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.

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