What's the best lightweight Linux distro?

Group Test

Group test: There are plenty of reasons for wanting a low-resource distro running on your computer. Maybe you have some ancient hardware that you need to breathe new life into. Perhaps you want something that will fit on a modestly sized memory stick. Or it might be that you want to run 200 virtual machines simultaneously on your desktop.

The important things that we'll look at here are the amount of space needed, how much processing power is required to get the distro running at an acceptable level, and the effort required to get it to work. Something to bear in mind is that one of the ways in which developers are able to create slimmed-down distros is by ditching the scripts and wizards that we've come to take for granted. This can complicate tasks that you might expect to be straightforward, such as installing software.

Strict criteria

The simple truth is that you'll be getting your fingers slightly grubbier with a low-resource distro than you would with a fully featured one.

In selecting our shortlist, we've left out some contenders either because they didn't support older processors, they wouldn't install in 4GB or less of space, they simply didn't work on our hardware or they're no longer being maintained (as is the case for both RULE and U-Lite). The one exception to this is Damn Small Linux - although it has been over a year since the last release, and the homepage is as quiet as the LXF office at 9.30 on a Monday morning, this is still such a widely used and influential project that it was considered worthy of inclusion.

There's still plenty of activity in the area of low-resource distros, including WattOS, which we hope to cover next time. We also gave Zenwalk a try, but ran into difficulty trying to run it on the low-spec system that we permitted ourselves here. But aside from this, it's a light and capable distro nonetheless and worth a look if you have the time.

How we tested

The main idea of this test was to see how well these distros would run in a restrained environment. To this end, they were tested, where possible, on an ancient Compaq laptop with 256MB RAM, Vesa graphics, a 4GB hard drive and a 200MHz Pentium processor. For the sake of sanity, all distros were then also tested in a Qemu virtual environment with the same limitations, but this time using one half of a 3GHz Core 2 Duo processor.

There were no special tests other than to install these distros (which was testing enough) and attempts to do some normal desktop tasks.

Damn Small Linux

The rise and fall of Damn Small Linux is one of those tales along the lines of a great concept executed well. The idea was to create a Linux distro that was small enough to fit on a credit-card sized CD-ROM. With a target size of 50MB or less, this format certainly concentrates the developers' minds if they also want to create a hassle-free user experience.

For the most part, DSL does succeed. Based on the grandfather of all Live CDs, Knoppix, DSL strips out layer after layer of non-essential stuff, while leaving a core working system.

It might not exactly be replete with applications, but there's enough there to legitimise its claim to the title of a desktop operating system. Look past the rather clunky interface and the tricky-to-read text and you'll be amazed at the amount of functionality included with DSL. Text editors, a PDF viewer, Firefox and other handy utilities provide a workable and stable environment. There are task-specific add-on packages available to download as well, and it's difficult to fault the level of hardware support.

DSL may look clunky, but it has an amazing array of shoe-horned-in-applications.

DSL may look clunky, but it has an amazing array of shoe-horned-in-applications.

Unfortunately, the story of DSL doesn't have a happy ending at the moment. The community developing it seems to have split rather fractiously over demands made by some of the contributors, so it's been a year since any of the main contributors has even posted on the project's website. The future of development seems uncertain. We've included it here (in spite of the exclusion of other defunct systems) because it still holds up surprisingly well to some of the other options, and remains widely used. If you need further testament, DSL was selected is one of the few systems supported by the boot.kernel.org (BKO) project.

That said, obviously as time wears on, DSL slowly becomes more and more out of date, and may eventually become something of a liability.

Our verdict: The original and still one of the best, but getting a bit long in the tooth now. 7/10.

CrunchBang

Long before there was an official Ubuntu-lite project, the ground had been contested by the likes of Xubuntu and U-list. CrunchBang ('#!', get it?), or HashPling as one might decide to call it, evolved some time later, but before there was official support for the Lubuntu project. The head-start seems to have worked out for the developers, though, because CrunchBang is pretty much there.

It comes in more than one flavour, but we decided to test the lite version because it fits in better with the theme of this particular group test.

The installer was one of the easiest to use, but it didn't work on our decrepit hardware, only the virtual machine. The graphics driver seemed to be causing difficulty, so your mileage may vary.

Although this is a lite version, it still includes useful applications, including the Leafpad editor, VLC and Firefox 3.0.11. One of the major selling points is that this distro is built around Ubuntu, to the extent that the included Synaptic Package Manager will happily fetch anything from the Canonical repositories to bung on your box. But as soon as you start installing big things, it comes tumbling down as dependencies spiral into gigabytes of space.

Although it looks minimal, CrunchBang takes up a lot of space.

Although it looks minimal, CrunchBang takes up a lot of space

CrunchBang also takes the unusual but welcome step of stuffing a whole load of keyboard shortcuts into the desktop - quite literally, because the list is displayed on the screen via the Conky system monitor software. They mostly make use of the 'special key that should have a penguin on it', so they won't interfere with normal operations.

CrunchBang is small, stylish and performs well. It'll be interesting to see what happens here when Lubuntu is released publicly, but it seems that CrunchBang has a pretty solid proposition ready to go.

Our verdict: Stylish, compact and plenty of Ubuntu software available. 8/10.

Lubuntu

Early in 2009, Mark 'Space' Shuttleworth gave the nod to an Ubuntu project that would create a lightweight variant of the world's favourite distro. Based around LXDE, Lubuntu was on its way. And it still is. Well, getting a new distro sorted out takes more than a few months, so we shouldn't be too harsh. It's also worth noting that at the time of writing, the current release was still an alpha version, so we're giving it extra latitude.

