Note: Our most popular lightweight Linux distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2015.
Modern Linux distros are designed to appeal to a large number of users. As a result, they have become too bloated for older machines or systems with limited resources. If you don't have several gig 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 that you can use to breathe new life into older hardware.
But there's one caveat when working with lightweight distros – they usually manage to function with limited resources 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.
Absolute Linux is a lightweight distro designed for desktop use. It's based on Slackware, but unlike its parent, aims to make configuration and maintenance a breeze. It's available as an install-only ISO for 32-bit machines in two sizes: regular (698MB) and large (1,178MB). The latter includes a host of everyday applications such as word processors, browsers, email clients, multimedia players, and the like, split across well-defined categories.
Despite being text-based, the installer is incredibly straightforward and simple to follow. With a minimum size of just under 700MB, Absolute Linux is one of the heaviest 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 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.
Trisquel Mini is a cut-down version of the main Trisquel distro, which is based on Ubuntu 14.04. The current build is 7.0, codenamed Belenos, and has been designed to run on lower powered and older machines, including netbooks.
It achieves this through use of the minimal LXDE desktop environment, and bundles less demanding GTK+ and X Window system alternatives to the traditional GNOME or KDE/Qt applications. Despite this, it still packs in plenty of apps and tools, and uses the Synpatic Package Manager to deliver more software should you need it.
There's a live CD for road-testing it, plus the Ubuntu-based graphical installer will be instantly familiar should you want a more permanent install.
CorePlus is the tiniest of Linux distros, and ships three variants. The lightest edition is Core, weighing in at just 10MB with no window manager at all. Next up is TinyCore, clocking in at 15MB and offering the flwm window manager. At the top of the pile sits CorePlus itself, measuring a relatively hefty 86MB but offering you a choice of window managers: flwm, IceWM, JWM, FluxBox, Openbox and Hackedbox. It's also the only version that provides an installation image.
TinyCore is 32-bit by default, but there is a 64-bit variant as well as builds for select ARM devices including the Raspberry Pi. The latest release features a number of useful updates over the previous edition such as legacy-BIOS/UEFI multi-boot support in the TinyCorePure64 variant.
This minimalist distro doesn't feature many apps, providing only a text editor and a terminal and 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 unashamedly appeals to those Ubuntu users who are looking for a distro 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 netbooks and older machines, 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.
The unique selling point of Lubuntu is the 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. Aimed at reviving older machines, the distro is designed to serve as a ready to use desktop out of the box. Its design philosophy is to be a ready replacement distro for Windows users.
The developers spend a considerable amount of time making all the necessary mods and tweaks to improve performance, and aesthetics is also a key area of focus as evidenced by the several dozen wallpapers which are available.
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.
The latest version of MX Linux is based on Debian 8.2 (Jessie) and is the result of a collaboration between the Antix and MEPIS communities. It's blazingly fast, and identifies itself as a middleweight. MX Linux strives to simplify configuration and offers a streamlined desktop experience. The distro provides two ISO options, PAE and non-PAE for 32-bit architecture. The latter is recommended for machines with less than 3GB of RAM.
Powered by the XFCE desktop environment, the distro also incorporates several innovative and independently designed components such as Whisker Menu, Qupzilla browser, and more.
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 for installation on removable media like USB sticks or CDs, but can just as easily be installed to a hard disk. The distro is incredibly fast as it runs from system RAM.
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 KDE4, LXQt, MATE and XFCE when downloading the ISO image. It's unique in that when you come to download your ISO image, you're prompted to choose what components to include on the website before the image is generated.
Options include incorporating drivers for Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, along with the browser and word processor of your choice, and so on. The distro also provides plenty of documentation to help users get the most out of Porteus.
Slitaz is designed to perform with as little as 256MB of RAM, and uses OpenBox window manager to provide an enjoyable desktop experience. It relies on several custom tools such as TazPanel, which provides a one-stop control panel for administering various aspects of the distro.
TazPanel lets you manage software, configure various hardware components such as printers and scanners, modify bootloader settings, and more. Each of the configurable elements are divided into different tabs such as Settings, Hardware, Boot, etc. It's a remarkably simple tool and one that should please most new users.
The distro is available in several variants, the lightest of which can be run with about 20MB of RAM, but doesn't provide a graphical environment. Slitaz offers a ready to use FTP/web server, includes FTP and email clients, browsers, and all the usual tools you'd find in any modern desktop distro.
The latest release – version 5 – is available at time of writing as a Release Candidate, and includes new and improved homemade tools, including frugal (for an even slimmer install) and decode (accessing music and video files).
This distro uses the KISS formula – 'keep it simple silly' – 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 machines.
Puppy Linux is a lightweight distro aimed at 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 is built on Ubuntu. Expect the live CD to weigh in at 200-250MB depending on version and system type.
The distro is full of apps, belying its small size – some are quite unconventional, such as Homebank, to help you manage your finances, or Gwhere to catalogue 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.