Friday, June 22, 2012

Lightweight Linux Distribution: Which one to choose and for what purpose?

Accept it friends, with attractive interface and eye-catching effects the major Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora and even Debian, all have become very CPU & RAM intensive. And if you have anything less than a Pentium Dual Core, you are bound to face difficulties in multi-tasking; sometimes even loading the distribution becomes a big pain.

So, you can have two options:
  • either to stay with prev-gen Linux OS like Ubuntu Hardy, Lucid or Natty without any security updates where installation of latest Firefox would be increasingly difficult as  time passes by
  • install a lighter linux with almost full features as Ubuntu or a Mint
I actually tried quite a few so-called light-weight Linux OSs and compared them with the latest OSs like Ubuntu Precise or Fedora Beefy Miracle. Before we actually jump into the topic, if you browse across net, you can see plenty of light-weight Linux OS are there which can effectively turn your antiquated machine, lying in the garage, to a workhorse. The common names which you get on searching are: Slitaz, Puppy Linux, Crunchbang, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, and certain derivatives of these distros.

Background and machine used:
I tested these common distros on my 9 year old computer with the following specs: P4/2.4 GHz Single Core processor/1.5 GB RAM with (80 + 160) GB IDE HDD. Till Ubuntu Natty, things were not bad for the machine. But it could not handle Ubuntu 12.04 LTS or Mint 13. Finally I moved to Debian Squeeze and it is running better, though live streaming is not that smooth even in Debian and consumes up 100% CPU.

That also motivated me to try out a few so called light-weight Linux distributions.

Evaluation Criteria:
  • CPU & RAM usage, out of the box with no applications running except desktop and CPU-RAM usage monitor
  • Appearance
  • Built in applications provided and ease of downloading from repository
  • Ease of Use
  • Linux knowledge level (n00b, intermediate, expert)
  • HDD installation process
  • Community support
Distributions Used:
I haven't included DSL as I feel it is meant of very antiquated PCs and hence, looked for the more complete ones which have higher ratings at Distrowatch.
  1. Slitaz 4.0: My review
  2. Puppy Linux: My Review on Slacko 5.3.3, Lucid 5.2.8 and Precise beta1 5.2.60
  3. CrunchBang 10: My Review
  4. Lubuntu 12.04: My Review
  5. Xubuntu 12.04 LTS: My Review
  6. Archbang 2012.12: My Review 

I booted all these distros from USB drive and checked the evaluation points for each in last couple of months. Further, I used each one of these OSs for at least 7 days continuously to finally compare.

I left out quite a few distributions like Simple Linux, Vector Linux, DSL, Slax, Feather Linux, Tiny Core Linux, etc. either because they didn't load well from USB or are kind of antiquated with no major update in last 2 years or similar to the distributions I reviewed with some minor changes. I assumed for the derived distros (like Peppermint) to be similar to their parent distro.

Another gem of light weight linux I could not include is Bodhi 2.0.0 as it is still in Alpha stage. It's minimum specs beats many with 300 Mhz processor, 128 MB RAM and only 1.5 GB HDD space. I have got very good feedback about it. And waiting for the beta version to release. I won't recommend the Bodhi 1.4 as it is based on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS which has expired in Apr'12. Better wait for the stable version.


Evaluation Parameters Slitaz 4.0 Puppy Slacko 5.3.3 Puppy Lucid 5.2.8 Puppy Precise 5.2.60 Crunchbang 10 Lubuntu 12.04 Xubuntu 12.04
CPU Usage 2-5% 4-8% 3-7% 4-8% 3-10% 1-11% 6-10%
RAM Usage 54 MiB 307 MiB 370 Mib 480 MiB 150 MiB 126 MiB 130 MiB
ISO Size 36 MB 115.2 MB 132.6 MB 142 MB 662 MB 700+ MB 700+ MB
Appearance Looks like
Gnome 2
Typical Puppy,
A bit clumsy
Typical Puppy,
A bit clumsy
Typical Puppy,
A bit clumsy
All Black, minimalistic, no menu Simple, similar to Windows XP Elegant, looks like Gnome 2
Window Manager Openbox JWM JWM JWM Openbox LXDE with Openbox XFCE Window Manager
Default Applications (in ISO) No Office,
No modern browser
Separate download for java, flash
Complete but Midori browser,
Separate download for java, flash
Separate download for java, flash
Most complete package Complete Package Complete package
Repository Good Very good Ubuntu Lucid Ubuntu Precise Debian Stable Ubuntu Precise Ubuntu Precise
Ease of Use Menu driven, easy Menu driven, easy Menu driven, easy Menu driven, easy Moderately Easy Menu driven, easy Menu driven, easy
Linux knowledge required Intermediate n00b n00b n00b Intermediate Intermediate n00b
HDD installation process Difficult Easy but grub update is difficult at the first time Easy but grub update is difficult at the first time Easy but grub update is difficult at the first time Intermediate knowledge of gparted required Very easy through Windows installer Very easy through Windows installer
Community Support Medium Good Good Good Excellent Best Best
Minimum Specs (as given in the websites of individual distribution) Intel, 80 MB RAM 500 MHz processor, 128 MB RAM, 512 MB HDD space 500 MHz processor, 128 MB RAM, 512 MB HDD space 500 MHz processor, 128 MB RAM, 512 MB HDD space 128 MB RAM P4, 256 MB RAM P4, 256 MB RAM

