Distros For Old Computers

Do you have machines that are doubling up as paper weights because they can’t keep up with the hardware demands of modern distros? Here’s all the low-down on the most popular tailor-made distros for old computers that’re past their prime.

Defining hardware as “older” is tricky. Newer resource hungry software levering on the pace of hardware developments is rendering even relatively newer hardware obsolete. Examples of these relatively recent “older” hardware would be single-core or dual-core AMD Athlons and Intel Pentiums.

Then there are also those that still have truly ancient peripherals that are no longer supported by the latest Kernel releases, such as dial-up modems.

The good thing about the Linux community is that there’s no dearth of projects that bring together the various light-weight apps and package them in a distribution that uses the meagre hardware resources judiciously.

My favourite distro for fusing life into any computer is Puppy Linux. The distro uses one of the lightest window managers (JWM) and though it might not be pretty to look at, it’ll turn that old lethargic work horse into a galloping steed.

Another reason why I love Puppy is its collection of software and custom apps. It has graphics apps, productivity apps, apps to playback, edit and even create multimedia. Using its custom apps, you can block website ads, grab podcasts, do internet telephony, burn optical media, and a lot more.

old-puppylinux

The distro is available in different flavours. The WaryPuppy edition uses an older kernel and includes additional drivers to support peripherals like dial-up modems. There’s also RacyPuppy which uses a newer kernel.

I’m also impressed by Puppy support infrastructure. It has two independent and very active forum boards, and loads of documentation on getting started. The distro also bundles help documentation on several topics such as on working with Microsoft Office documents.

The weakest part of the distro is its installer which doesn’t have an automatic partitioner and instead fires up Gparted for you to manually partition the disk. That said, each step in the installer is very well documented within the installer itself.

Unlike Puppy’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, some light-weight distros ship with limited apps and instead let you build your distro as per your requirements.

Tiny Core Linux bundles a terminal, a text editor, and an app launcher on top of the light-weight FLWM window manager. If you need anything else, you’ll have to pull it in using the distro’s package manager, including the installer if you want to install Tiny Core on to your hard disk.

Due to its minuscule size, Tiny Core Linux boots up in a blitz. But the distro’s stellar performance comes at the price of usability. The distro does take some getting used to. For starters, you’ll be spending quite a lot of time with its package manager, which isn’t the most intuitive in the business.

You have to put in some time browsing through its installation guide and reading through the FAQ, its expansive Wiki and forum boards to make the distro work for you. Once you get the hang of it though, you’ll appreciate its flexibility.

old-bodhilinux

Just like Tiny Core Linux, Bodhi Linux ships with a minimum number of components, such as the Leafpad text editor, and the PCMan file manager. For anything else, fire up the included Midori web browser and head to Bodhi’s innovative online software centre.

Bodhi has a number of profiles, from Bare, Laptop to Compositing and Fancy, each of which is optimized for different types of hardware. The distro uses the lightweight yet pleasing Enlightenment window manager which makes this minimal simple-to-use distro easy on the eyes.

In my experience, Bodhi requires at least 512MB of RAM for decent performance.

Although its developers claim that it isn’t primarily designed for old systems, the CrunchBang distro is a good option for system with limited resources. It works well on older machines, and can be easily fleshed out for relatively newer ones.

old-crunchbang

CrunchBang is a Debian-based distro which uses the light-weight Openbox window manager and ships with Gnome Mplayer, Gimp, and the VLC media player. Although the distro ships with the light-weight AbiWord and Gnumeric, it has scripts to install LibreOffice and Dropbox.

Another Debian-based distro is antiX. It’s based on Debian Testing and has a relatively newer kernel compared to other distros with a similar purpose.

old-antix

The distro comes with the Fluxbox window manager and a host of custom tools to manage the desktop such as the antiX Control Center. The distro also has a custom package manager and a fairly straightforward custom installer.

There are quite a few distros wrapped around the LXDE desktop, including Lubuntu, Linux Mint LXDE and WattOS.

old-wattos

LXDE is a simple desktop environment with a clean interface. It strikes a good balance between being lightweight and functional which is probably why it’s the most popular desktop of the puny Raspberry Pi.