As with most of the other distributions here, the install media runs as a live CD first, which is a useful way to check that the system is going to work with your hardware before you go to the trouble of installing it.

If you imagine that Lubuntu is going to look anything like Ubuntu, that idea will be destroyed the minute the desktop loads. Lubuntu has more in common with the other LXDE distributions, with the LXPanel running at the bottom of the screen and a more KDE 3.x look to things rather than Gnome. The chosen apps aren't quite the usual - Firefox, AbiWord and Gnumeric are among those included, which seems to suggest that not everything in this distro is going to be pared to the bone.

It might be a shock for Ubuntu users, but the Lubuntu desktop is fast and functional.

It might be a shock for Ubuntu users, but the Lubuntu desktop is fast and functional.

Of course, the main selling point of this distro is that it will have access to the Ubuntu repositories for easy upgrades and plenty of extra packages to install if you need them.

We did have a couple of problems installing this to disk, so the figures in the table on page 35 that compare memory usage and disk space aren't that reliable. However, since this is still an alpha release, you couldn't really rely on them anyway.

Lubuntu is definitely one to watch for the future. With the backing of Canonical, it'll have the developer resources to make the other lite distro projects rather jealous.

Our verdict: Although it looks nothing like Ubuntu, this is one to keep an eye on as it moves towards a stable release. 6/10.

Puppy Linux

This sounds as though it ought to be based on Yellow Dog, but in fact, Puppy is a built-from-the-base-up independent distribution from down under. This is a middleweight offering - not as stripped back as some of the distros, but not bloated out to a full CD either. Memory usage is low to average and a recent kernel gives a good chance of hardware support, although it'll run on i386 hardware.

It runs direct from RAM on the initial boot and reveals a packed desktop with some thoughtfully selected apps scattered about. There are loads of helpful scripts to guide you through things such as setting up display preferences and installing to disk, but you still need to perform some stages manually. As is so often the case, less bloat means less complete and helpful apps that do everything for you, so you will need to put a little bit of effort in.

Puppy manages to pack a lot of programs in to a small space. For graphics, there's a lite version of Inkscape, a few camera tools, MTPaint and Gxine. Browsing and mail is taken care of by a full version of SeaMonkey rather than separate apps, while Gnumeric and AbiWord should suffice for most office purposes.

Puppy Linux has a fast, responsive and tweakable UI.

Puppy Linux has a fast, responsive and tweakable UI.

Packages available for additional install include IceWM and Openbox if you don't like the default window manager, plus a selection of other tools. Of course, the distribution also has GCC, so you can build your own software - which may be necessary since the repositories only hold a few dozen extra apps.

While it may be restrictive in the number of programs available, there's still a lot to recommend Puppy - it runs like a solid, modern distro but in a fraction of the space. However, if you have specific application needs, it may be easier to look elsewhere.

Our verdict: A solid and dependable offering, but limited software available. 6/10.

Slitaz

Many of the lightweight Linux distros on offer are based on more popular desktop variants such as Debian, but this one's grown completely from scratch since 2007. It's one of the few that includes languages other than English (Spanish, French, German and Portuguese).

The base install is competent enough for a variety of tasks. The browser is Firefox 3.5, which may not be the most lightweight app you could think of installing, but it does give Slitaz the ability to run pretty much any web app, which is what many people will want to do with such a diminutive distro that doesn't have a lot of its own software. That said, there's a cluster of useful tools included as part of the minimal install, including a MTPaint, a PDF reader, music player and a couple of editors (Leafpad and Nano).

For lightweight and embedded projects, it rather unbelievably includes a fully functional webserver (Lighttpd) with PHP/CGI support, and various other standard network tools as well (such as SSH and FTP).

Configuration scripts and installers are easily accessible in the Slitaz menu.

Configuration scripts and installers are easily accessible in the Slitaz menu.

If you feel the need to bloat out the system, there are over a thousand packages available in the online repository. Package management is via a tool called Tazpkg, which is tiny, but straightforward and easy to use. The packages themselves are custom archives with included information and dependencies, so you won't get caught up in a whole world of install pain (though you are limited to the packages available from the Slitaz repository, unless you want to make your own).

The desktop uses the nippy but low-overhead Openbox window manager, combined with LXDE desktop, which should be pretty intuitive to most users (it's most akin to a KDE 3.x desktop).

Slitaz achieves the objective of cramming a lot into a small space. It doesn't have an overwhelming selection of default packages, but they do the job, and they do it very fast.

Our verdict: Exceptionally quick, deceptively powerful and has a built-in webserver. 9/10.

Tiny Core Linux

The Tiny Core project was started in 2008 by one of the refugees from DSL, so it isn't much of a surprise that it follows the same ethos of trying to get as much as possible into the minimum amount of space. If anything, Tiny Core has taken this to more of an extreme, completely savaging the package base to create just about the smallest distribution you could still consider to be a Linux OS.

While this is great news for those trying to fit the OS on to ancient hardware or embedded devices, it does inevitably mean you'll need to do more work if you want to do anything other than boot it up and look at the X display.

Fortunately, there's an app installer that enables access to the large repository of TCZ packages, so you can easily install the apps that you want. Dependencies are handled, but obviously, if you choose to install something like Firefox, you're going to see the disk space taken up by this distro ballooning to new levels. But you will have to install something, otherwise a few system scripts and a terminal will be your only company.

Yay! Tiny Core Linux took no time to set up. What shall we do now? Oh...

Yay! Tiny Core Linux took no time to set up. What shall we do now? Oh...

