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.