Lightweight Linux Distros for Old Computers
A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me if I could recommend a Linux OS that would run on an old 486 computer for her kids, because whatever version of Windows that’s on it isn’t running too well. I know of a few lightweight distros, but I did some checking again and found a whole lot of options. Even the most widely used Linux distros like Ubuntu, Fedora, Mint and Mandriva will run pretty well on older hardware compared to Windows, but the choices of distros that are really easy on the CPU are tremendous!
Some of the most popular that I knew of are: Puppy Linux, Arch Linux, Crunchbang, Tiny Me, DSL (Damn Small Linux), Simply Mepis and Zenwalk. Then of course there are variations of Ubuntu that come with lighter Desktop Environments or Window Managers, like Xubuntu, which uses the XFCE interface instead of Ubuntu’s Gnome. And Linux Mint has Community Editions that use XFCE, Fluxbox and now LXDE, all of which use less system resources than Gnome or KDE for computers with slower CPUs and low amounts of RAM. I think the big problem with Linux is that the myriad of choices of distributions and Desktop Managers can be pretty confusing/overwhelming for the average (non-geek) computer user! But of the distros I’ve tried out on our laptop and desktop computers, I’ve come up with a few favorites.
Crunchbang Linux: Crunchbang is based on Ubuntu (but the newest version is going back to Debian base) and uses the fluxbox window manager. I like the simplicity of Crunchbang, not to mention the funky name. (Check out the website about the name). The default desktop is very clean and basic, no icons, but it uses Conky, which is a desktop textual display that shows information about your system and can be configured to give you all kinds of additional info. It comes with lots of great applications, and like any Linux-based operating system it is infinitely configurable. However I wouldn’t recommend Crunchbang for someone with no experience using Linux or with editing configuration files. But if you want a minimal and solid system and are willing to learn a little, Crunchbang is great. Their forums are very helpful and documentation is extensive.
wattOS: is a newer distribution designed for the average user to be simple and low on resources and power consumption. It’s no frills but I like the feel and look of wattOS. I’ve run the newest release from the CD and it’s stable and easy to use. Also based on Ubuntu so you can use the same repositories and install any software that’s available for Debian/Ubuntu. I’d like to see what the developers do with wattOS in future releases.
antiX: This distro is based on Mepis Linux, which also runs well on older machines and is fairly popular. But antiX is specifically made for lite hardware requirements (supports 486) and uses the icewm desktop. I just tried antiX out last week and was really impressed! It looks and runs beautifully for a low resource OS, and comes with a fantastic set of default applications. I only used it for half and hour, but I think this is a great distro to give new life to an old computer. And it seems pretty newbie-friendly! I’m considering installing it on the old Dell laptop.
Another popular small distro is PuppyLinux. I’ve tried puppy a few times but could not get it to connect to the internet using wifi on my laptop or a desktop computer with a usb wifi adapter. With the other distros mentioned wifi was no problem, so I can’t really recommend it. Your experience may vary.
Then there’s moonOS. It’s another Ubuntu-based distro created by a young artist from Cambodia which uses the Enlightenment desktop environment. Enlightenment looks gorgeous in a Mac-like way and is very extensible. moonOS packs a load of eye candy yet is quick and light on older hardware. I had it installed on my laptop for several months, and when the new version comes out in the next couple of months I definitely would like to use it again. More info here. Configuring Enlightenment is a bit more complicated to learn, but it’s a joy to use, particularly moonOS’s implementation of it.
So if you’re feeling adventurous and want to revive that old PC that’s sitting in the closet, I’d recommend downloading an ISO image of one of these flavors of Linux. Just burn the .iso image to CD and boot your old computer from the CD. And many of these distros can also be run from a usb thumb drive that boots and runs even faster than from a CD.
So why not give it a shot? You’ve got nothing to lose!
Update March 17, 2012: I’ve decided to create a new blog here on WordPress strictly dealing with Linux and Open Source Software for the average desktop computer user. Please check it out at: TheFearlessPenguin. Thanks!