Elive is a Linux distribution based on Debian that features a great implementation of the Enlightenment desktop environment. It is a distro that is self-proclaimed as not being aimed at one particular kind of user but one that is primarily designed to be used on very old computers. The default ISO image is 32-bit and installs with Linux 3.16 by default. It uses just a hair over 160 MB RAM and runs beautifully with one CPU core and zero 3D acceleration. This allows Elive to tout itself as capable of turning a 15-year old computer into one of high performance, and I quite honestly believe it. In this Elive Review, we’ll discuss system performance, usability, and why it may or may not be the distro for you.
On first boot, you’re greeted with a fairly spartan desktop, but you quickly realize that things are not as simple as they seem. Things immediately feel very snappy, even in a heavily-limited virtual machine like I have it. I gave it access to one core of my CPU and 1 GB RAM with no 3D acceleration, and while it gave me a quick warning about that, I was able to easily work through the desktop and find my way around.
Some of the elements of the desktop feel a little more retro than I’m used to, things like the icon theme having an iPod for Rhythmbox and the look of the desktop context menu, but you get used to it fairly quickly and find your way around. I could absolutely see this being comfortable and nostalgic on an older machine, and I may just have to dig up my old Dell Inspiron 6000 from 2005 and try this out there.
Overall, the installation process was slightly overwhelming. If you saw my review of EndeavourOS, I was critical of their installer for their treatment of Swap space. I have some slightly negative things to say about the Elive installer as well.
When you first open the installer, you’re greeted with a screen that isn’t exactly clear on what you need to do. It’s easy to just click OK and move on. However, for those who aren’t advanced users, I’d suggest checking the “Guided help during the installation” checkbox. Leave the other two checked so you still have choices. Then, click one of the two top options for whether it’s allowed to take the full disk or you’re trying to dual boot.
Then choose your partitioning scheme, choosing between automatic, a GParted window, a more advanced menu, or an option for whether you pre-partitioned your disk. You may get a helpful prompt like I did to confirm that I wanted to erase my entire disk and install Elive. Nice.
The File System selector was quite confusing. While I know the difference between ext4 and reiserfs, the choice to present those two options is mystifying. My suggestion is to use ext4. After choosing your FS, choose your encryption preference and the install starts.
After the install, configure your installed system. This is where I feel very critical of the installer. In the hands of anybody but an advanced user, the options here are likely to overwhelm and confuse the user. You have to deselect the things that you don’t want in your system. I understand why the choices are this way, but it’s a lot to have to deal with after a “successful” installation of your system. There are 6 “Extra Options” menus that you have to navigate in order to get to the final part of the installation. It feels excessive, and I think those could be logically organized into a couple of groups to have one menu with a few checkboxes.
Performance and User Experience
Once the system is installed, the performance is unbelievable. With a desktop environment as fully-featured and efficient as Enlightenment, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Enlightenment lives somewhere in the middle of tiling window managers and light desktop environments like XFCE in terms of system resource usage, and this particular implementation has been heavily optimized to work on computers just about as old as you could possibly have in your home. Nothing feels sacrificed, either. It feels like I’m using the DE that I want XFCE or LXDE to be. It’s really a treat to experience.
The user experience is a little “overwhelmed by choice.” I feel like I have so much I can do to learn and customize that I’ll be sucked into an endless void of Elive, but that’s kind of the beauty of it. I could absolutely see a world in which you install this on a 15-year-old laptop or an 11-year-old desktop and mess around with it for hours, just happy to see the machine that you played games on while growing up working again.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend Elive to a beginner. Not by a long shot. It comes with Zsh as the default shell, the choices and customization options are near-endless, and it’s old enough that Linux 3.16 living in our new world can get a little strange. However, there’s a lot of really great things about it, and if you’re so inclined, there’s a fairly bustling community and plenty of really great documentation available to you to learn more.
I have a couple of machines lying around that could absolutely benefit from Elive installed on an upgraded SSD. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to a retro PC enthusiast who’s looking to keep their old machine alive and well into eternity.
Make sure to check out some other performance-focused Linux articles and learn how to speed up your Linux desktop with Compton, check out a review of Arch Linux, and find 4 of the best web browsers for Linux.
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