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Lightweight Linux Distributions
Notes from a presentation at Penguins Unbound on Saturday, August 21, 2010. The speaker was Jason Hsu.

Why lightweight Linux distributions? They allow older hardware to remain useful for a longer time, and hence not filling up landfills. If you have a modern machine, you can really enjoy its performance rather than have it eaten up by OS bloat.

Evaluation criteria for the test

  1. The distribution must be fast and light. Specifically, it has to run adequately in a 256 MB VirtualBox, with no swap space allocated. This is to simulate running a liveCD
  2. It has to have large package repository. Jason is an electrical engineer, and has some specialized needs.
  3. It needs to be user-friendly. Jason is a computer user.


  • Debian: Too hard to configure a lightweight installation. Failed (3) above. Hence rejected immediately.
  • Damn Small Linux: Very llghtweight, but the repository is small. Also it still uses a 2.4 kernel and apparently is not being maintained. Hence rejected.
  • Ubuntu: Very highly regarded, user-friendly, large repository. Hopeless in a 256 MB VirtualBox. There an alternate installer for older machines, but that is harder to use. He estimated that Ubuntu 10.04 (current) is about the "weight" of Windows XP. This agrees with what I have seen on a dual boot XP/Ubuntu machine. Ubuntu will be OK on a 3yr. old machine but not one that is 10 yrs. old. Again, this is consistent with my experience. Recent versions of Ubuntu run OK on P4 systems, but did not on the P3's I used to have. As with Windows, the hardware requirements for Ubuntu increase with each release.
  • Puppy Linux: User friendly, fast and light, but the repository is inadequate.
  • And the winner is ... antiX, meeting all the criteria above. Jason said it is his "Gold Standard."

He demoed Ubuntu, Puppy Linux, and antiX in 256 MB VirtualBoxes on his laptop, so we could see how slow Ubuntu really was.


Lightweight distros do not use Gnome, or KDE. More likely to use IceWM, Fluxbox, or Rox [which I do not know].

Apparently OpenOffice will work in 256 MB, rather a surprise to some in the audience. However, a lightweight system is more likely to use Abiword and Gnumeric.

Jason said that while he found Debian to be too hard to use, it is a great basis for other distributions. Ubuntu and antiX are both ultimately based on Debian, as are many others.

Somebody in the audience (Tony Yarusso?) suggested Lubunutu. Jason apparently was not familiar with it.



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