In some ways, it's not quite so useful to have such a diminutive distro. There may be some specialist cases, but for general use, most people can easily spare, say, 100MB of space. Sure, you can build on the Tiny Core install by adding applications, but it may have made things easier to aim for a slightly higher target to begin with.

But that's to take nothing away from the remarkable achievement of creating a Linux install that fits inside 10MB of space. It's easy to see Tiny Core becoming the basis of many specialist application distros - if you can get the base install down in size, it leaves you with a lot more room to pile on your custom applications.

Our verdict: A remarkable achievement, but requires effort to install and use. 6/10.

Unity Linux

This Mandriva-based distro wants to give you low resource computing, but it doesn't want you to slum it. Although possibly the best-looking of the distros in this group test, it does come at the cost of a slow boot time. Unity is pretty much as sluggish as a full desktop distro when it starts, compared to the nippy zippy likes of Slitaz and Tiny Core. Once the Openbox-based desktop is running, though, it is as fast and responsive as you could want a distro to be.

The install process couldn't be easier - run the graphical installer, tell it where you live, allow it to partition the drive however it likes and you're done in a couple of clicks. In fact, it may be a little too easy - perhaps it should ask a bit more about where you're installing, but there are manual options available for most of the stages.

Installation may take a while, but you can always avail yourself of the live Unity while you're waiting, then reboot back into that lovely desktop.

That's when the real shock hits you - Unity has gobbled up nearly 1GB of space before you've even started installing anything! The minimal install does contain lots of configuration tools, but if you want to do anything like browse the web or play some music, you'll need to get downloading.

It gets an A+ for its looks, but Unity Linux takes up huge amounts of disk space.

It gets an A+ for its looks, but Unity Linux takes up huge amounts of disk space.

The smart package manager is preconfigured to fetch updates and packages from the extensive Unity mirrors, though you could most likely install Mandriva or generic RPMs without much difficulty. Setting up networking was seamless and we were gorging ourselves silly on frivolous applications such as image viewers and audio players in no time.

Surprisingly, once installed, Unity only came mid-table in terms of memory use, but we found that it was sprightly and easy to use.

As with some of the other distros we've tested here, this is a beta release, but based on what we saw, it seems ready for a full release already.

Our verdict: It's both slick and fast, but you will need a bit more disk space available. 7/10.

VectorLinux

Based on Slackware, Vectorlinux was originally all about being a small, self-contained and easy to install and use distro. Since it started life in 2000 it has been through many different iterations and sprouted a few different variants (SOHO, Deluxe, Standard, Light) to target specific use scenarios. We tested the Light version, though even that's a full CD.

At 617MB, it's heftier than some of the others on test. Even if you discount the optional packages, the Light install requires 1GB of space, so it isn't that surprising that it has a wide choice of apps occupying all that space. Development tools and the kernel source can be excluded to give you change, but we don't recommend you install this on anything smaller than a 4GB drive if you want some swap space (which you do on a low-memory system) and room to store your files.

In terms of app choice, things are skewed towards web and media stuff. There are four web browsers, but only Leafpad, Pathetic Writer and Siag Office by way of office programs, and MTPaint holding up the graphics end of the ship.

VectorLinux's space demands make Unity Linux look quite reasonable.

VectorLinux's space demands make Unity Linux look quite reasonable.

Installing VectorLinux is straightforward for a veteran of pre-Ubuntu installers. This Curses-based trip back into prehistory actually has the temerity to ask you questions about things and also wants you to partition and format your drive!

There's nothing particularly wrong with VectorLinux, it just isn't that inspiring. It has by far the largest boot image, consumes the most disk space and yet doesn't deliver an exceptional performance or user experience. In some ways, you might as well be running any normal mainstream distro.

The interface may seem fussy and there isn't much customisation available, but it becomes deceptively easy to use after a short time.

Our verdict: This is a decent choice if you have space and memory to spare. 5/10.

Our choice: Slitaz

We hope you've seen that the world of light distros is more exciting than you may have imagined. Choosing the right one depends on the hardware you want to run it on and what you want to use it for.

The Ubuntu-based distros are interesting, particularly the nascent Lubuntu, mainly because they have a tiny footprint but offer the promise of installing anything from the vast Ubuntu multiverse. However, we were looking for a a distro to work painlessly in a cramped hardware environment. Honourable mentions must go to DSL and Tiny Core at this point, which have clambered into the territory of the minuscule. It's amazing how usable a system can be that takes up less space on your drive than your holiday pictures. Puppy Linux and Unity were both easy to use, although the latter was a bit more polished (and bigger).

There can be only one winner in the context of our group test, and it should be Slitaz. It's fast, easy on memory, and comes with a considered selection of apps. Not being able to install new software easily apart from stuff in the Slitaz package format is one of the few drawbacks, but for a fast, lightweight desktop it's hard to beat.

Slitaz takes the crown for usability and speed on a low-resource budget.

Slitaz takes the crown for usability and speed on a low-resource budget.

All the versions tested here either install from a live version or have live versions available, so check that your hardware's compatible before you install. It's not always the case that the biggest distros are the most compatible - it varies, although those tested here should provide basic functionality (some sort of graphics, keyboard, mouse and wired network). If your target is a laptop, you might be in for all sorts of difficulties. Many laptop parts aren't what they seem to be, at least as far as kernel drivers go.

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Your comments

Installed distributions

So, you have used the best lightweight Linux *live* distributions. Are you going for the basic installs of the classics, too, like Debian base, Slackware CD1, Archlinux, Gentoo?

Age of mobility.......

This is the age of mobile devices. what about a linux distro for hand-held devices (palm tops, mobile phones, tablets, etc)? which distro has a very appealing, glossy GUI that can match superb performance?