There’s also the light-edition of Vector Linux based on LXDE. SliTaz and DamnSmallLinux.

Depending on the age of your hardware, you can revive it with a number of distros I’ve listed above. Some like CrunchBang and antiX are ideal for machines that have a single core or less than 1GB of RAM, while distros like Tiny Core and Puppy will work on even decade old machines.

When you are resuscitating older hardware, be prepared to sacrifice some of the features of modern distros like compositing effects and conveniences like full-fledged office suites and image editors.

You’ll also need to find a balance between performance and usability. Some distros like Tiny Cire are snappy on dated hardware but come with a steep learning curve, while other like CrunchBang might not work on really old hardware.

If you’ve used any of these distros (or any other) on an older machine, please share your experience in the comments below.

Image credit: Soupmeister

30 comments

  1. My preferred linux distribution for older hardware is antiX. With icewm and rox desktop it only has a footprint of 65 MB in RAM, even less when you use fluxbox. I’ve installed it on several older machines, e.g. on an old Celeron 1,3 GHz Notebook with 256 MB RAM and it now is much much faster than it ever was with Windows XP.

  2. I’m a big fan of E17 so I’m using Bodhi, which is an excellent distro for use as well as looks, even though I have an i7 quad-core and 8 GB of RAM. Another good one, even lighter, is MacPup. It also runs E17, but is based on Puppy. Depending on taste I would also recommend CrunchBang or ArchBang if you just want a simple window manager, and WattOS is my favorite LXDE distro. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, Gentoo is a good choice because it’s only as heavy as you make it and everything is optimized for your specific hardware.

    • Yup. I’d also suggest Arch for the same reasons as Gentoo, along with the same disclaimer.

  3. The problwm with Puppy and the rest of the dogs is that, by defauly, the user runs with root priviliges. When security is compromised, the entire system can be taken over, not unlike what happens in Windows.

    It’s not like GParted is fdisk or cfdisk. Besides, the user may not like how an automatic partitioner allocates space. GParted gives the user control over the partitioning process.

    antiX comes in three flavors – Core, Base and Full.
    CORE provides only the kernel, installer and some utilities to get a basic CLI system up and running. The user has total control over how simple or how complicated the system is by installing only the desired packages.
    BASE installs a rudimentary GUI system with Fluxbox and few apps.
    FULL, as the name suggests, installs a ready-to-go system with XFCE as the desktop environment.

    Lubuntu and Mint LXDE are for newer “older” hardware. They are full blown Ubuntu and Mint made slightly lighter by virtue of LXDE desktop environment. They might prove sluggish on hardware older than 5 or 6 years.

    • Err, antiX Full also comes with Fluxbox, and your comment on Lubuntu and Mint LXDE is spot-on.

      • My point about antiX is that the version one installs depends on the amount of control one wants over the make up of the final system. I like to start with the Core version and then add packages rather than start with the Full version and subtract packages because sometimes one runs afoul of dependencies and package cannot be removed.

  4. I would recommend you also check out Slitaz and Semplice, both are very polished, each in their own niche.

    • I’ve mentioned SliTaz in the review up above (although it erroneously points to SparkyLinux). Thanks for the pointer to Semplice. I hadn’t heard of it before.

  5. I don’t have issues with Puppy myself. If I want to add a layer of security, I can just as easily add a regular user and change the root password. All the other lightweight systems sound like good options as well.

  6. WaryPuppy, TinyCore, and SliTaz are pretty quick on older Pentium HW for sure. It used to be that DamnSmallLinux was a distro contender for older computers as well, before DSL essentially became abandoned.

    Since you’re already mentioning #!, antiX, and the Ubuntu-based distros, another Debian-based distro for older computers might actually be Debian itself http://www.debian.org . Sure, regular Debian definitely has a learning-curve, but at the same time, someone could use Debian’s “network install” (180 MB) and “business card-size” (40 MB) images for such old computers quite well starting off from the commandline — just make sure these computers have a 10/100 Ethernet connection (a fairly-old standard) and install a super-lightweight desktop Window Manager such as Openbox, Fluxbox, JWM…. Again, regular Debian CAN run fine on older computers, and yes, regular Debian DOES have a learning-curve to use.

