Modern Linux distros are designed to appeal to a large number of users who run modern hardware.
As a result, they have become too bloated for older machines, even if cut down by hand – if you don't have several gigs of RAM to spare and an extra core or two, these distros may not deliver the best performance for you.
Thankfully, there are many lightweight distros, trimmed and tweaked by expert hands, which can be used to breathe new life into older hardware.
But there's one caveat to bear in mind when working with lightweight distros – they usually manage to support ancient kit by cutting away just about everything you take for granted, such as wizards and scripts which make everyday tasks easier.
That said, the distros themselves are fully capable of reviving older hardware and can even function as a replacement of your current distro, if you're willing to adjust to their way of working.
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1. Absolute Linux
Absolute Linux is a lightweight distro designed for desktop use. It's based on Slackware 14.2 but, unlike its hard-as-nails parent, Absolute aims to make configuration and maintenance a breeze.
As of December 2016, Version 14.2.2 is available as an install-only ISO for 32-bit machines (967MB) and a slightly fleshier 64-bit version (1.2GB). Whichever version you choose, there's a massive selection of low-power applications included.
Despite being text-based, the installer is incredibly straightforward and simple to follow. The way Absolute is structured also means that you can add and remove packages from the install media to create a distro which truly suits you, though you'll need a little prior knowledge (and a lot of time) if you really want to make the most of this feature.
Yes, Absolute Linux is (in its default state) one of the largest offerings in our list, and the installation appears slow in comparison with other distros.
But once installed, Absolute is incredibly fast and nimble, and the choice of the IceWM window manager, along with alternatives for most popular apps such as Abiword, makes it suitable for older machines. There's plenty of documentation accessible from within the desktop to assist new users too.
Want to really cut things down? The Core Project offers up the tiniest of Linux distros, shipping three variants on which you can build your own environments. The lightest edition is Core, weighing in at just 11MB, including no window manager and very little else, either.
If that's too intimidating, try TinyCore (currently v8.0), clocking in at 16MB and offering a choice of FLTK or FLWM graphical desktop environments. At the top of the pile sits CorePlus, measuring a relatively hefty 106MB. The latter offers up a choice of lightweight window managers: flwm, IceWM, JWM, FluxBox, Openbox and Hackedbox.
TinyCore, which cuts down on size by requiring a wired network connection for initial setup, is 32-bit by default, but there is a 64-bit variant as well as builds for select ARM devices including the Raspberry Pi.
This minimalist distro doesn't feature many apps, providing only a text editor and a terminal, along with the means to configure your network connection. The Control Panel provides quick access to the different configurable parts of the distro such as display, mouse, network, etc. The barebones distro doesn't provide multimedia codecs, but the graphical package manager called Apps makes installing additional software a non-issue.
The 'L' in Lubuntu stands for lightweight, and it unashamedly appeals to those Ubuntu users who are looking for an OS which requires fewer resources than most modern distros, but doesn't compel users to compromise on their favourite apps. Not all of them, anyway.
It's primarily designed for older machines, as you might expect. Lubuntu utilises LXDE for its desktop environment and features a plethora of office, internet, multimedia and graphics apps, along with a wide assortment of useful tools and utilities. Being a lightweight distro, Lubuntu focuses on being fast and energy efficient. It features alternate and less resource intensive apps where possible, such as Abiword for word processing and the Sylpheed email client.
This doesn't mean that Lubuntu is lacking, though: it's based on Linux Kernel 4.8 and Ubuntu 16.10, so it's a proper modern Linux distro – it's just shed all unnecessary weight, in the manner of a rally car having all but one of its seats removed.
The unique selling point of Lubuntu is its compatibility with Ubuntu repositories, which gives users access to thousands of additional packages that can be easily installed using the graphical software management tools.
LXLE doesn't just base itself on Lubuntu, it also favours LXDE for its desktop. However, here the emphasis is on stability – each release is based upon the LTS release of the parent, ensuring long-time hardware and software support. This means the latest edition, at the time of writing, is built on top of Ubuntu 16.04, and the next will be built on April's 17.04 release (the number stands for the year and month respectively).
Aimed primarily at reviving older machines, the distro is designed to serve as a ready to use desktop out of the box, specifically tailored to appeal to existing Windows users. The developers spend a considerable amount of time making all the necessary mods and tweaks to improve performance, but they don't skimp on niceties. Aesthetics are a key area of focus as evidenced by the hundred wallpapers which are included, along with clones of Windows functions like Aero Snap and Expose.
The distro boasts full featured apps across categories such as internet, sound and video, graphics, office, games, and more. It includes plenty of useful accessories as well such as the Weather utility and Gigolo, the latter of which manages remote connections. Available as Live installable images for 32-bit and 64-bit machines, LXLE offers plenty to please everyone.
5. MX Linux
The latest version of MX Linux, released in December 2016, is based on Debian 8.6 (Jessie). The project itself is a collaboration between the antiX and MEPIS communities. It's blazingly fast, though don't necessarily expect something cut to the bone – MX identifies itself as a 'midweight' distro, so it won't be the right choice for your dustiest old machines, but should do fine on hardware from, say, seven or eight years ago.