Anyone? Great contributions from you all.

Linux + / - BIOS

How come linux still depends on BIOS to start? is there any linux distro that can start without BIOS? believe me, it's gonna be landmark distro if it were to be developed.

i would if i could.......

cheers y'all!

Asian support

... also, most linux distros have problem displaying asian characters. none of them come asian-character-enabled, that is , out of the box. one has to go around looking for files and all that to download. i usually just copy a unicode text into the font folder and it shows, but there are still problems, for example, none of the browsers display chinese characters on the top bar, it just shows boxes in its place. of all the OS that i have tried that support it out of the box (windows and mac excluded) is opensolaris. opensolaris even come bundled with an ime, so no need to download and configure and break your head.

c'mon linux champs, you can do this! make it universal.

cheers!

Ignoring the lack of WiFi support, other lightweight: PEPPERMINT

It is surprising that easy autodetection of WiFi interface and easy configuration of WiFi was overlooked. Lightweight is something not only sought out for old hardware, but also for modern, under-powered netbooks. There, Puppy, DSL, Slitaz fail miserably, and there is no "easy" solution to fix that (as a matter of fact, the generated ISOs from the Slitaz build website will not even run on some hardware). True, recently Puppeee (and it's Fluppy counterpart with more netbook brands supported) are Puppy versions ("pupplets") for netbooks, but Puppy's interface and packages don't satisfy everyone, and at the time of this writing, they are still under heavy development. In a few weeks from now, when 1.0 is released, they may be well worth taking a look at.

One well working, lightweight distro, is PEPPERMINT. It's done by one of the developers of Linux Mint-ubuntu LXDE. Except that this is truly fast, and supports modern hardware. Downsides are the more difficult customization of the menus intrinsic to Openbox, but as it is, it works very well. Upside is access to 30,000 programs from the Ubuntu repositories. And WiFi just clicks in automatically, painlessly working on first run.

Peppermint for now.... Will try others

I've been using mostly full size distros on my Asus 900e for a couple of years now, including most of the ones designed for netbook use.Install would use 2.5- 2.9 gig of precious space. They have all worked well but after several months worth of updates would soon fill the small 4G ssd drive.....Peppermint linux installs very easy, boots quickly, and with Openoffice and a few other packages installed only uses 1.9G of space on ssd. Runs as well or better than any distro I've used so far.I know 1 extra gig doesn't sound like a big difference, but when you are only starting with 4, it's huge!!!

Salix 13.1 LXDE rocks for me

I have an older 750 MHZ PC with 256MB RAM but a fair size (60GB) drive. After trying WattOS, Peppermint, Lubuntu, AntiX, etc, I found Salix LXDE to be the winner -- most stable and as fast as any of the others. It is Slackware based, so sometimes it takes a little work to configure, but overall very speedy and stable with a good selection of available apps.

Peppermint

nuf said!

Peppermint ice

Even better, and faster still.

Good review, but "lite" category is too broad

I like the article in general, but I don't think OS's like Vector, Crunchbang, & Lubuntu are in the same category as slitaz, tinycore, and dsl. Not at all. Linux OS's that are so small they can live entirely in ram are NOT comparable to the others. Personally the breakdown really aught to be:

ULTRA LITE (generally boot up to a desktop of 20 to 65 megs):
Slitaz
TinyCore
AntiX
DSL
Puppy

LITE (generally boot up to a desktop of 65 to 150 megs):
Crunchbang
Lubuntu
Archbang
WattOS
Vector
GOS
Elive
Peppermint
Dream Linux
Remastersys lxde lite

I've run many of the distro's above. In my experience, if you have an old Pentium II, III, or 486, you can run the "LITE" Distro's and they'll work decent - sometimes. But the ultra's are needed if you want to really cruise.

For instance, I have an old Pentium II 233 mgz with 256 ram. Slitaz, Puppy, and tinycore "sing" on that old rig. While crunchbang statler 486, & Remastersys LXDE lite 486 work well, but just can't keep up. Antix is also responsive, but given it won't fit into ram (requires a bit more than 512 for toram feature to work) it is not as quick.

So it depends on your need. For complete out of the box ultralite, I think Slitaz takes it. Tinycore's potential is somewhat better (at least in theory), but it does take more of a front end regarding reading, homework, etc. Once you install taz, it's pretty much ready to roll.

It seems like the advantage of tinycore is the potential to build up an OS to the exact specs you need on your hardware. If you have the time and inclination, that is very seductive. It's boot speed is amazing. But once you've added your necessary extensions, I'm not so sure it'll really be any faster than slitaz - whose default is definitely NOT bloated.

For the Lite variety, my favorite is Crunchbang - though dream linux is sweet as well as peppermint and many of the others. Of course, all this stuff is SO subjective. But that's my 2 cents.

Peace

Great reviews, more please! <grin>

Excellent! Yes there are lots more distros in this category, but look at the response! Well done.
It is all pretty subjective, but so is life.
We love Puppy - used it on a heap of real cheap P3 laptops for the grandkids, my test machine had a 40GB HDD with 10 distros on it at one time.
Puppy is so friendly and so flexible - Barry Kauler is a genius, and the community is wonderful. But we do have problems with logging on as root. Prefer a conventional setup. We can usually find packages we need, thanks to the community.
SliTaz 3.0 - slightly harder to get to grips with - has many merits (so tiny! so fast!) and am now using it for production on my dual-core ION net-top. With xcompmgr it fades the menus etc; Conky reports 50MB of RAM. The repo shows over 2000 packages, and TazWok is destined to produce more as soon as I have it all figured out.
Mint 8 FluxBox CE is the one that (for us) straddles the middle ground seamlessly. On a Celeron 420 laptop it boots up into < 80MB - according to Conky - with Wbar plus three Widgets on-screen. Transparency too!
LXDE version uses around 120 MB, with less eye candy - both very smart, but I prefer the Fluxbox configurability and eye candy as well as the lighter RAM footprint.
Lubuntu is similar in footprint to Mint LXDE, bit heavier iirc, we used it to rescue our neighbour's ancient 1GHz P3 XP desktop and he is so pleased with it. LXDE is more mainstream Win-alike than Fluxbox. Can be an advantage when it's their first Linux!

