One of the most significant selling points of Linux is the freedom it gives its users. You can not only choose a particular distribution but also have the opportunity to select a lightweight Linux distro and desktop environment. Some distributions, like Arch, even give you free-reign over the OS by allowing you to build it up from scratch. Others, like Ubuntu, come in several flavors, each one with its particular desktop environment readily installed.
However, sometimes this liberty comes at a price; those who are brand new to Linux might find the sheer amount of possible OS and desktop customization confusing. As we say in French, “trop c’est comme pas assez” (too much is like too little). Not knowing where to begin, it might be tempting to throw the towel and revert to the familiarity of Windows 10 or macOS.
In this ITgirl.tech article, you will find a review of seven lightweight Linux distribution: Bodhi Linux, Linux Lite, Lubuntu, PCLinuxOS, Peppermint Linux OS, Puppy Linux, and Salix OS. For each one, you will find its official website & download page, its minimal hardware requirements, its default DE (desktop environment), a brief description, and an image gallery.
Note that a distribution that is considered lightweight (i.e., easy on your computer’s hardware) is not necessarily one which offers a streamlined and modern design. However, it is possible to delve headfirst into Linux by opting for a lightweight OS. Indeed, some lightweight Linux distros offer a gentle learning curve and a user-experience that isn’t too foreign for those coming straight from Windows or Mac.
The reasons for choosing a lightweight Linux distro
- You are a great candidate for a lightweight Linux distro if your computer is old and suffers from subpar performance when using the latest mainstream operating systems. For instance, a laptop released in 2009 had its firmware meant to withstand the hardware use of an OS created that year and might experience lagging or freezing when upgraded to Windows 10.
- You might have a desktop computer or laptop that you use for a single or a distinct few applications. That is sometimes the case in scientific fields where only one or two programs are needed, such as data compiling, data analysis, or other niche operations. In that case, having a lightweight Linux distro allows the applications to shine by removing all potential OS-related performance tolls.
- Ease of use
- Some lightweight Linux distros offer a simple design and a frills-free approach that makes using the OS intuitive and easy. It is the lack of customization which characterizes these distros that make them an excellent OS for people new to Linux. The older the technology you own, the more benefits you will find by switching to a lightweight Linux distro. If one of your friends or relatives only uses their at-home computer for surfing the web and watching YouTube, then a lightweight OS might be all indicated. Many of them offer a gentle learning curve out-of-the-box, which can be made even better with the use of a simple and elegant desktop environment. From a front-end, user perspective, it is mostly the desktop environment that will dictate how smooth or difficult the transition from Windows or macOS to Linux will be for new users. However, both the distribution and the DE have to be taken into consideration when installing Linux on a computer. A great DE isn’t worth much if not integrated within a lightweight Linux distro that is stable, secure, and appropriate for the user’s needs.
- Dual-booting and virtual machines
- If you wish to use more than one OS on the same computer, then choosing a lightweight Linux distribution as your second OS might be a great idea. That is especially the case if you are limited to a single hard drive or if your computer is older and possesses a rather small amount of RAM. However, hardware permitting, even bulkier distros such as Ubuntu shouldn’t cause issues when used as a second OS. They are, after all, gentler on your machine’s system than the mainstream OS alternatives. That is why Linux is often the de facto OS of choice when dual-booting a Windows or macOS machine. However, if you’d rather err on the side of caution, then a lightweight distribution is ideal. They also make a great second, third, or fourth OS option when booting an operating system from a virtual machine.
As always, it might be a good idea to try out the OS first by running it on a virtual machine. If you’d instead prefer to boot a live Linux distro from your pen drive, follow the ITgirl.tech guide on how to create a bootable pen drive of your Linux OS disc image on macOS and Windows 10.
