Best Lightweight Linux Distros for Older Computers

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Don’t throw away that old Pentium III tower and CRT monitor just yet! While that old laptop in the closet may not be able to run Windows 10 or macOS Mojave, it doesn’t mean it’s destined for the dump.

Many Linux distributions are made specifically for utilizing the ancient, underpowered hardware found in older machines. By installing these lightweight distros, you can breathe new life into an old PC thought to be long past its prime. Here are the best lightweight Linux distros that we’ve picked out from the pile.

1. Alpine

One of the lesser-known but nevertheless brilliant lightweight Linux distros is Alpine. Weighing in at under 130MB, Alpine was designed originally to be used for virtual servers, so you won’t find any cruft or unnecessary software baggage here. It has a sensible and accessible update cycle, and its package format, APK (no, nothing to do with Android!) is convenient for flagging issues and making iterations.

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You can choose whether to install Alpine to disk or whether to just run it from RAM, making it perfectly portable, and it’s very security-focused thanks to a hardened kernel. It may not be as feature-rich as other distros in this list, but Alpine is right at the peak when it comes to security. It updated to the musl libc library a few years back too, so is right on point when it comes to the kind of stability and robustness you’d expect from a modern Linux distro.

2. Lubuntu

If Lubuntu sounds familiar, it is probably because it is based on the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu. Despite their similarities, Lubuntu differs in a few key ways. Lubuntu comes with LXDE, a more lightweight graphical desktop environment than Ubuntu’s Unity interface. Lubuntu also trims the fat when it comes to bundled software in order to cut down on size. Don’t fret, though; you can still install software from the Ubuntu repositories. While Lubuntu isn’t as tiny as some of the other distros on this list, the fact that it’s based on Ubuntu should make troubleshooting fairly easy.

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Minimum System Requirements:

  • CPU: Pentium 4, Pentium M, AMD K8 or newer
  • RAM: 512 MB (1 GB recommended)
  • HDD: 3 GB (6 GB recommended)

3. Puppy Linux

A build of Linux that is so small it doesn’t even require a hard dive to be installed on, Puppy Linux can be run comfortably on dated hardware. Puppy Linux is a fairly robust and complete OS, despite the fact that it is designed to run entirely from a system’s RAM. While it doesn’t come bundled with a ton of software, Puppy offers a collection of applications that would be suitable for general use tasks. Its small size enables it to boot from virtually any form of removable media, such as USB drives, SD cards and optical media.

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Any files created or modified will be saved to the same device that the OS is on. So, when running Puppy Linux from a CD, files can be saved to the same CD, provided the disc drive supports disc burning.

Minimum System Requirements:

  • CPU: 333MHz
  • RAM: 64 MB (256 MB w/ 512 MB swap is recommended)
  • HDD: n/a

4. TinyCore

No list about small Linux distros would be complete without Tiny Core Linux. It is notable for its incredibly small size across three different Core “types.” Core (aka Micro Core Linux) comes in at only 11 MB; however, it is without a graphical desktop. Tiny Core weighs in at 16 MB and comes with a graphical desktop environment. Core Plus is the largest at 106 MB and is essentially Tiny Core with additional functionality like WiFi support.

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Designed to run completely within a system’s RAM, Tiny Core is the definition of minimalist computing. Because of its barebones approach, almost all users will require Internet access to install additional software.

Minimum System Requirements:

  • CPU: Intel i486DX* (Pentium 2 recommended)
  • RAM: 28 MB (Micro Core), 46 MB (Tiny Core) (128 MB recommended)
  • HDD: n/a

*Introduced in 1989

5. LXLE

The website for LXLE sums up their philosophy in four words: Revive that old PC. LXLE is based on Lubuntu and also uses the LXDE desktop environment. It is designed to be simple, familiar and elegant. Positioning itself as a turnkey OS for aging machines, LXLE aims to be the perfect substitute for those familiar with Windows XP, Vista and 7. LXLE prides itself on being simple to install without the need to do much tinkering after installation is complete.

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LXLE covers most computer users’ everyday needs while offering a number of tweaks to improve performance. It also adheres to the same LTS (long term support) distribution schedule as Ubuntu/Lubuntu to ensure hardware and software support.

Minimum System Requirements

  • CPU: Pentium 3 (Pentium 4 recommended)
  • RAM: 512 MB (1 GB+ recommended)
  • HDD: 8 GB

6. Arch Linux

Strong supporters of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, the development team behind Arch Linux focuses on minimalism. Arch Linux is not for the faint of heart; one of its guiding philosophies is that the end user will be willing to put in the effort to understand the system’s operation. This boils down to being really comfortable with the command line, as you will be using it for virtually everything.

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Basically, Arch Linux is like building your own custom operating system. Whereas other distros walk you through installation through a tidy graphical interface, Arch requires you to put a bit of effort in. Arch provides the foundation; it is up to you to compile everything around it. This allows users to build an incredible lean machine, or not, depending on your needs. Arch Linux is more of an investment; however, you can build your system to your liking and learn a lot in the process.

What is your favorite lightweight Linux distro? Let us know in the comments!

This article was first published in September 2016 and was updated in December 2018.