 Puppy Linux RAM usage shows higher as it totally loads on RAM if there is an opportunity (> 1 GB of RAM). Hence, it's actual RAM usage is (RAM Usage - ISO Size). Puppy Wary is similar to Puppy Lucid and Precise in RAM and CPU usage as well as software bundle provided.

27th July 2012: This review was before I checked AntiX 12. It is the most complete distro, in my opinion, and uses only 64-70 RAM! Desktop manager is IceWM & Fluxbox and offers a complete ensemble of LibreOffice, MPaint, MPlayer and a whole lot more. Please check my post on AntiX here. But, it has a bit problem with Wifi.

31st Dec 2012: Also check out Archbang, the fastest distro I have seen. Wifi, touchpad and others settings work well with Archbang. My review.

There is no straight forward conclusion to this debate of light linux distributions. My conclusions are:

1. Very low resource computer: If you have anything antique than P4 and less than 128 MB RAM, Slitaz is for you. If you have 256-512 MB RAM, AntiX and Puppy Linux are more suited as they offer a more comprehensive package and better repositories. Plus, if you install Ubuntu or Slackware derived puppies, you can install majority of the sought-after and high utility apps like VLC, Gimp, Opera, Chrome, Firefox, Wine, etc. Further, AntiX is derived from Debian testing and you get cutting edge apps from Debian repo.

2. P4 with around 1 GB RAM or Intel Atom Netbook with 1 GB RAM: You can choose between CrunchBang, Lubuntu or Xubuntu.My personal favorite is Xubuntu as it offers a more customizable desktop. Lubuntu is equally functional and many users prefer Lubuntu for its speed and energy saving abilities. Crunchbang is too minimalistic for me.

Personally, my verdict is for Archbang and Puppy if you truly need a low resource intensive desktop with complete software packages. Currently I am using Puppy along with Archbang on my P4 1 GB RAM PC. Archbang works better but is more difficult to set up than Puppy. Even with live streaming of videos with Adobe flash plugin, Abiword & Gnumeric files open, Puppy consumes only 50% CPU and about 600 MB of RAM, Archbang consumes 100 MB less RAM under similar conditions.

8th July, 2012: ArchBang and Porteus 1.2

I tried out a couple of more distros - ArchBang, very similar to CrunchBang and gives identical performance and Porteus 1.2, unique KDE lightweight Linux OS. If you hate minimalistic distros and like to have a complete but lightweight OS, you can give Porteus a try - I am sure it will impress you. How the developers packed a KDE desktop in 250 MB CD is still amazing to me and if your PC has decent capability but unable to run Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, you can give Porteus a shot! It uses 102 MB RAM and 5% CPU with no other app, apart from task manager, running. The interface is really cool. It is also available in LXDE and XFCE desktop environments, which are far lighter than KDE. You can go through my review to assess yourself.

If you are looking for a complete distro which performs like a beast even on low resources, Archbang is for you. However, it would require a bit of learning and unlearning to make it useful. Archbang is easier than Arch, has a rolling release and is bleeding edge distro. Means, you would get the updated apps, linux kernel, etc. before any other distro in the list gets it. It has its own problems as well, like things may break in between because of the updates. However, there is a rich Arch wiki and Archbang forum to help you out. Archbang is primarily Openbox desktop and takes about 50-60 MB RAM and 0-5% CPU at steady state. You can check my review if interested. Archbang is perhaps the best lightweight Linux distro I have ever seen and certainly the fastest one. It is faster than Puppy but a bit difficult to set up. Puppy works right out of the box.  
If you are interested to see the desktop environments of each OS, my earlier posts will give you very detailed views. I am putting single view for each distro reviewed for user reference.

