There are plenty of reasons for wanting a low-resource distro running on your computer.
Maybe you have some ancient hardware that you need to breathe new life into. Perhaps you want something that will fit on a modestly sized memory stick. Or it might be that you want to run 200 virtual machines simultaneously on your desktop.
The important things that we'll look at here are the amount of space needed, how much processing power is required to get the distro running at an acceptable level, and the effort required to get it to work.
Something to bear in mind is that one of the ways in which developers are able to create slimmed down distros is by ditching the scripts and wizards that we've come to take for granted. This can complicate tasks that you might expect to be straightforward, such as installing software.
The simple truth is that you'll be getting your fingers slightly grubbier with a low-resource distro than you would with a fully featured one. In selecting our shortlist, we've left out some contenders either because they didn't support older processors, they wouldn't install in 4GB or less of space, they simply didn't work on our hardware or they're no longer being maintained (as is the case for both RULE and U-Lite).
The one exception to this is Damn Small Linux – although it has been over a year since the last release, and the homepage is as quiet as the LXF office at 9.30 on a Monday morning, this is still such a widely used and influential project that it was considered worthy of inclusion.
There's still plenty of activity in the area of low-resource distros, including WattOS, which we hope to cover next time. We also gave Zenwalk a try, but ran into difficulty trying to run it on the low-spec system that we permitted ourselves here. But aside from this, it's a light and capable distro nonetheless and worth a look if you have the time.
Damn Small Linux: the original credit card distro
The rise and fall of Damn Small Linux is one of those tales along the lines of a great concept executed well. The idea was to create a Linux distro that was small enough to fit on a credit-card sized CD-ROM. With a target size of 50MB or less, this format certainly concentrates the developers' minds if they also want to create a hassle-free user experience.
For the most part, DSL does succeed. Based on the grandfather of all Live CDs, Knoppix, DSL strips out layer after layer of non-essential stuff, while leaving a core working system. It might not exactly be replete with applications, but there's enough there to legitimise its claim to the title of a desktop operating system.
Look past the rather clunky interface and the tricky-to-read text and you'll be amazed at the amount of functionality included with DSL. Text editors, a PDF viewer, Firefox and other handy utilities provide a workable and stable environment.
There are task-specific add-on Damn Small Linux packages available to download as well, and it's difficult to fault the level of hardware support.
Unfortunately, the story of DSL doesn't have a happy ending at the moment. The community developing it seems to have split rather fractiously over demands made by some of the contributors, so it's been a year since any of the main contributors has even posted on the project's website. The future of development seems uncertain.
We've included it here (in spite of the exclusion of other defunct systems) because it still holds up surprisingly well to some of the other options, and remains widely used.
If you need further testament, DSL was selected is one of the few systems supported by the boot.kernel.org (BKO) project. That said, obviously as time wears on, DSL slowly becomes more and more out of date, and may eventually become something of a liability.
Verdict: Damn Small Linux
This is a decent choice if you have space and memory to spare
Crunchbang: the unofficial Ubuntu Lite
Long before there was an official Ubuntu-lite project, the ground had been contested by the likes of Xubuntu and U-list. CrunchBang ('#!', get it?), or HashPling as one might decide to call it, evolved some time later, but before there was official support for the Lubuntu project. The head-start seems to have worked out for the developers, though, because CrunchBang is pretty much there.
It comes in more than one flavour, but we decided to test the lite version because it fits in better with the theme of this particular Roundup. The installer was one of the easiest to use, but it didn't work on our decrepit hardware, only the virtual machine. The graphics driver seemed to be causing difficulty, so your mileage may vary.
Although this is a lite version, it still includes useful applications, including the Leafpad editor, VLC and Firefox 3.0.11. One of the major selling points is that this distro is built around Ubuntu, to the extent that the included Synaptic Package Manager will happily fetch anything from the Canonical repositories to bung on your box.
But as soon as you start installing big things, it comes tumbling down as dependencies spiral into gigabytes of space.
CrunchBang also takes the unusual but welcome step of stuffing a whole load of keyboard shortcuts into the desktop – quite literally, because the list is displayed on the screen via the Conky system monitor software. They mostly make use of the 'special key that should have a penguin on it', so they won't interfere with normal operations.
CrunchBang is small, stylish and performs well. It'll be interesting to see what happens here when Lubuntu is released publicly, but it seems that CrunchBang has a pretty solid proposition ready to go.
Version: 9.0.4 Lite
Stylish, compact and plenty of Ubuntu software available