18 comments

  1. I don’t like “micro-distros” like Puppy Linux, Damn Small Linux, etc. (I haven’t tried Core). I guess if you really needed to use a modern OS on old or crappy computers, then I suppose this would work. But if your machine can run Lubuntu or LXLE, then use that. No point compromising with micro-distros. The software selection is crap. The UI is crap. Nifty though, these small apps are fast. But once they’re launched, you find out these apps are weak and bare bones.

  2. I quite liked WattOS when I tried it out on an old machine. Worked fine till the mobo died…it was a *very* old machine. The link is: http://planetwatt.com/new/

  3. antiX Core and antiX Base also work well on older computers. They both access the large Debian repositories so the user can build a system as simple or as complex as he wishes.

  4. My favorite low spec distros are Ubuntu Mate or Linux Lite. I tried Lubuntu but my old machine still chugged along very slowly, and I tried Puppy Linux but it is very complicated. Puppy is good for the computer enthusiast, but not for Joe average who is just coming over from Windows XP; windows 7; et. al. I even recommend Zorin now that it has updated to the latest Ubuntu kernel. A good distro has to be not only low spec, but needs to do almost everything automatically (partitions; drivers; printers; wifi; etc.) and have a desktop environment as close to what the user has been using as possible.

    1. Puppy Linux has three other disadvantages:

      1. difficult or even impossible to install on a hard drive.
      2. Always in root (dangerous!)
      3. Some apps can’t be found or are outdated (Google Chrome or Chromium)

  5. Ok what kind of crappy, very old and “should be retired” computer are we talking about ? ( >10 years old ) which cannot run a Linux Mint cinnamon ?

    1. MX-15 Linux for me on a Sager 3790 released in 2004. Yes thats 12 years old in about 1 week. Runs great for Homework, Work, and general computer work.

      1. > Ok what kind of crappy, very old and “should be retired” computer…

        Dell Latitude D620 (c.2006, dual-core, 3gb ram, 5200 rpm drive): MX Linux v 17.x – v.18.x has been amazing on this machine. Even Firefox was fast (loading, rendering, etc). In fact, FF on MX-17x/Dell D620 was as fast as Pale Moon (which was installed on a much faster machine).

        These older computers are extremely capable: unnecessarily bloated Operating Systems are part of the problem.

        > which cannot run a Linux Mint cinnamon ?

        This machine started off with Minty-Cinn and it ran well for 6 months or so. I installed tons of apps and eventually Mint/Cinn started slowing down. Instead of reinstalling Mint, I tried MX-17 (which I found to be even more responsive in Every. Single. Way.) on the 13+ year old computer.

        Like I said: very little wrong with older computers. Lots of stuff wrong with modern OSes and apps. When everything is being rewritten as Electron… we have a problem.

  6. i am using Manjaro lxqt on my old samsung eeepc and it works fine even for watching streaming videos

  7. While I can agree with some of these. I would avoid the TinyCore and Puppy Linux only because the one is so sparse as to be almost un-useable to the person who just starts out in Linux, and the other one has way too much confusion when it comes to saving data and installing to a HDD. The middle ground for me would be an distro running XFCE or LXQt. These are more polished desktops and the distros that have this option in their stable give an option to the masses that is somewhat more familiar and which won’t require such a steep learning curve. Someone coming from Windows XP / 7 will know how to move around in either one of these desktops so Lubuntu….openSuSE (with the XFCE desktop) or anything that has these desktops as an installation option, would suffice. I can’t rightly say I have a preferred favorite as in the open source world it’s “Use The Tool That’s Right For The Job”.

  8. Where is React OS, Robo Linux, ConnochaetOS, Galpon Minino, Austrumi???
    There are others you can find in Distrowatch.com

  9. Check out Q4OS and Slitaz :)

  10. Quite the best Linux for my old Lenovo desktop is Peppermint 6-20150904. It can be downloaded easily from Distrowatch.

  11. I have tried Puppy Linux and Lubuntu/Xubuntu, and even Bodhi Linux, but my current “discovery” is Bunsenlabs. It runs smooth on my old second-hand compaq 6730b, and it is as fast as Windows 10 on my wife’s laptop with an SSD. Great software, I’d recommend it to everyone.

  12. The use of “Best of” anything should not be used. Good, Excellent, Functional, all probably would be better, and I am sure other could come up with a few more. Everyone has their own “Best”. One thing we know, Linux users love to disagree, and believe their favorites are “Best”. I know mine are!

    1. I am a long time Linux user (10+ years) but by no means an expert. During that time I have tried a large number of distros listed in the DistroWatch database, many of them dormant or discontinued by now. I would not consider any of those distros as the “best”. They all have their good features as well as shortcomings. I suppose, to get an O/S that has all the features I want/need (and possibly consider the best), I would have to try a source-based distro such as Linux from Scratch or Gentoo. Maybe one of these days.

  13. https://mxlinux.org/

  14. I have read many of these “Best distro for older PCs” articles and have never seen an “older” computer defined. Is it one with previous generation of CPU? Is it a P4/Athlon X2? or is it an i386 or i586? Some users consider anything other than current PCs as “older”. Each one of those would require a different type of a distro. A distro that runs well on a 2 year old CPU could be slow on a P4 and have problems on an I586/686 and be impossible to run on an I386. Distro developers are dropping 32 bit versions like they were hot potatoes, automatically obsoleting many usable machines.

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