8 of the best tiny Linux distros
20th Apr 2010 | 10:00
Less is more in the world of low-resource distros
Damn Small Linux and Crunchbang
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
Lubuntu and Puppy Linux
Lubuntu: here comes the official Ubuntu mini-distro
Early in 2009, Mark 'Space' Shuttleworth gave the nod to an Ubuntu project that would create a lightweight variant of the world's favourite distro. Based around LXDE, Lubuntu was on its way. And it still is. Well, getting a new distro sorted out takes more than a few months, so we shouldn't be too harsh.
It's also worth noting that at the time of writing, the current release was still an alpha version, so we're giving it extra latitude.
As with most of the other distributions here, the install media runs as a live CD first, which is a useful way to check that the system is going to work with your hardware before you go to the trouble of installing it. If you imagine that Lubuntu is going to look anything like Ubuntu, that idea will be destroyed the minute the desktop loads.
Lubuntu has more in common with the other LXDE distributions, with the LXPanel running at the bottom of the screen and a more KDE 3.x look to things rather than Gnome. The chosen apps aren't quite the usual – Firefox, AbiWord and Gnumeric are among those included, which seems to suggest that not everything in this distro is going to be pared to the bone.
Of course, the main selling point of this distro is that it will have access to the Ubuntu repositories for easy upgrades and plenty of extra packages to install if you need them.
We did have a couple of problems installing this to disk, so the figures in the table on page 35 that compare memory usage and disk space aren't that reliable. However, since this is still an alpha release, you couldn't really rely on them anyway.
Lubuntu is definitely one to watch for the future. With the backing of Canonical, it'll have the developer resources to make the other lite distro projects rather jealous.
Version: Lucid Alpha 2
Although it looks nothing like Ubuntu, this is one to keep an eye on as it moves towards a stable release
Puppy Linux: is that a puppy in your pocket?
This sounds as though it ought to be based on Yellow Dog, but in fact, Puppy is a built-from-the-base-up independent distribution from down under. This is a middleweight offering – not as stripped back as some of the distros, but not bloated out to a full CD either.
Memory usage is low to average and a recent kernel gives a good chance of hardware support, although it'll run on i386 hardware. It runs direct from RAM on the initial boot and reveals a packed desktop with some thoughtfully selected apps scattered about.
There are loads of helpful scripts to guide you through things such as setting up display preferences and installing to disk, but you still need to perform some stages manually. As is so often the case, less bloat means less complete and helpful apps that do everything for you, so you will need to put a little bit of effort in.
Puppy manages to pack a lot of programs in to a small space. For graphics, there's a lite version of Inkscape, a few camera tools, MTPaint and Gxine. Browsing and mail is taken care of by a full version of SeaMonkey rather than separate apps, while Gnumeric and AbiWord should suffice for most office purposes.
Packages available for additional install include IceWM and Openbox if you don't like the default window manager, plus a selection of other tools. Of course, the distribution also has GCC, so you can build your own software – which may be necessary since the repositories only hold a few dozen extra apps.
While it may be restrictive in the number of programs available, there's still a lot to recommend Puppy – it runs like a solid, modern distro but in a fraction of the space. However, if you have specific application needs, it may be easier to look elsewhere.
Verdict: Puppy Linux
A solid and dependable offering, but limited software available
Slitaz and Tiny Core Linux
Slitaz: home brewed since 2007
Many of the lightweight Linux distros on offer are based on more popular desktop variants such as Debian, but this one's grown completely from scratch since 2007. It's one of the few that includes languages other than English (Spanish, French, German and Portuguese).
The base install is competent enough for a variety of tasks. The browser is Firefox 3.5, which may not be the most lightweight app you could think of installing, but it does give Slitaz the ability to run pretty much any web app, which is what many people will want to do with such a diminutive distro that doesn't have a lot of its own software.
That said, there's a cluster of useful tools included as part of the minimal install, including a MTPaint, a PDF reader, music player and a couple of editors (Leafpad and Nano). For lightweight and embedded projects, it rather unbelievably includes a fully functional webserver (Lighttpd) with PHP/CGI support, and various other standard network tools as well (such as SSH and FTP).
If you feel the need to bloat out the system, there are over a thousand packages available in the online repository. Package management is via a tool called Tazpkg, which is tiny, but straightforward and easy to use.
The packages themselves are custom archives with included information and dependencies, so you won't get caught up in a whole world of install pain (though you are limited to the packages available from the Slitaz repository, unless you want to make your own).
The desktop uses the nippy but low overhead Openbox window manager, combined with LXDE desktop, which should be pretty intuitive to most users (it's most akin to a KDE 3.x desktop).
Slitaz achieves the objective of cramming a lot into a small space. It doesn't have an overwhelming selection of default packages, but they do the job, and they do it very fast.
Version: 2.0 Cooking
Exceptionally quick, deceptively powerful and has a built-in webserver
Tiny Core Linux: smaller than the smallest thing
The Tiny Core project was started in 2008 by one of the refugees from DSL, so it isn't much of a surprise that it follows the same ethos of trying to get as much as possible into the minimum amount of space.
If anything, Tiny Core has taken this to more of an extreme, completely savaging the package base to create just about the smallest distribution you could still consider to be a Linux OS. While this is great news for those trying to fit the OS on to ancient hardware or embedded devices, it does inevitably mean you'll need to do more work if you want to do anything other than boot it up and look at the X display.