Isn't Linux grand? Ben

Liked Slitaz for speed but 2 annoying hurdles

Installed quickly and worked like a champ. Well, until I couldn't get it to connect via wifi where xubuntu did. Also, needed to deal with a tar.gz file and read I needed to convert it to tazpkg or something like that.

So the honeymoon is over and I'm kicking this one to the curb and will try the next one down the list.

It's stupid stuff like this that keeps the masses from embracing Linux.

Best for RDP?

We have a Windows 2003 Server in Office and all we want is our older machines with Via 800 MHZ process/256 MB RAM/20GB HDD to connect to it through RDP. I tried DSL, Puppy and loads of them but couldnt get to install on hard disk. The systems somehow dont support USB boot .

So can anyone suggest what the best small distro just for booting up and opening and RDP screen.

DSL,so shame

DSL,could be the best,ive tested,but the limitations are big,they did the DSL is not,but is not the same DSL thing,i hope DSL could be giant in repos,and packs,and a Final Version,to 8 to 64 could be good,and more Desktop like to final users,but my thumbs up is for slitaz

Such a great arcticle... welcome SliTaz

Stuck SliTaz on my eee 701 this weekend as the latest *buntu just doesn't seem to fit anymore via an upgrade. So, so fast and plays media perfectly with a little bit of Minecraft thrown in for good measure. Super.

Thanks!

Peppermint ice and antix

hello pp, from my side i have tried almost every distro starting from fedora and ending up with some i cant even spell, the fastest i found was antix and peppermint ice, both will run smoothly on a 128 MB of ram, but on peppermint you will need to install firefox insted of chrome as it eats more ram, regarding hardware, Peppermint ice did not cause any problem with any part i add, language support for other non english is also great, its the os of choice for me, but ive been using antix as the main distro to install and run squid, dhcp, apache, mysql, ssh .....

i have no clue why, but antix handles servers better than peppermint even on lower resources. ....

"it's stupid stuff... that stops the masses embracing linux"

Hi,
I am part of the masses and dislike tech: I just want a few buttons that say "go" and "stop", really simple to use stuff, etc.

One of the really annoying things is getting these smaller distos to easily work with a Mobile Broadband Dongle.

Xubuntu and Ubuntu have solved this beautifully this year...but Puppy is simply annoying as it seems to offer this same easy-click access, but then does not. Not house trained (for domestic use) yet?

Perhaps a review of the lightweight distros that allow "no brainer" (as Puppy wants to be, and in every other respect appears to be) plug and play dongle support?

I'm on a roll now, a mindless mass, a sort of Quatermass forming

A couple of thoughts brewed after making the earlier comment about Dongle access on lighter Distos.

Poorer people will use older machines, and not have landlines usually. So Mobile Broadband is best for this situation. So light (and free!) distros attract, of course.

One annoyance with Microsoft (may I breath that name here?) is the continual and perhaps needless constant expensive upgrading, which pushes people to then also need to upgrade the equipment they use to keep up with the software's new demands. Hence mountains of expensive but now obsolete computers get dumped, causing environmental problems and straining companies budgets. Lite Distros: way to go for a greener approach to computing and keeping costs down.

I am also starting to dislike the authoritive, "let me guide you", tone of a well known leading very expensive propietary OS (anyone else noticed this tone?!), where I find I start asking "Who's computer is this anyway?".

People are not an extension of their world, to whom they can issue commands too in a similar way they enter Dos comands (we are the master drive; while you out there are the slave drives, after all). So well done, you Linux community for breaking a monopoly and reacting against a Big Brother in the making (who is it actually running the show these days:...I mean which goverment does not wants a handle on the way computers are run? What better way to control your computer than having only one OS system for everyone). One Ring to rule them all? Very important to keep our computers our own, and the only way is to break the dependancy on one software supplier (who for legal purposes will have to remain nameless) I guess.

For what my students need...

As a teacher, I taught my students not be conditioned by MS Windows. That's why when some old PCs needs reinstallations, I picked a distro from this article.

I haven't tried too many other distros or hardware specs. However for a AMD Sempron 256MB machine, Lubuntu works quite well. By now, the 10.04 Long Term Support is already out. It has some good out-of-the-box codecs, and uses chromium as the browser. It provides you with the essential options without overwhelming you. The interface also doesn't depart dramatically from WinXP. The combination of such advantages made Lubuntu much less intimidating for the beginners, which fits perfectly for my needs.

It's fast and quite stable for my machines. So far, I have very few complains, except that short-cuts are difficult to create.