The Lightweight Linux Distro List
- Official website: https://www.bodhilinux.com/
- Download page: https://www.bodhilinux.com/download/
- Minimal hardware requirements: 4GB storage, 128MB of RAM, 500MHz processor
- Default desktop environments: Moksha (more information on the Moksha DE HERE)
- Brief description: Based on Ubuntu, Bodhi Linux is a beautiful and minimalist distribution that uses the Moksha window manager. By default, Bodhi Linux offers three versions of its disc image: Standard, Legacy, and AppPack. The Legacy version is for those running a 32-bit system. As for the Standard download, it is what Bodhi Linux recommends by default. When you boot this version for the first time, you might find it somewhat bare-bone. That is because one of its goals is to let users customize the OS by only adding what they want, thus reducing the overall distro size. You will find only the most essential software applications in the Standard release (such as a Terminal emulator (Terminology), an Image viewer (ePhoto), a web browser (Midori) and a File Manager (PCManFM)). For those wishing for more content out-of-the-box, then the AppPack variant is all indicated. This version contains all the software packages found in the Standard release, in addition to others such as the Chromium web browser, Libre Office (a Windows Office alternative), VLC Media Player, OpenShot Video Editor, and the Evince Document Viewer.
- Image gallery:
- Official website: https://www.linuxliteos.com/
- Download page: https://www.linuxliteos.com/download.php
- Minimal hardware requirements: 8GB hard drive space, 768MB RAM, 1GHz processor.
- Default desktop environments: Xfce (more information on the Xfce desktop HERE)
- Brief description: Based on Debian and Ubuntu LTS, Linux Lite is a “gateway operating system.” That is, a Linux distribution which eases the transition from Windows to Linux for users who have never experienced interacting with a machine running on Linux before. Because it relies on the Long Term Support version of Ubuntu (as opposed to the newer Ubuntu version), it provides higher stability and security. However, these same features result in slightly older technology behind the operating system. The good news is that this also means that Linux Lite only requires to be upgraded once every five years (with each release of Ubuntu LTS). Of course, all other updates will be made available and will continue to be received by Linux Lite in the meantime. Because it aims to be as user-friendly as possible, this distribution includes per default many useful applications. Amongst these are Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird (a mail client), VLC media player, GIMP (a free Photoshop alternative), and LibreOffice (a Windows Office alternative).
- Image gallery:
- Official website: https://lubuntu.me/
- Download page: https://lubuntu.me/downloads/
- Minimal hardware requirements: 1GB RAM,
- Default desktop environments: LXQt or LXDE (more information on these two DEs HERE)
- Brief description: Lubuntu, a flavor of the Ubuntu operating system, is an official lightweight alternative to the main Ubuntu release. It uses LXQt as its default desktop environment since Lubuntu 18.10. Its previous default DE, LXDE, was used until April 25th, 2018 but has since been replaced by LXQt due to the merging of LXDE and Qt (a widget toolkit by LXDE’s maintainer Hong Jen Yee). Even though an older release, Lubuntu 18.04.3 Bionic Beaver LTS (LXDE) is still available for download. However, it is, in my opinion, only worth downloading if your machine runs a 32-bit architecture; otherwise, stick to the newer Lubuntu release 19.04 Disco Dingo (LXQt). Also, unless you are an experienced user or dealing with brand new hardware, I do not recommend using the Daily Builds. Such builds are not officially supported and are unstable by nature. That means that they are more prone to bugs, with all the troubleshooting they entail. Lubuntu 19.04 Disco Dingo (LXQt) comes with many applications, including Firefox, LibreOffice (a Windows Office alternative), the Discover Software Center, VLC media player, KDE partition manager (useful when formatting a USB drive), lximage (an image viewer and screenshot tool), Bluedevil (a Bluetooth connector), and more.
- Image gallery:
- Official website: https://www.pclinuxos.com/
- Download page: https://www.pclinuxos.com/get-pclinuxos/
- Minimal hardware requirements: 512MB RAM, 12GB hard disk storage, and an Intel, AMD or x86_64 processor.