 Xubuntu 12.04 LTS
 Lubuntu 12.04
 Slitaz 4.0
 Lucid Puppy 5.2.8
 Slacko Puppy 5.3.3
 Precise Puppy 5.2.60 Beta1


  1. Thanks for the comparison. I was looking for Mint or Kubuntu or Snow, but probably they're not for me. I think I'll go with Xubuntu.

    PS: It's Puppy Wary, not Weary. :)

  2. Typo corrected :). Thanks for pointing out. Kubuntu is rather heavy, I've used it. Xubuntu is really good and if you prefer Gnome 2 looks, nothing like XFCE. I've installed it in my Asus 1101HA and it works like a charm. Also, a little bit of docky and a stylist conky - you get an exotic look! Please share your desktop image when you are done with installing and designing Xubuntu.

  3. Sure, I'd love to! :)

    And by the way, sharing reminds me: may I ask, why aren't you using your G+? There's a throbbing Linux community in there, including Mr Linus Torvalds himself, along with other amazing people like Mr Swapnil Bhartiya of Muktware. Believe me, you'll love it there. It's a great place.

  4. Thanks. I'll try G+, now I occasionally use it.

  5. Thanks. Now I'm using Ubuntu 12.04 with MATE (gnome2 fork, resource usage similar to LXDE) desktop, but Antix looks also promising. I didn't know about this distro until visiting this page.

    IMHO the best choice for a lightweight desktop OS is something with a lightweight yet good-looking GUI, connected to a rich repository like Debian.. I added AntiX to my list.

    BTW, CPU and RAM usage are cross-changed. CPU load 370 MB, RAM usage 3%.

  6. Unfortunately I hate dogs. So PuppyLinux will never get on my hdd.

  7. Lubuntu uses LXDE and that uses Openbox.

    Xubuntu uses XFCE and that uses Xfwm.

    Maybe you update your post?

  8. Missed mentioning Openbox with LXDE, added now, thanks to Ikem. And XFWM is nothing but XFCE Windows Manager ...

  9. While you're waiting for Bodhi, you might try Macpup. Puppy base with Enlightenment 17 desktop - it makes Puppy pretty! I run it from a USB drive on my Acer netbook, especially for public wifi hotspots. Includes Firefox.

    1. Macpup is as good as Puppy. Will include it in my year-end review of Linux distros. Thanks.

  10. Do you have any recommendations for someone looking for the following:-

    - a distro that can be easily installed and run from a USB stick, with persistent storage
    - stable (very few bugs, and published workarounds for known problems)
    - supporting laptop hardware to the greatest degree (Slacko 5.3 crashes X server due to some graphics problem I can't easily resolve)
    - lightweight (I am used to Puppy and I used Fedora XFCE the other day and it was just sooooo slow)
    - good community support (the ability to get an answer to why something is happening fast is essential, and to be honest I want to just be able to search for threads and use the workaround, not have to post my own thread)

    I'd love to keep using Puppy as its fast and built for USB, but its a bit too problematic for me at the moment.

    Since I have an 8GB USB stick I suppose that I could use a 'bigger' distro, but without sacrificing too much speed.

    What are your recommendations?

    Thanks very much. Excellent website.

    1. Have you tried Bodhi Linux? Bodhi is a Ubuntu derivative and combines Ubuntu base to the lightweight E17 desktop. Looks like a poor man's Mac and you can make it looks shinier. Bodhi fits your bill perfect. Also, you can try out AntiX, blazing fast even on limited resources.

  11. looking for a recommendation: my first linux experience has been a year with Ubuntu 11.10. i have liked it enough that i will stay with linux distros after many years on Win. however i have found that i prefer many KDE apps: Kate, K3B, Kaffeine (runs well on my cranky old hardware), Gwenview, etc. because of this i thought i should look into a KDE distro: maybe more KDE would be a good thing for me. so i tried the latest Kubuntu but it lags quite a bit on my old P4-1GB-Matrox machine.

    so the question, of course, is are there other good options out there for my situation, that is, a lightweight KDE-enabled distro reasonably friendly to a linux noob?

    i'm checking out Porteus at the moment. so far so good but it appears i have to get a bit piggy in order to actually install it to my hd (non-frugal). and it's KDE friendliness is, as yet, unknown to me though the installed app set is pretty respectable.

    so, as you might imagine, any advice would be most welcome.