In brief, If you are looking for a distro for those who know a little or very little about PC and MS Windows, Lubuntu just might be the choice for you. :-)

new to linux

nice article. it gave me some good advice on which distro to install on my families rebuilt gateway that i am trying to fix, desperately. before everything i tried to run was slow/unresponsive/ or wouldn't install to hard disk. hopefully this will work. tnx

xPud

might be in with a shout

Thanks, and my results

Hello,
First, congratulation for your test, very useful. I need a linux live, so i was happy to read it. I tested your choice, slitaz, and i didn't agree with your opinion about my needs. Then, i did a smiliar test of some linux live, in the goal to find a distro wich meet my needs. My needs are simples : play music, play divx, open pdf, open doc-word, open doc-excel, access to local hard drive, internet connection by wifi and can use vpn connection. So, i tested some distro on my 3 years old computer. Here, my results :

CrunchBang
iso size : 640 Mo
play mp3 : 10/10
play divx : 10/10
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : no
wifi configuration : 10/10
web surfing : 10/10
vpn connection : 10/10
easy to use : 7/10
low memory usage : 10/10
Conclusion : Excellent, but a crucial problem : we are not allow to access to local hard drive... Really shame...

Lubuntu
iso size : 550 Mo
play mp3 : 10/10
play divx : 10/10
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : 10/10
web surfing : 10/10
vpn connection : 10/10
easy to use : 10/10
low memory usage : 6/10
Conclusion : Excellent, but the size of iso is not small and usage memory is not low.

Puppy
iso size : 130 Mo
play mp3 : 10/10
play divx : 10/10
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : 6/10
web surfing : 10/10
vpn connection : no
easy to use : 6/10
low memory usage : 10/10
Conclusion : Excellent, but the environment is not really good to use and vpn connection is not implemented.

Slitaz
iso size : 30 Mo
play mp3 : no
play divx : no
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : no
web surfing : not tested
vpn connection : no
easy to use : 10/10
low memory usage : 10/10
Conclusion : Not really good. Because play music and video didn't work. Wifi config didn't work too.

Knoppix
iso size : 700 Mo
play mp3 : 10/10
play divx : 10/10
open doc-word : 8/10
open doc-excel : 8/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : 10/10
web surfing : 10/10
vpn connection : 10/10
easy to use : 10/10
low memory usage : 7/10
Conclusion : Excellent, but iso file is not small. However, the environment have nice design effect on windows ;-)

Linux Mint
iso size : 700 Mo
play mp3 : no
play divx : no
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : no
web surfing : not tested
vpn connection : no
easy to use : 8/10
low memory usage : 5/10
Conclusion : Slow to use. Music and video didn't work and wiki config too.

Slax
iso size : 200 Mo
play mp3 : 10/10
play divx : 10/10
open doc-word : 10/10
open doc-excel : 10/10
open pdf : 10/10
access to local hdd : 10/10
wifi configuration : no
web surfing : not tested
vpn connection : no
easy to use : 7/10
low memory usage : 10/10
Conclusion : Fast to use. But, wifi didn't work and vpn connection not implementation.

Final conclusion
All my needs are not checked. Hard to choose, because all have a little problem. If i find an easy way to access to local hard drive in CrunBang, then i will can say : get it !

In my opinion

@author : Good tests, thanks

@The scientist : CrunchBang 10 has problem with local hard disk, not v9.

I tested a lot of linux light, and i prefer CrunchBang 9

Fedora

How about Fedora 14 lxde? Has anyone tested that?

Slitaz

Yep, you chose my favourite as the best. It is my favourite because it is fun and very fast. I use it because my broadband is so slow I cannot watch TV on ubuntu, fedora is faster but still jerky..Slitaz give me smooth online TV, I cut it right down to a web browser and flash, 41MB...plus a couple of other useful things, I might want in the ad breaks...
Anything else I want to do is covered by Fedora on the hard disk, but more often than not I keep the CD in the drive and just use Slitaz in RAM, web applications being more advanced these days, I do less and less on the hard disk.
The other thing is, Slitaz seems to be more fun than the others, I haven't tried them all, but it seems to start minimal and lets you build your system up.. puppy is the other one I tried, it's good and seems to do a lot for you from the start.. One problem in both I found is how to set a system wide proxy.. I can't figure out how to do that. In Lubuntu there seemed no way at all even to set the browser proxy .. this makes it hard to use at work for updating , but with puppy you can use the cut down midori browser to download a more secure one... with a little command line work you can get stuff installed.. as my network manager didn't know what Linux was and tolerates my fiddling because he cant afford to give me a new computer, I work with an old machine and puppy linux at work and really dont want MS, truly !!

Another one

May worth considering a PCLinuxOS LXDE edition. I get it up and running on a 1MHz machine with 256MB of RAM, and was running fast. The owner claim that XP that he tried earlier needed 20 minutes to boot, while PCLOS LXDE boot with time like in any other PC (include mine)....

Denis

repos with Slitaz ?

Slitaz is very seducing and I ran it in VM to test it. The problem with non-(debian+ubuntu+mandriva+derived) is the repos contents, extendability, and compatibility with existing and common packages. For example, how to setup Google Chrome in Slitaz ? The only package I found is "get-google-chrome-1.03.tazpkg". I wanted to see if it was possible to install it and if there was a kind of internal upgrade from version 1 to 7. The first problem is that the "tazpkg" extension is not associated with the package installer. So it looks like there are a lot of obstacles to achieve a basic installation with common softwares (like hardware Mac PPC has become, for example). Older machines are rarely used by geeks who prefer up-to-date ones, but more often by users who want WOOB (works-out-of-the box) OSes like Ubuntu and derived.

Start with Puppy Linux

Puppy is more like 9/10 rather than 6/10. It has everything that you would want for an everyday computer and there's no problem connecting to the internet, setting up a wireless connection, transferring files using FTP or recovering files from the hard drive.