Fortunately, there's an app installer that enables access to the large repository of TCZ packages, so you can easily install the apps that you want. Dependencies are handled, but obviously, if you choose to install something like Firefox, you're going to see the disk space taken up by this distro ballooning to new levels. But you will have to install something, otherwise a few system scripts and a terminal will be your only company.
In some ways, it's not quite so useful to have such a diminutive distro. There may be some specialist cases, but for general use, most people can easily spare, say, 100MB of space. Sure, you can build on the Tiny Core install by adding applications, but it may have made things easier to aim for a slightly higher target to begin with.
But that's to take nothing away from the remarkable achievement of creating a Linux install that fits inside 10MB of space. It's easy to see Tiny Core becoming the basis of many specialist application distros – if you can get the base install down in size, it leaves you with a lot more room to pile on your custom applications.
Verdict: Tiny Core Linux
A remarkable achievement, but requires effort to install and use
Unity Linux and VectorLinux
Unity Linux: great big Mandriva-based lusciousness
This Mandriva-based distro wants to give you low resource computing, but it doesn't want you to slum it. Although possibly the best-looking of the distros in the Roundup, it does come at the cost of a slow boot time.
Unity is pretty much as sluggish as a full desktop distro when it starts, compared to the nippy zippy likes of Slitaz and Tiny Core. Once the Openbox-based desktop is running, though, it is as fast and responsive as you could want a distro to be.
The install process couldn't be easier – run the graphical installer, tell it where you live, allow it to partition the drive however it likes and you're done in a couple of clicks. In fact, it may be a little too easy – perhaps it should ask a bit more about where you're installing, but there are manual options available for most of the stages. Installation may take a while, but you can always avail yourself of the live Unity while you're waiting, then reboot back into that lovely desktop.
That's when the real shock hits you – Unity has gobbled up nearly 1GB of space before you've even started installing anything! The minimal install does contain lots of configuration tools, but if you want to do anything like browse the web or play some music, you'll need to get downloading.
The smart package manager is preconfigured to fetch updates and packages from the extensive Unity mirrors, though you could most likely install Mandriva or generic RPMs without much difficulty. Setting up networking was seamless and we were gorging ourselves silly on frivolous applications such as image viewers and audio players in no time.
Surprisingly, once installed, Unity only came mid-table in terms of memory use, but we found that it was sprightly and easy to use. As with some of the other distros we've tested here, this is a beta release, but based on what we saw, it seems ready for a full release already.
Verdict: Unity Linux
Version: 2010 Beta 2
It's both slick and fast, but you will need a bit more disk space available
VectorLinux: by the power of Slackware
Based on Slackware, VectorLinux was originally all about being a small, self-contained and easy to install and use distro. Since it started life in 2000 it has been through many different iterations and sprouted a few different variants (SOHO, Deluxe, Standard, Light) to target specific use scenarios.
We tested the Light version, though even that's a full CD. At 617MB, it's heftier than some of the others on test. Even if you discount the optional packages, the Light install requires 1GB of space, so it isn't that surprising that it has a wide choice of apps occupying all that space.
Development tools and the kernel source can be excluded to give you change, but we don't recommend you install this on anything smaller than a 4GB drive if you want some swap space (which you do on a low-memory system) and room to store your files.
In terms of app choice, things are skewed towards web and media stuff. There are four web browsers, but only Leafpad, Pathetic Writer and Siag Office by way of office programs, and MTPaint holding up the graphics end of the ship.
Installing VectorLinux is straightforward for a veteran of pre-Ubuntu installers. This Curses-based trip back into prehistory actually has the temerity to ask you questions about things and also wants you to partition and format your drive!
There's nothing particularly wrong with VectorLinux, it just isn't that inspiring. It has by far the largest boot image, consumes the most disk space and yet doesn't deliver an exceptional performance or user experience. In some ways, you might as well be running any normal mainstream distro.
The interface may seem fussy and there isn't much customisation available, but it becomes deceptively easy to use after a short time.
Version: 6.0 Light
This is a decent choice if you have space and memory to spare
The best tiny Linux distro is...
The winner: Slitaz 9/10
We hope you've seen that the world of light distros is more exciting than you may have imagined. Choosing the right one depends on the hardware you want to run it on and what you want to use it for.
The Ubuntu-based distros are interesting, particularly the nascent Lubuntu, mainly because they have a tiny footprint but offer the promise of installing anything from the vast Ubuntu multiverse. However, we were looking for a a distro to work painlessly in a cramped hardware environment.
Honourable mentions must go to DSL and Tiny Core at this point, which have clambered into the territory of the minuscule. It's amazing how usable a system can be that takes up less space on your drive than your holiday pictures. Puppy Linux and Unity were both easy to use, although the latter was a bit more polished (and bigger).
There can be only one winner in the context of our Roundup, and it should be Slitaz. It's fast, easy on memory, and comes with a considered selection of apps. Not being able to install new software easily apart from stuff in the Slitaz package format is one of the few drawbacks, but for a fast, lightweight desktop it's hard to beat.
All the versions tested here either install from a live version or have live versions available, so check that your hardware's compatible before you install. It's not always the case that the biggest distros are the most compatible – it varies, although those tested here should provide basic functionality (some sort of graphics, keyboard, mouse and wired network).
If your target is a laptop, you might be in for all sorts of difficulties. Many laptop parts aren't what they seem to be, at least as far as kernel drivers go.
First published in Linux Format Issue 130
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