Best Lightweight Linux Distros for 2017
Operating systems are like cars: you can get a power-hungry Humvee that guzzles gas, leaving you with a few miles to drive, or you can get a super-efficient smart car that barely sniffs gas and gives you hundreds of miles of range. You can also get a monster OS that devours all system resources (CPU and RAM) or you can choose one that barely sips resources. The only difference between cars and operating systems is that lightweight operating systems, unlike lightweight cars, can do all of the heavy lifting that a Humvee can do.
There is is a general perception that lightweight distros are meant for reviving old hardware or for running on really low-powered devices. However, lightweight distros are also ideal in situations where there is a very resource-intense workflow, like video or audio editing, and you want to get maximum performance out of your hardware.
Generally, you need a lightweight distro in any of these three cases:
You have really old hardware and you want to get some use out of it.
You have really underpowered hardware like Raspberry Pi or Pine 64.
You have powerful hardware, but you want to keep system resources for your applications and not for the OS; use cases can bemultimedia production systems or media center PCs.
There are many lightweight distributions out there, each with pros and cons. I have several old, low-powered machines collecting dust, and the last time I wrote an article on lightweight distros , that exploration revived many of those machines. I tested all the distros listed in that article, and I settled on those that offered the best value for time and resources.
When I was working on this article, my goal was not to recreate DistroWatch and list all the “lightweight” distributions out there. Instead, I focused on the ones that worked best in different use cases and on different hardware. I also looked at new distributions that appear promising, and are backed by a community or business model that makes them sustainable. Sustainability is important, because installing a linux distro means quite a bit of commitment in terms of time and effort invested.
Without further ado, here are some of the best lightweight Linux distros.
Knoppix is the distribution that actually popularized the concept of Live distributions. It allows users to run the fully functional operating system from a CD, DVD, or flash drive without installing anything on the hard drive. It’s often used for rescuing data from corrupt systems, and because it runs from removable media, it’s extremely lightweight and can run on a wide range of devices. If you want an “ultra-light” version of Knoppix, then go for the CD edition.
Although you can install Knoppix, it’s not recommended. Since you can save files and configs on the removable media itself, you can easily carry your entire OS in your pocket on a USB stick. Knoppix is one of the very few distributions that come with a massive list of applications pre-installed. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to find Slic3r and other 3D printing software bundled with the Knoppix 7.7 release.knoppix.png
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What I like about Knoppix is that unlike many other lightweight distributions, it doesn’t compromise with quality, features and applications. It’s the most complete OS, feature rich, and brimming with applications. Once you install Knoppix, you probably never need to install any applications. The only weakness of Knoppix is lack of support for creating a bootable USB drive with persistent storage. But that’s changing with the upcoming release.Lubuntu
Lubuntu is based on LXDE, which is an extremely lightweight desktop environment. There is another lightweight distribution, in the Ubuntu family called Xubuntu, but Lubuntu is far more efficient when it comes to memory usage. My old Dell XPS would crawl with Xubuntu, whereas it would fly with Lubuntu. The overall performance difference between them is huge.shot_lubuntu.png
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Another reason I choose Lubuntu is LXDE’s future. LXDE and Razor Qt projects have decided to merge to create LXQt, wherein they will replace GTK components with Qt components. The good news is that the Lubuntu community has started work on moving the distro to LXQt .
Lubuntu comes with a decent set of applications pre-installed so you can start working as soon as you boot into Lubuntu. However, unlike Knoppix or Puppy Linux, it’s not designed to be used with removable media. While you can run and use Lubuntu with removable media, you are better off installing it on a hard drive.
As far as low-powered devices like Raspberry Pi are concerned, there is no official release of Lubuntu for the device. There are some community-maintained versions of Lubuntu that support some models of Raspberry Pi.PIXEL
PIXEL stands for Pi Improved Xwindows Environment, Lightweight. It’s a Debian-based operating system created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation as the official distribution for Raspberry Pi devices. In December 2016, the foundation released a version of PIXEL for x86 platform that can run on both Macs and PCs. Because it has very low system requirements -- after all it’s an OS for Raspberry Pi, -- it’s a great lightweight distribution for reviving really old computers. Unlike many other lightweight distributions, PIXEL offers a great balance between aesthetics, performance, and functionality.pixel.png
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Swapnil BhartiyaI tested PIXEL on my 2009 Dell Mini Netbook, and it breathed new life into that machine. The only caveat is that it’s still in very early stages of development, and things may break. However, it has not crashed on me yet. Another caveat is that you can’t install it on your hard drive, but you can install it on a USB and then boot from it. All configs and files will be saved on the disk. This is actually good news for me as the hard drive of my old Dell
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