    1. Hi Hooly:

      Linux Mint 14 KDE is actually working wonderfully well on my Asus netbook (1101HA) with 1.38 Ghz Intel Atom processor and 1 GB RAM - it runs with a decent speed and is very stable. Also, I found Mageia to run well on limited resources - but stability is an issue in Mageia. Could you please check these two along with Porteus.


    2. Okay, thanks for the suggestions. Tried Porteus, kinda liked it and it is very responsive. Wanted to install to hard drive though and ... need to look elsewhere or get hands dirty. Tried a whole mess of others -- #!, Bodhi, Elive, Lubuntu, AntiX, Snow, CentOS, LMDE-XFCE, WattOS, PCLinuxOS, siduction, Sabayon, Hybryde -- and finally Mint14.

      Mint was a surprise for me: 13 had crashed and burned (repeatedly) on my P4 but 14-XFCE is up and running smoothly; 14-Cinnamon was way too resource hungry. Bodhi was crashy once I'd brought in my beloved KDE apps; Elive a repo disappointment; PCLinuxOS would only crash-burn during install; WattOS seemed nice but underwhelming; AnitX was great but once I'd brought in the KDE stuff and E17 for good looks it was starting to suck wind. Call me madcap but CentOS has been one of my favs so far though I've completely fallen in love with Enlightenment. I'll be giving Snow a closer look for exactly that reason.

      In the end .. don't know yet, that's why I came back to re-read this article. CentOS seems very promising to me though I know nothing of the RH/Fedora world, I love the full-featured-and-grown-up feel it has; Mint14-XFCE seems great though I need to spend more time with it to be in a position to comment. Xubuntu is next on my "try" list since I've learned that XFCE is a very good balance of features and resource efficiency. The quest goes on.

    3. Great! CentOS is very good and stable, even I like the user experience it gives. Mint 14 KDE worked well on my Asus EeePC 1101HA till I bored of it and replaced it by Fuduntu 2013.1 couple of weeks ago. Fuduntu is working great on the system, stable and blazing fast.

      Linux Mint 14 XFCE is very very good and friendly on resources. Right now I am settled on Fuduntu and I really like it. Hopefully, you'll get to find the best OS for your machine soon :)

  12. I a looking for an ultra light weight linux distro that once installed onto a HD it will boot on just about any compatible hardware.

    I did achieve this with Linux Mint 9 LXDE. I am sharing this image here:

    1. Cool. Please try the updated Linux Mint 12 LXDE as well.

  13. Thanks for the reviews. I've started reading up on your blogs recently.
    I recently came across a Debian distro for old PCs call MiniNo ( It works well on my Asus Z9 with 500Mb RAM and a non PAE Pentium M (1.5Ghz). With the LXDE DE it runs just under 60Mb of RAM at idele. Might be worth a look.

    1. Sounds interesting. Will surely try out minino pretty soon.

      Thanks for reading my blog.

  14. Nice review. But you've made a typo in the beginning. You've said that your machine has 1.5 MiB RAM, whereas I'm guessing it should be 1.5 GiB. Please correct the typo. :D

  15. I just discovered your blog tonight and I'm blown away. This is really good stuff. Your benchmarks are exactly the sort of thing I've been looking for to help me make better choices about which distros to try next. I have several older machines that I'm constantly experimenting with and, thanks to you, I'm giving Anti-X a whirl tonight. I've been running the Gnome version of Mint 12 on an old Acer Aspire 5315 laptop and Mint 13 XFCE on my ancient Acer Aspire One. Mint seemed to be a better fit initially for my needs and I liked having uniformity in feel and function when I switched back and forth between the different machines. The Aspire One runs just okay with the Mint XFCE on it. Do you have any specific recommendations for older netbooks? Battery and heat management appear to be a real issue with those particular machines. Thanks!

  16. Currently using Xubuntu 12.04 on my Compaq/ pentium Dual core cpu (2gb ram).Working well but want something faster and want to move away from Ubuntu.

    If you have time check out AUSTRUMI ? seems to have potential.
    Thanks! Liking your reviews. kudos

  17. Very good comparison, thanks. I think I'll go for XUbuntu on my Acer 500MB of RAM