- Default desktop environments: MATE (click HERE for more information on the MATE desktop) or KDE (not a lightweight desktop environment; more details HERE)
- Brief description: Probably one of the most “heavyweight” of the lightweight Linux distributions, I recommend PCLinuxOS for machines having 2GB of memory and 20GB of available storage. If your machine’s architecture is 32-bit, then I recommend taking a look at one of the other lightweight alternatives found within this article. Know that opting for the KDE desktop environment might steer this distribution more towards a mid-range distro in terms of hardware requirements. Sticking to the MATE desktop environment, on the other hand, will result in PCLinuxOS being a sleek, easy-to-use, and light distribution. If you opt for MATE, you will get all of this desktop’s default applications. These include the Caja file manager, Atril document and PDF viewer, Firefox, Thunderbird (a mail client), Pidgin (a chat client) and VLC media player.
- Image gallery:
Peppermint Linux OS
- Official website: https://peppermintos.com/
- Download page: https://peppermintos.com/ (same as the main page)
- Minimal hardware requirements: 512MB RAM, 2GB available storage space, x86 processor.
- Default desktop environments: LXDE (more information on this DE HERE)
- Brief description: An Ubuntu spin-off, the authors of Peppermint Linux OS originally designed this OS to ally desktop and cloud applications. As such, it ships with few native software apps as its initial intent was to run cloud-based applications. However, it is possible to install all applications compatible with Ubuntu (i.e., installing packages that come from repositories compatible with Ubuntu) through the Software Manager. That means that whenever you see an Ubuntu app that you like, you can add it to your Peppermint Linux OS. You can also quickly discover Ubuntu-compatible apps by taking a look at the official Snap Store: https://snapcraft.io/store (more on this website later in this article). Some recommended applications are LibreOffice (a Windows Office alternative), GIMP (an image editor), VLC media player, Chromium or Firefox, etc. Peppermint Linux OS also comes pre-equipped with essential tools such as a Terminal, a File Manager, and system tools.
- Image gallery:
- Official website: http://puppylinux.com/
- Download page: http://puppylinux.com/index.html#download (I recommend BionicPup64 8.0)
- Minimal hardware requirements: Variable according to the main distribution (Ubuntu, Debian, Slackware, etc.) used as a derivative.
- Default desktop environments: variable
- Brief description: Puppy Linux is an unusual distribution. Unlike other distros such as Bodhi Linux or Linux Lite, which come with few download variations, Puppy Linux is a “family of distributions.” Indeed, as per the Puppy Linux official website,
“Puppy Linux is a collection of multiple Linux distributions, built on the same shared principles, built using the same set of tools, built on top of a unique set of puppy specific applications and configurations.”
- That means that you can find Puppy Linux in several flavors, and not all of them will be derivatives of the same main distribution. For instance, there are Ubuntu-based and Debian-based Puppy Linux distributions. Puppy Linux is not necessarily harder to install or use. However, it would be preferable for its potential users to be already familiar with Linux to be fully aware of the differences which exist between the OS versions. Those wishing to plunge down the Linux rabbit hole might want to take a look at the Linux section of this website. Due to the sheer amount of possible combinations, it is easy to find a lightweight Puppy Linux distro that answers your needs. If you aren’t sure of which flavor to get, try the latest Puppy version that is compatible with your preferred main distribution. I recommend BionicPup64 8.0, the latest Ubuntu-compatible Puppy (based on the latest Long Term Support version of Ubuntu, Ubuntu 18.04.3 LTS (Bionic Beaver)). That way, you not only get all the Puppy-related apps but can also install all the applications one can find on the main Ubuntu distribution. The basic Puppy apps include a web browser, calendar, text editor, mail client, and a file manager. To add applications, use the Puppy Linux software manager or a Terminal package manager. Take a look at the Snap Store https://snapcraft.io/store for more info and ideas regarding Ubuntu-specific apps.
