Picking the Best Linux OS for Old Computers
A lightweight Linux operating system or "distro" (short for "distribution") can breathe new life into an old computer or make a newer one even snappier and more responsive. Dozens of these operating systems are available, but many of them are very barebones, outdated or potentially unstable. Of these options, three stand out as the only ones with advanced features packed into one lean download.
Unlike most other lightweight Linux operating systems, these three all include Linux kernel 2.6.x, GTK 2.x, basic packages, a word processor, web browser and email client; and spreadsheet, media playback and image editing software are either pre-installed or easily downloadable through an easy-to-use package manager. They are all out of beta, have an ongoing release/update schedule, are smaller than a CD (700 MB) and most importantly receive generally positive reviews.
Primary differences between these three are their initial download size, the packages available to them, the lightweight window manager and desktop environment used within the system, and the user community surrounding each to help new users make the transition. Read on to find the best overall, best Debian-based and best RPM-based distro.
Best Linux OS for Old Computers Overall: Puppy Linux (5 out of 5)
Universally praised for packing more functionality into each megabyte than any other distro, Puppy Linux is the favorite in head-to-head comparisons of lightweight distros on ZDNet, Tuxmachines, and On Becoming a Penguin. A download of around 100 MB that includes everything you’re likely to need from a distro out of the box, there’s little reason to not start with Puppy and then change to one of the other two below if you find it does not meet your needs.
- Pros: Puppy is the smallest distro on this list, but still packs as much software as the biggest. All but one review of Puppy 5.x at Distro Watch is positive, commenting on how easy it is to install and use and how there seems to be an application for nearly everything. Unlike other lightweight distros, Puppy has Flash support pre-installed and is the only distro here that worked flawlessly as both a frugal install and a live usb. Finally, the most recent release of Puppy is fully compatible with Ubuntu’s massive repository of applications, and future releases will be able to access other repositories, thereby linking Puppy to the vast plethora of software available to other Linux distros.
- Cons: Reviewer Darnell Anderson expresses concern that Puppy Linux might not be a good choice for "mom and pop" users. Other reviews point to some minor challenges with limited power management and concerns at being a single-user distro (so you are always logged in as "root") but remain ultimately positive. Firefox 3 can be unstable when using both Flash and Java, but this has apparently been a problem in other distros as well, and Puppy’s default Mozilla-based browser SeaMonkey is no slouch and actually has some advantages over Firefox.
If you find that the most recent release of Puppy Linux does not work on your hardware, try the Retro version or an older release, which is based on older Linux kernels.
Continue to Page 2 for our top choices of lightweight distros based on Debian, RPM, and Slackware.
Although the recent development of Puppy Linux is making it increasingly compatible with mainstream package management systems, this process has not been completed yet, so some users might remain interested in other distros. The three systems we’ll look at here are Debian, Ubuntu, RPM, and Slackware
Best Debian-Based Linux OS for Old Computers: AntiX (4 out of 5)
If software availability is your top priority for a lightweight distro, then AntiX is your best choice. It’s actually one of two favorite lightweight distros at Eric’s Binary World, which has reviewed a number of them.
- Pros: Like Puppy, AntiX comes loaded with an incredible array of lightweight software. Reviewed positively at Linux.com for its 2007 release, AntiX also includes two window managers–fluxbox and icewm–for the user to play with. Perhaps the biggest advantage of AntiX is the fact that it is Debian-based, so it has easy access to the largest wealth of software packages of the three distros.
- Cons: At nearly 400 MB, AntiX is the largest download of these three distros, but the short-term pain could be worth the advantages in the long-run. One review, though positive, notes that it doesn’t read DVDs out of the box, and Linux.com points out both the lack of community/forums and the downside of command-line power management. In addition, I was unable to perform a frugal install on my hard drive, as AntiX insisted on booting from a CD when I restarted.
Another Debian-based distro option that passed my seven filters is U-Lite, which is based on Ubuntu, uses LXDE and OpenBox instead of fluxbox/icewm. Although it got a fairly positive review from DeviceGuru, I was unable to find any other substantial reviews and therefore am recommending the highly regarded AntiX instead.
