What distro should I use on my old computer?

This question comes up time and again. This article will attempt to provide a bit of an opinion, if nothing else.

Disclaimers:

This article is a VERY SKETCHY overview of MY OWN OPINIONS on lightweight GNU/Linux distros. I will be the last to deny the possibility that I am ENTIRELY WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING. If your favorite is not represented here, DON’T PANIC. Send me a note and I’ll check it out. 🙂

Terminology:

  • DE- Desktop Environment (includes panels, window managers, docks, etc.)
  • WM- Window Manager (software to enable running GUI programs, no docks, bars, panels, etc. included)

First, what’s old?

For clarity’s sake we’ll divide them into several categories. The most common benchmarks for measuring a computer’s speed and ability are RAM quantity and CPU speed.

RAM                CPU SPEED                             AGE GROUP
64-256 MB       100-450 MHz, single core           Ancient
256-768 MB     500-900 MHz, single core           Elderly
1-1.5 GB          1-2 GHz, single core                  Senior
1.5-2 GB          1-2 GHz, dual core                     Middle Aged

Debian

Since this is my article I will start with my perennial favorite, Debian.
For someone wanting stability and to go back to the “roots” of many of today’s popular OS’s, the Debian Project is the ideal distro. Debian comes in three flavors; Stable, Testing, and Unstable. All come with the Gnome desktop environment. While Stable (as of this writing) can probably be used with Elderly computers, the other two will likely run best on Middle Aged and up.

Then there are the Debian deriviatives:

  • Crunchbang
  • antiX
  • MEPIS

First and foremost (in my mind) is Crunchbang. Based on a minimal Debian Stable system, it uses Openbox and Tint2 for a very lightweight but extremely elegant desktop. Crunchbang is solid, reliable, and looks fantastic on top of it. Recommended for Elderly up.
antiX is Debian Testing based and uses Fluxbox and Icewm which put it in the same catagory as Crunchbang; good for Elderly on up.
MEPIS uses KDE and therefore is best for Middle Aged.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is Debian based and is easy to install and use.
Vanilla Ubuntu has outdistanced these computers in terms of optimal performance. Since we aren’t talking minimum requirements, we’ll be generous with resources for each distro.
There are several official Ubuntu derivatives (we’ll only look at the main ones)

  • Kubuntu
  • Xubuntu
  • Lubuntu
  • (and the upcoming Gn[ou]buntu)

Kubuntu is too heavy for anything older than Middle Aged. Yes, it will probably run, but not well, and certainly not optimally.
Gn[ou]buntu (the name has yet to be confirmed) using pure Gnome shell, would likely be in the same catagory as Kubuntu/Ubuntu.
Xubuntu and Lubuntu use the XFCE and LXDE desktop environments, respectively. Of these LXDE/Lubuntu is arguably the lighter. Pure XFCE is probably as lightweight as LXDE, but Xubuntu comes with many Gnome apps, which, while often more polished than their lightweight counterparts, take a toll in speed.

There are the unofficial Ubuntu derivatives, such as

  • Bodhi Linux
  • Zorin
  • Linux Mint
  • WattOS

Bodhi Linux is Ubuntu with the Enlightenment desktop environment. Enlightenment is very lightweight and can be customized to look very polished. It has graphical tools for all configurations and has a built in lightweight compositing manager.
WattOS utilizes the OpenBox window manager, and focuses on low power consumption. The project however appears to be more or less dormant.
Linux Mint is a popular distro that uses MATE (a Gnome 2 fork), Cinnamon (a Gnome 3 derivative), KDE, and XFCE. Cinnamon and KDE can be considered in roughly the same category, as can XFCE and MATE.

Then there are the tiny distros.

Tiny Linux

  • Tiny Core
  • DSL
  • Puppy Linux
  • Slitaz

Tiny Core is a unique system that loads only a completely base system by default. The user customizes it by adding software “modules” that the OS loads at boot, thus keeping computing requirements at an absolute minimum. TC loads itself into the RAM upon boot and runs from RAM; persistent changes can be saved. This makes it a poor choice for REALLY RAM poor machines, however; 64 MB should be the absolute minimum.
Tiny Core is BUILT for Ancient computers.
DSL is similar to TC but is easier to install straight to a HDD. It supports a number of lightweight WMs, such as Icebox, Fluxbox, Icewm, and JWM. DSL is best for Ancient computers as well.
Puppy Linux aims at being a complete GUI solution for old PC’s. It is built from scratch and comes with a large suite of software. It runs quite well on high-end Ancient to Elderly computers.
Slitaz uses a very slick, useful amalgamation of DE and WM components to create a very good looking and easy-on-the-hardware interface. This is a fine distro and is perfect for all Elderly computers.

You’ve probably figured out by now that DE/WM is easily the most influential part of any operating system’s relative “weight”. Pick your DE or WM wisely and nearly all distros will function more or less the same, the one exception being on Ancient computers.

My personal recommendation? If it’s ancient, run a CLI only system on it. 😈

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