- Image gallery:
- Official website: https://www.salixos.org/
- Download page: https://www.salixos.org/download.html
- Minimal hardware requirements: 512 MB RAM, 8GB hard drive storage space, Intel Pentium III 1 GHz processor (however older processors might work too)
- Default desktop environments: Xfce (by default), LXDE, MATE (more information on Xfce, LXDE and MATE HERE), KDE (more details on this DE HERE)
- Brief description: With its many desktop environments, Salix OS offers a customizable user-interface that is sure to answer your needs. Based on the Slackware distribution, this lightweight distro aims to be as fast and straightforward as possible. As the official website says, “Like a bonsai, Salix is small, light & the product of infinite care.” A sure way of ensuring this is to select a lightweight desktop environment such as Xfce. Salix OS is a derivative of a distribution that isn’t as well known as others like Ubuntu, Fedora, or Debian. As such, I recommend that its users be somewhat familiar with Linux in general. However, even if you have never tried Slackware before, you can still try Salix OS. This lightweight Linux distro has integrated GUI configuration and administrative tools, as opposed to the usual Slackware way which involves doing most things through the command line. It also has an app repository and provides automatic dependencies resolution. That means that there should be no missing or conflicting packages when you install a new app. These factors contribute to Salix OS being able to provide a gentle learning curve for those new to Slackware.
- If your computer runs on the 64-bit architecture, then I recommend downloading the “Salix64 Xfce 14.2 DVD ISO (x86_64, 64-bit)” ISO file; otherwise, choose “Salix Xfce 14.2 DVD ISO (i586/i686, 32-bit)”. Note also that by default, the Salix OS installer is text-based. If you prefer using a visual installer, then try the live image of Salix OS. You can find it by looking for a file named “SalixLive64 Xfce 14.2.1 DVD ISO (x86_64, 64-bit.” Salix OS comes with all the basic applications one might need. For instance, you will get a mail client (Claws), LibreOffice (a Windows Office alternative), a media player (Parole), an application manager (the Gslapt graphical interface tool) and Firefox (with the Xfce desktop environment). If you’d like to use other applications, you can look for them using the online Salix Package Search, an application finder which you can find here: https://packages.salixos.org/#.
- Image gallery:
The Snap Store: A Great Companion to Your Lightweight Linux Distro
It is not because you have a lightweight Linux distro that you have to use only a few stock applications – quite the contrary! By freeing up storage and memory through the use of a lightweight distribution, you can now dedicate more of your machine’s resources to the programs that matter to you. More often than not, lightweight distros come with few pre-installed software apps, and this is where Snapcraft’s Snap Store comes in.
Snapcraft is a cross-platform search engine that helps users find apps available on Linux. It gives more than a simple list of apps that meet the entered search criteria. It also displays screenshots, provides the app’s availability across Linux distributions, and provides installation instructions. Because Snapcraft isn’t distro-specific, it is possible to get a global perspective of the applications available across the whole operating system. People looking for specific programs might want to take a look at which distributions offer their applications before committing to a particular Linux OS.
Using the Snap Store is easy. First, go to the official website (https://snapcraft.io/store). From there, enter a search keyword or take a look at the featured applications. Once you find something that catches your attention, click on the application’s icon to be redirected to its main page. Those using Ubuntu can click on the “install” icon. That is because the Desktop Store “snap support” is already pre-installed on Ubuntu 16.04.4 LTS and later. Others can either get “snapd” and install the app from the command line, or get the Snap Store application. You can find instructions specific to each Linux distribution here: https://snapcraft.io/docs/installing-snapd, and for the Snap Store app here: https://snapcraft.io/docs/installing-snap-store-app.
As an example, I looked for an “image editor” in the search bar.
I opted for GNU, an open-source image editor and free alternative to Photoshop.
First, make sure that you have installed the snapd package.
$ sudo apt update $ sudo apt install snapd
Then, you can install the application found on the Snap Store using the Terminal. Make sure that the name of the package reflects what you find under “Install using the command line.” You can access this information by pressing the “Install” button located on the application’s Snap Store webpage.
$ sudo snap install gimp