Best Ubuntu-Based Linux OS for Old Computers: Lubuntu (4 out of 5)
Ubuntu is actually an outgrowth of Debian, but it has become so popular and its own descendants so pervasive that it’s worth looking at its lightweight varieties separately. With the most recent version of Puppy Linux ("Lupu") fully compatible with Ubuntu packages, you could just stick with our overall top choice for a lightweight Linux distro. However, if you want something different or that feels a little more like Ubuntu itself, Lubuntu is the way to go.
- Pros: Many users will strongly prefer Lubuntu’s svelte, minimalistic desktop environment, which aptly mirrors the stark efficiency found under the hood. Lubuntu comes packaged with all the usual suspects for a lightweight distro, but benefits from smooth integration with Ubuntu’s package management system and an overall experience that feels more like Ubuntu.
- Cons: As with some other recommendations here, Lubuntu is not nearly as successful as Puppy Linux in packing its lightweight features into a small download size. At over 500 MB, Lubuntu is four times the size of Puppy Linux, which will not be appealing for those downloading it with a slow internet connection. In addition, as a relatively new distro, Lubuntu has not had the time to build the strong community that benefits Puppy Linux or VectorLinux, other lightweight favorites.
Given Ubuntu’s popularity, it is not surprising to see a number of alternatives to Lubuntu out there. U-lite uses the same desktop environment (LXDE) as Lubuntu and has strived to include a complete assortment of applications in the initial download. However, reviews for it are hard to find, making it difficult to recommend. ZevenOS is another alternative, but all the reviews posted on Distrowatch are in German.
Continue to the next page for our recommendations for a lightweight RPM-based and Slackware-based distros.
Best RPM-Based Linux OS for Old Computers: TinyMe (3 out of 5)
We tentatively recommend TinyMe as the best choice for an RPM-based lightweight distro. It got a more wholehearted recommendation a year ago, but the 2008 version that received rave reviews is no longer available for download, leaving only the 2010 test releases. TinyMe is now based on Unity Linux, a system designed for building user-oriented distros. Despite positive reviews, Unity Linux itself remains in beta, only adding to the questions surrounding TinyMe’s stability and development.
- Pros: Among the reviewers who nearly universally appreciate TinyMe’s 2008 edition, Linux.com likes the easy installation process and the access to the expansive PCLinuxOS software library. Based on Mandriva, PCLinuxOS passes its well-regarded Control Center on to TinyMe, making powerful configuration tools for your computer easily available.
- Cons: TinyMe does not come with as much pre-installed software as the other two distros here. While the user can easily download new packages with Synaptic, it might not be the best starting point for newcomers to GNU/Linux who need to have spreadsheets or image editing out of the box. In addition, there are a couple other glitches that might inhibit TinyMe’s usability.
Best Slackware-Based Linux OS for Old Computers: VectorLinux Light (3 out of 5)
Many distros, including VectorLinux, are based on the venerable Slackware, the oldest Linux distro. While Slackware itself is popular among the geekiest of Linux users, VectorLinux and other distros like it try to make Slackware’s stable foundation accessible to mainstream users. VectorLinux Light is a lightweight variant of VectorLinux and gets our recommendation as the best lightweight Slackware-based distro.
- Pros: Like Puppy Linux, VectorLinux Light benefits from a strong user community and thorough documentation, which are advantages over other lightweight distros. In addition, Tropic of Vector’s comprehensive but unscientific comparative assessment claims that VectorLinux Light is faster than other lightweight distros, including Puppy Linux. You can also use other varieties of VectorLinux on newer computers to gain more powerful capabilities while retaining the same look and feel across all your computers.
- Cons: Slackware’s repositories are not as chock full of software goodies as Debian’s or RPM’s, making the relative advantage of choosing VectorLinux Light over Puppy Linux smaller. Moreover, VectorLinux Light’s download is over 600 MB, larger than any of the other recommendations here and five times the size of the most recent version of Puppy Linux.
These five recommendations are not the only lightweight Linux options out there, but reviews suggest these are the best places to start. Keep in mind that, for some, Linux remains too complex and "geek"-oriented; blogger and Linux user Darnell Anderson is persuasive in making this point. However, with a little bit of technical savvy, you should be able to get one of the recommendations here working well on your computer.