Puppy +1

I aggree because now you have with Puppy more or less the Ubuntu repo.

rocks me and my freinds

lubuntu 10.10 . 7 of us and growing . trick is add swiftfox/w firefox daily build , and remove chrome . is very fast . 0 -3 % cpu usage , 126 - 211 mb ram usage

SliTaz does not have fsck

I installed SliTaz on a USB stick so I could boot from the stick and back up my primary system. When I had a problem with my hard disk (and could not even boot to a recovery console), I booted from the stick and backed up. Then I thought I would try to repair my disk with fsck. To my dismay, I found that you can't install fsck in SliTaz!!

This is a terrible oversight. Otherwise SliTaz is really nice.

Tinycore

Tinycore is not meant to be used on ancient hardware as it requires slightly more RAM than similar distributions. Of course it is lightweight, but it's base at least has to remain in RAM all the time. This works most efficiently on modern PCs where you are rewarded with awesome boot times and a simple, but powerful and space-saving extension system yet to be seen on other distributions.

Lubuntu - nope

I tried to load Lubuntu on a Pentium III 933Mhz with 256MB.

It just doesn't work!
They said that it should be fine with this amount of RAM, but trust me, when I try to install it, the graphical interface takes forever (common to ubuntu distro), but even so, after ages of loading, Install Lubuntu gets the hourglass running and running...

Maybe it's light but it's almost impossible to install it on 256mb ram

Slitaz is great but....

Slitaz is a really good distro and I would run it on my 2 old IBM TP 570, if it wasn't for 2 things: 1. Setting up USB 3G modem is a nightmare, 2. the software repo is not that great, I had to convert rpm files to tazpkg to make some of my HW working. Suggestion fix the USB modem issue so it works out of the box, expand the repo to be able to use deb files or make the repo so it automatically convert deb files to tazpkg.

Puppy is great but again there is the USB modem issue, on versions up to 4.3.2.

PC Linux OS 2010 works fully except for 1 thing, the fan needs to be set up manually - this issue is the same for many other distros. USB modem is found without any problems the same goes for most Wi-fi cards/USB/PCcard.

Over the last 2 years I have tested most of the distros on the market to find a lightweight to run on old laptops. I like Puppy(up to 4.2.1 newer versions lack old HW support, unless its a retro version), Peppermint One, Slitaz, PC Linux OS. Opensuse, fedora, and other big distro is not for old HW.

A wish is that Lubuntu makes a lot more lightweight version for old HW, cut it down so that it can run on 64MB Ram and install on the same amount. And fix the USB Modem issue.
An advise to Lubuntu team: Look guy's, Lubuntu is great but cut it down so it has a nice look and is fast even on old HW, let the enduser install all the heavy stuff themselves. Make it fast and quick to start from liveCD, right now on my old laptop its heavy as h...!

If PCLinux OS 2010 can run fast and light, then you should be able to make it work too!

JBJ

I'm using #! right now and think that it's great!

I've been using #! for quite a while and I believe that it's the best light-weight distro that I've ever tried. how easy it is to customize is the best out of any distro that I've tried.

I'm loving it!

Tried most, down to 2 for bottom-end HW

I've went through many, if not MOST, of the previous suggestions for lightweight distros. My bottom-end systems are and were PII - P3 CPUs ranging from 400-700Mhz speeds, from 64-192 MB RAM, and from 840 MB (that's right, MEGAbytes!!) up to 4 GB hd-space.

I am actually using CrunchBang "Statler" r20110207 on a P3 800+ CPU even as I now write this comment (albeit it DOES have over a GB of fast RAM!!)
(And NO, I just DON'T think #! is the best distro for the above PIIs and low-end P3s)

I narrowed down my top two to Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux (DSL) on these low-end machines. Why, you may ask??
Basically, Puppy and DSL ALWAYS seem to work as the Lowest Common Denominator on ALL the PCs I've used.
OTOH, I CONTINUE to have abysmal success on these low-end PCs with the *buntus, the *mints, Absolute Linux, VectorLinux, and even with Slackware and with Debian.
It's always one gotcha or another with these installable distros, and fixing their installs requires just too much unacceptable troubleshooting and/or tweaking steps, for reasons analyzed separately.

And I was actually UNABLE to install TinyCore and SliTaz on the hd's of the above machines, although they both ran well as liveCDs.

My own helpful criteria used to distinguish all distros used on these low-ends was the acronym F.O.S.S.
Here F.O.S.S. stands for _Fast, _Organized, _Simple and _Secure rather than Free and Open Source Software FOSS!

1. Overall F.O.S.S. Puppy rating: 27-29 out of a perfect 40.
A 9 out of 10 for speed once installed, a 7 out of 10 for organization since I had some difficulties always finding the apps I needed in the menu system, an 8-9 out of 10 for simplicity due to a gotcha or two in selecting the right menu/icon app for a task, and a 3-4 out of 10 for Puppy's security where users BY DEFAULT annoyingly always run as root!!
2. Overall F.O.S.S. DSL rating: 26-29 out of a perfect 40.
An 8 out of 10 for speed, an 8-9 out of 10 for organization with both its icons and its menu-system, a 3-4 out of 10 for simplicity as DSL's control panel and extensions-upgrades were often gotchas, and a 7-8 out of 10 for DSL security (nice to require 'sudo su' for root privileges ONLY when needed!)

My overall F.O.S.S.-rating points here for both Puppy and DSL were approximately the same. Therefore, I continue to use BOTH of these two distros depending upon how I decide to WEIGH each of the F.O.S.S. attributes on a particular low-end PC that gets Linux installed.

Higher-end PCs with better HW resources generally get the *buntu and *mint-caliber distros that others already mentioned they prefer above.

Missed the best of all

Peppermint, Peppermint Ice.

You forgot include Austrumi

You forgot include Austrumi linux @ Distrowatch - it's awesome!