MX Linux strives to simplify configuration and offers a streamlined desktop experience. The distro provides three ISO options: PAE and non-PAE for 32-bit architecture – the latter of which is recommended for machines with less than 3GB of RAM – and a 64-bit version.
Powered by the XFCE desktop environment and integrating core antiX systems, the distro incorporates standard software like Firefox, LibreOffice and Thunderbird, so it won't baffle you with unfamiliar apps.
Although the desktop does appear to be dull and drab when compared with some of the alternatives, MX Linux more than makes up for it with a large selection of default apps. It even provides several utilities to install codecs, edit Flash settings, install Nvidia drivers, and much more.
This Slackware-based distro is designed to be completely portable and run on removable media like USB sticks or CDs, but can just as easily be installed to a hard disk. It slightly defeats the object to do so, but the option is there.
The distro is incredibly fast as it's small enough to run entirely from system RAM – though this does, naturally, mean you'll get a bit less memory to play with when it's running.
The unique selling point of Porteus is that it exists in a compressed state and creates the file system on the fly. Besides the pre-installed apps, all additional software for the distro comes in the form of modules, and the modular nature of Porteus makes it small and compact.
Available for 32-bit and 64-bit machines, the distro provides users the choice of KDE, MATE, Cinnamon and XFCE when downloading the ISO image. The option to build your own custom image on the fly has been removed since we previously looked at Porteus, but the pre-built ISO images offer a decent selection of software and drivers, as well as a raft of documentation to make getting started easy.
7. Vector Linux
This distro's credo is 'keep it simple, keep it small', and it pulls off that feat to great effect. It allows users to mould the distro to serve just about any possible purpose – Vector Linux can be a lightning-fast desktop for home users, and can just as easily be used for running servers, or as the gateway for your office computer.
After a lengthy period, Vector Linux 7.1 was finally officially released in August 2015, and now comes in two flavours: Light and Standard. The difference is basically the desktop environment used, with Light opting for the iceWM window manager, while the Standard version remains powered by XFCE.
This install-only Slackware-based distro tends to favour GTK+ apps, but you can use the graphical Gslapt package management tool to fetch and install additional software. Although originally only offered for 32-bit machines, since version 7 the distro also provides a release targeting 64-bit computers. Don't expect a new version any time soon, but give the current one a try.
8. Puppy Linux
Puppy Linux is a lightweight distro – one of the oldest to make that its specific aim – and it leans towards making older machines and systems with low resources usable again. The project has been turning out slim, sleek and fast distros for over 11 years now, and offers different versions depending on the underlying environment – Slacko Puppy 6.3 is based on Slackware, for example, while Tahrpup 6.0.5 is built on Ubuntu. The creator, Barry Kauler, even offers a crossover product – Quirky Xerus 8.1 – based on a mix of Puppy and Ubuntu 16.04, and suitable for the Raspberry Pi.
The distro is full of apps, belying its small size – some are quite unconventional, such as Homebank which helps you manage your finances, or Gwhere which is for cataloguing disks. There are also graphical tools to manage Samba shares and set up a firewall, among others, which give this distro its unique selling point.
The TahrPup edition of Puppy Linux is binary compatible with Ubuntu's repositories, giving users access to the parent distro's vast software collection. The thoughtful QuickPet utility can be used to install some of the most popular apps.
9. Linux Lite
Here's one that was recommended by a reader: Linux Lite has been specifically developed to ease Windows users – particularly those XP users who've found their platform unsupported and crumbling – into the world of Linux. It features familiar tools like Firefox and Chrome, VLC preinstalled for media playback, LibreOffice, and its own installation and upgrade tools.
Based on Ubuntu LTS, it's not, perhaps, the ideal choice for truly ancient hardware, but if you have a machine from the past 10 years with at least 1GB RAM inside you should find it a snappy, worthwhile option.
Try it on modern hardware and you'll be amazed at just how quick it runs. Given that it's just as happy running from USB media as it is installed on a hard drive – and, indeed, more than happy to run in a multi-boot configuration – it's a free burst of speed that's worth checking out.
10. BunsenLabs / Crunchbang++
Crunchbang (or #!) was a very popular Debian-derived distro specifically designed to use as few system resources as possible. Perfect for our list, then, had it not been discontinued, with the most recent release made in May 2013. While its author recommended a move to vanilla Debian, which is certainly a viable low-resource option, the community has responded with a pair of distros continuing its legacy.
BunsenLabs seems to be the most active, with a stable release (Hydrogen) based on Debian Jessie featuring a gorgeously configured Openbox window manager and its own repository of core packages. There's also a point release option, regularly updated if you want to stay on the bleeding edge.
Crunchbang++, similarly based on Debian and also sporting Openbox as its desktop frontend, is a little less active, with its Debian Jessie version 1.0 released in 2015. There's been no announcement of discontinuation, but bear in mind that it's a little behind the times.