of Mepis is AntiX… it is good to.

  11. You can also try Vector Linux… They also have a light version. But Vector by itself works great. The light version is way fast.

    Mepis is a great distro. Their light version of Mepis is AntiX… it is good to.

  12. BTW Chris,

    I used Damn Small for 2 years as a web server and email server on a P166mhz (12 year old computer) and it worked great. I still use it on a older laptop I have.

    I haven’t ran Slitaz natively. Only in a virtual environment using VirtualBox on a TinyME host.

    I used CrunchBand for a few months and liked it also.

    I am current messing around with Absolute Linux. It is pretty complete with just about everything a user needs to be productive.

    TinyMe is great to. But the guy that created the distro is a college student and I don’t think he has a lot of time to keep it up to date. I love TinyME though, it is excellent.

  13. Update on my efforts with SimplyMEPIS: it was a disaster on my ThinkPad – couldn’t get screen resolution or USB ports working, so I went back to CrunchBang. But a not-so-geeky friend installed the MEPIS disk I gave her (dual-boot with Windows) by herself, on her desktop, and said it works well. Great to see Linux getting so easier and easier to use.

    Some of those options look like they need much greater geek skills, esp Damn Small Linux. They might be great, (Edit: and actually, I’ve heard a lot of praise for Vector Linux) but what really interests me is seeing a Linux distro that makes your average non-technical person go:

    “Hey, this is as easy as Windows or Mac, and fast, and it just works! Are you serious, this is free, and I don’t need to buy anti virus software either?”

    Ubuntu seems to be working better these days, and the new Lubuntu 9.10 looks like it’s going to have a way smaller footprint than Ubuntu and Xubuntu (like 65% less RAM usage, ~57 MB on fresh boot and a similar proportion than the others when they have programs running).

    CrunchBang seems fairly close too – it’s not meant for newbies, but it’s not real hard, and it only needs to have the panel menu installed to make it really easy.

  14. Update on my efforts with SimplyMEPIS: it was a disaster on my ThinkPad – couldn’t get screen resolution or USB ports working, so I went back to CrunchBang. But a not-so-geeky friend installed the MEPIS disk I gave her (dual-boot with Windows) by herself, on her desktop, and said it works well. Great to see Linux getting so easier and easier to use.

    Some of those options look like they need much greater geek skills, esp Damn Small Linux. They might be great, (Edit: and actually, I’ve heard a lot of praise for Vector Linux) but what really interests me is seeing a Linux distro that makes your average non-technical person go:

    “Hey, this is as easy as Windows or Mac, and fast, and it just works! Are you serious, this is free, and I don’t need to buy anti virus software either?”

    Ubuntu seems to be working better these days, and the new Lubuntu 9.10 looks like it’s going to have a way smaller footprint than Ubuntu and Xubuntu (like 65% less RAM usage, ~57 MB on fresh boot and a similar proportion than the others when they have programs running).

    CrunchBang seems fairly close too – it’s not meant for newbies, but it’s not real hard, and it only needs to have the panel menu installed to make it really easy.

  15. I think I’ll add one to the criteria: A flexible release schedule, where the emphasis can be on getting it right rather than meeting a rigid deadline.

    This is obviously aimed at Ubuntu – often criticized by frustrated users for new releases that are allegedly not ready.

    E.g. Fedora Development Schedule says: “We say developed and released about every 6 months because like many things–they don’t always go exactly as planned.” Sounds sensible.

  16. I think I’ll add one to the criteria: A flexible release schedule, where the emphasis can be on getting it right rather than meeting a rigid deadline.

    This is obviously aimed at Ubuntu – often criticized by frustrated users for new releases that are allegedly not ready.

    E.g. Fedora Development Schedule says: “We say developed and released about every 6 months because like many things–they don’t always go exactly as planned.” Sounds sensible.

  17. i’ve tried knoppix 6.2, dsl, ubuntu, linux mint, puppy, fedora, and slax – all taken from http://www.pendrivelinux.com and of all these distros it’s only knoppix that kept me happy with its ability to run in both my old and new laptop, as well as reliably detecting my usb broadband connection.

  18. Interesting – knoppix is very cool for LiveCD and apparently running from USB drive, but it’s not designed to be installed to hard disk. It’s possible, but difficult and not recommended. So for now it seems that the best USB drive distro and the best hard drive distro will usually be different.

  19. Interesting – knoppix is very cool for LiveCD and apparently running from USB drive, but it’s not designed to be installed to hard disk. It’s possible, but difficult and not recommended. So for now it seems that the best USB drive distro and the best hard drive distro will usually be different.

  20. Hi Roger – with the increasing speed and memory of computers, and seeing people’s reactions to the challenges of Linux, I’m inclined to put more emphasis on usability, these days, rather than hardcore lightweight choices.

    Another factor is that relatively little effort is going into really usable, very lightweight applications.

    For me, the setup I’m enjoying on my laptop is CrunchBang (the new Debian-based CrunchBang Statler), but:
    * replacing the tint2 panel with LXPanel, which does a better job of showing up when I want it, not covering the bottom of a program window. I turn on autohide and display only icons, adjust the icon size, change the color, and set it to display all desktops – and voila, it’s almost as good-looking as tint2.
    * for a file manager, using PCManFM instead of Thunar. The new PCManFM is very nice & very light.

    The biggest factor in my RAM and CPU usage is my browser, Firefox 4. With a lot of tabs open, I don’t find any other browsers to be better on RAM usage (though Chrome & Chromium might be better on keeping CPU down). And I really like Firefox 4, so I live with this – I just use a task manager to stop it from running if I’m working outside of the browser for an extended period, and work on closing some of those tabs :).

    But generally, I pretty much feel the same way as in that post. How about you, Roger?

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