This was in APRIL 7, Last

This was in APRIL 7, Last Year... How about today?

Another .02 cents.

Since I've installed them and use them can say both Antix 11 and slitaz 3. Are both top notch on my old dinosaur box. Though it has enough to get by with quite a few linux distro's I just don't like bloat.

System has P4 2.8ghz, 512/mbs ddr2.

I use slitaz more. Just cause it so snappy, boots a bit faster. Total disk install is taking up under 500mbs of diskspace. It's become the distro I most use lately. Good stuff. Think the guy behind it did summin awesome with Slitaz.

Though Antix 11 is also incredible in terms of memory usage and lighter than Slitaz. Might be the one someone wanting a full featured polished linux distro on a box with low system resources would try.

Think someone could get by with 128mbs/ram with either. THough AntiX would win out in my opinion. The default install idles at like 65mbs on my comp.

Both are really sweet and with Slitaz taking up so small an amount of diskspace. No reason why someone couldn't have both installed anyway. See what they think and how they stack up on whatever hardware.

random helpful note: For folks w really low sys resources. Adjust your swappiness value to decrease disk writes. Should smooth out performance at least some on low resource boxes.

Just google vm.swappiness=10

home user

zorin core 3 32 bit is fast ;
zorin core 5 .32 bit and 64 bit are fast
user`s choice

great distros!!

wow.. really helpfull.. it's really great for low computers..

What's the best lightweight Linux distro?

Hey folks! Just wanted to say thanks for this article and thanks for all of the wonderful reader comments here. They're all very helpful and give me lots of great ideas.

I'm doing an "old computer hardware" purge with plans to give away a bunch of old machines of Pentium II/III (and AMD equivalent)vintage starting with the oldest stuff first!

I had an old P233MMX box (old AT style) with 64 MB RAM, 4GB HD and ATI PCI video card. I did install DSL on it about four or five years ago which worked well. I went back to this machine and wanted to put something "newer" on it and with DSL no longer supported, tried several distros. Slitaz wouldn't boot this old beast. Puppy and Antix would install but for some strange reason couldn't get the PS2 mouse to work despite playing on the command line with the mouse settings for hours.

Anyway, I gave up on this machine as this project was becoming more frustrating than fun ;) and tossed the machine on the street for someone else who might want to "play". Next up...on the build and give away is a K6II 400 MHz. box with 384 MB RAM. With stack of lightweight distro CD's freshly burned (can't boot from USB on this box)...going to try Mint Fluxbox first!

home useriqunix

iqunix 11.04 rocks my desktop . light ,fast , and i can build my own system from the base install .

Re: Peppermint

The problem with Peppermint is that about half of the apps are Google apps.

Google invades your personal privacy. It is the largest data mining company in the world tracking everything you do with all of their various products from YouTube to Gmail. And, some say Google is just a monitoring company for the government.

Google databases reveal a shocking amount of personal information about you, such as your interests, family circumstances, political leanings, medical conditions, and more. This information is modern-day gold for marketers, government officials, hackers and criminals - all of whom would love to get their hands on your private Google database.

Think about it. Google has remote access to your Android phones. And, why does Google maps needs access to your phone history and personal contacts list??? Why does Google need to know what exactly your front door looks like, with Google Streetview???

Seriously, more lightweight Linux distributions should be made for smartphones, tablets and TV to give us more control of our personal privacy and security.

Watt os RC5 is better then all

Maybe im wrong but i got wattos rc5 on my msi ae1900 atom n230 1.6ghz 1gb ram and never before with ohers distros or windows i played 720p youtube videos with no lag, and the solutions for my problems gone now i have a good os with fast speed and small ram consume it fly in internet with built in Midori browser with all plugins, the best is it have the synaptic package manager installed.
no problems so far it do the job.
trust u need try this Distro.

Mobile Broadband is an essential consideration.

O.K., it's well over a year since the original article, but the same points still apply.

The entire review missed out by failing to consider USB mobile broadband (dongle) plug-in-and-playability. This should have been an essential consideration, and for the sake of a few MiB of USB-Modeswitch & a half-decent network manager, at least half of the distros mentioned are useless in this respect.

On this point, and from what I've actually tried (on an EeePC 4G) Slitaz fails miserably: it's necessary to use another distro to download all the packages necessary, and then it's still failing after hours of configuration - why bother? It seems to be missing a lot of essential commands, and the installer is not very good. 0/10

On the other hand, Crunchbang works almost perfectly, out-of-the-box - its only downside is that it's necessary to unplug and replug the dongle every time you disconnect, even with a new udev.rule written in. 9/10

Reliable as ever, although not recommended for install, is Puppy, which works EVERY time, can use just about every other distro's software, and resolves the dependencies. It's also very beginner-friendly, teaches you a lot about security, and is also an excellent forensic/data recovery tool (from either live CD/USB or installed on a separate partition). 10/10

Next time, try getting up from your office desk and away from all those cables and wall-sockets, and step out of the door of your ivory tower into the mobile world where the aforementioned usability is essential.

Shut up about Elive!!!

It is not free! And linux is about free(dom)
So forget about "where Debian meets enlightenment" stuff 'cause you must pay to try it properly. This guy would probably earn money one way or another, but he chose less tasty one.

Slitaz is the fastest but pain to configure higher monitor resolution.

Great Article

TuxRadar,

Thanks for this article. Great work!

What I use on limited hardware

I tried many of the lighter distros. What worked for me with the best all around speed, availability of programs, ease of use and install, is Peppermint 2. I use Peppermint 2 on an Asus netbook with 1.6ghz dual processor and 2 gigs of ram.

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