    Other distros that you might also consider for older computers are Arch Linux http://www.archlinux.org/ and Slackware Linux http://www.slackware.com/. Even more than regular Debian, Arch and Slackware have VERY high learning curves, and yet can run with decent performance on older single-core AMD Durons and Intel Pentiums having FAR less RAM than Bodhi’s 512MB recommendation.

    Just well worth considering all this.

    • I’d throw in Arch into the list of distro that can perform admirably well on older hardware if you can ride past their learning curve. Also Debian is now switching to Xfce which will not lightweight anymore is still lighter than Gnome, KDE, Unity.

    • Thanks! I’ll keep an eye on this project. They seem to have multiple releases to cater to all sorts of hardware.

  7. openSuSE 13.1 with KDE, running beautifully on an old Inspiron 6000 laptop (Pentium M single core 1.7Ghz/2GB RAM/5400rpm IDE platter HD)

    • You gotta be kidding! I have a similar machine and that thing performs terribly even with the two year old OpenSUSE 11.1 with KDE 4.4.

      • Come to think of it, I used to run SimplyMEPIS with KDEon an Inspiron 7500, P3 667mhz/384 MB RAM. While not head-snapping fast, it was fast enough for basic use on vacations – no CPU-bound programs, just email and surfing and occasional LibreOffice Writer document.

        I say “used to” because the hinges broke. It is still usable but the LCD is hanging on by a cable only.

        • KDE is more tolerant than the other full-fledged desktops. It’ll run on these machines, but not “beautifully” like the OP mentions. You can afford to wait for LibreOffice to load on a 667MHz/384MB RAM machine, cause you’re on vacation! :)

          • Yes, I can “afford” to wait but, even though I may be on vacation, I still want instant response or at least the kind of response I get at home. Besides, while on vacation, I want to be out and doing things rather than waiting for LibreOffice to load. :-)

  8. You hit that nail square and solid with your comment about “@#&*!!!INSTALLERS!!!”. That is a major breaking point in using Linux. The ones that take you by the hand and offer a good auto-partion set-up. Are a lot better.This was and still is a problem for me. I don’t consider myself a newbie anymore. Since I am from the land of DOS/win 3. I also been winders free for almost 10 yrs.

  9. I have a Dell C810 Laptop with 256 Meg RAM someone was going to throw out when hard drive crashed in 2009 (was 4 years old at the time). I boot Puppy from the CD and the rest (saved profile) loads from a 4 Gig jump drive; no hard drive required — the bay is empty. Being a single-user OS in Root User isn’t an issue for using it as a library and coffee shop (i.e., free WiFi) on-the-go machine; just Web, e-mail, and relatively light document processing to/from cloud storage. It boots up faster than Starbucks can render a cup of coffee. Out-of-the box Puppy has all the tools and packages I need for this sort of use. Never had to spend much time configuring. For release upgrades, I just burn the new boot CD at home. Gonna miss this b!tc# when the CD finally burns out.

  10. You may also want to consider Emmabuntus, a lightweight Ubuntu-based distro used to refurbish old computers.

    • That distro deserved a writeup all to itself — http://www.maketecheasier.com/emmabuntus-distro-for-refurbished-pc/

      I didn’t include it in this roundup because it has a slightly different purpose — it wants to convert refurbished (not necessarily dated) machines into fully functional one. This is why it includes quite a lot of apps. In this article I wanted to look at distros that will make dated hardware usable and squeeze out decent performance.

  11. Well, Slackware is mentioned. And again mentioned as hard to install. In my opinion you have to concentrate more. But with that, everything is rather easy…….. And if you want real ease of installing a slackware variant one could use salixos.org. A small distro with an enthousiastic community and different flavors.

      • “I have seen many a new users turned off by Slackware’s ncurses installation.”
        They’re spoiled by Windows and Ubuntu. :>)

        Slackware installer does look a bit primitive. The one thing I liked about Slack is that the installer allowed a choice of packages to install, rather than installing everything by default, including the kitchen sink, like modern installers do.

  12. There is also the lxde version of porteus which is pretty easy to ues live althuogh it does not come with many applications.

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