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Overview of Linux for Small or Outdated Computers

written by: YvetteDavis•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 12/29/2009

Do you have an old, outdated computer that you you'd like to bring back to life? Don't use an equally old, outdated and unsupported operating system. These supported Linux systems will breathe new life into your old 486 or higher computer.

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    Old, or Small Computer, Which Linux is Right?

    When you're trying to revive an old system, or breathe new life into a small hard drive, it can be almost impossible to find a Windows operating system that's compatible and won't hog your system. But there are quite a few Linux distributions that will fill the bill quite nicely.

    For advanced users, almost any major Linux distribution will let you pick and choose the components you want to install. This will let you pare down the operating system to something your dinosaur can handle. When you're choosing a distribution or selecting components, pay special attention to the system requirements. No matter how good a distro, or how advanced your Linux skills, you're not going to make your computer run with less than the minimum system requirements.

    If you have limited memory or a small hard drive, your best choice is going to be an OS that can boot and run from CD or flash/USB drive. If you search, you might find a copy of the Linux distro Hal91. It will run off of a floppy, but don't expect too much. It's been abandoned by the creator and hasn't been updated since 1998. But, if all you have is a floppy drive, and you're good with code, you might be able to tweak it a bit.

    If you have a CD or Flash drive available, you have quite a few good distributions to choose from.

    Damn Small Linux is based on Debian. The whole package runs about 50MB and can run from a live CD or an IDE Compact Flash drive using something called frugal install. Of course, if you have a a larger hard drive, you can also install DSL to your hard drive in the traditional manner. DSL is small enough to run on a 486 with only 16MB ram, and yet it can run completely from 128MG of RAM. DSL can also be extended as your needs, and your system, grow. Installation is easy.

    Puppy Linux runs with as little as 32MB ram, and lets you run your system from a live CD or Flash drive. This one is a little bigger, at 80MB. The documentation claims a boot time of under 60 seconds, but it takes closer to 90 seconds on my machine. I will say that this one is not for people with small kids who use/play with the computer. It's too easy for little hands to click on the wrong thing and change or even wipe the system. It's happened to me twice. Overall, Puppy is a good choice, though.

    Probably among the best for old systems is DeLi Linux. This OS thrives on a 486 or higher, but it will run on a 386, if you need it to. This one is a good deal bigger than the other two we've looked at. Operating system and basic applications run about 750 MB.

    This is just a small sampling of the Linux distributions available for small or old computers. There are a lot of choices to consider, and you'll find a more complete list at http://bengross.com/smallunix.html. With these small, but mighty Linux distros, you'll be able to revive that old computer you loved so much.