Lightweight desktop

There is a good discussion about lightweight Linux desktop in the article Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software. Interesting reading for anyone, who intends to use Linux on an old computer.

Less is better than more in Linux

The command I use most in Linux is without doubt less. I never open text files in a text editor if I just want to read the file as it is a lot easier to enter the command:

less filename

It can also be fed through a pipe. For example, in the directory /usr/bin the command ls -l will likely result pages of output scrolling through the window. You can use less to see less files:

ls -l | less

Less has several useful keyboard shortcuts. The one I use most is b that by default scrolls output backward one page. Pressing space scrolls one page forward.

It took me some years, before I accidentally pressed the button v. It opened the text file in the editor VIM, ready to be edited at the line I had just been looking at. If I had read the man page for less, I certainly would have found this feature earlier.

If VIM (or other VI-like editors) is not your favourite editor, you can change the editor to use by defining environment variables VISUAL or EDITOR. I decided to add the line

export VISUAL=emacs

to the file .bashrc in my home directory. Now pressing v opens the file in Emacs.

More free documentation for Linux

If you want build a custom system and not use some lightweight distribution, you have to do some more research. One of the sites I have found most useful, is the Gentoo wiki. It has been most helpful also at times when I have used some other distribution. For example, if you want to learn to customize some lightweight window manager, you will probably find all the best tips and tricks there. One good example is the page for tweaking Openbox window manager. Most of the information can be used with just about any distribution.

Other tips are probably more obvious: If you are using any Debian based distribution, for example Ubuntu, you should study the Debian reference. It has been translated into many languages. Slackware Linux Essentials - The Official Guide To Slackware Linux is similarly useful for those who use a distribution based on Slackware, for example Zenwalk or Vector Linux.

If you read the fine manuals, you will be able to solve most of your problems. If not, you can always ask in the Internet forums.

Free documentation for free OS

If you want to run a modern system with an old computer, you have to compensate some of the missing GHz and megabytes with your own brains. You have to know what you are doing. You have to know what you want your computer to do. Only so you can build a system that is ideal for your needs and your hardware.

This means you have to be ready to learn something about Linux and how it works. It is not rocket science, it is something everyone can do. If you are willing to learn, you can realize the full power of Linux.

We are lucky to have a lot of free documentation. There are even many good introductions to Linux. Most of them are published by The Linux Documentation Project. I suggest you first familiarize yourself with the site just to see what kind of documentation there is. Depending on what you already know, select some of the guides where you can learn at least something new. If you are relatively new to Linux, you might start with Gareth Andersons GNU/Linux Command-Line Tools Summary or Machtelt Garrels Introduction to Linux - A Hands on Guide.

Just remember: learning is fun and knowledge is power!

FreeDOS - back to the eighties!

My first PC in the late 80's was a portable Amstrad with 640 KB RAM, two floppy drives and no hard drive at all. The whole operating system, a version of Microsoft DOS, and my favourite word processor Word Perfect were loaded from a 1.4 MB floppy. Younger readers can get a glimpse of computing in this era by using FreeDOS, a free clone of the Microsoft operating system.

You can find in Internet many sites for DOS software. For example, here a collection of more than 1000 freeware (free as in beer, not as in free speach) programs for MSDOS. Garbo PC archives were and still are an important collection of DOS software. Dosgames offers you more than 500 games.

I would not choose FreeDOS for everyday computing - word processing, spreadsheets, surfing on the web. It might be a good choice for learning to code in Assembler, C or Pascal. Retrogames should be the killer application of FreeDOS...

News: Sidux 'Erebos' released

Sidux 2008-02 "Έρεβος" was released today. Erebos means, according to Liddel & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, "a place of nether darkness, above the still deeper Hades." In the Greek mythology, Erebos was also the son of Chaos.

The more courageous Linux users might want to try this distribution based on Debian unstable.


Linux is certainly the most used and best known operating system that can be used with old computers. It is, however, not the only one. Some of its alternatives are mainstream operating systems, some of them are mainly designed for academic purposes, some of them are geeky projects of open source developers.

If you would like to resurrect a computer from the Dark Ages, let us say a 386 or a 486, or an early Pentium, you might try some of the floppy-based distributions. It would at least be an interesting experiment. Another possibility would be to install Minix on the computer. That is what Linux Thorvalds did before he had written a working kernel for something that would be called Linux.

Minix is POSIX compatible Unix-like system. It can be installed on a computer with 8 MB of RAM. Originally it was meant to be an educational system, but since Minix3 it has been designed to be used in embedded systems and low end computers, e.g. by "One laptop per child" project.

It is a very compact system, and a full install of Minix can be done in around 50 MB hard disk space. Consequently it also boots in a few seconds: you don't have to wait for minutes before your system is up and running.

Minix is not as mature operating system as Linux is. There is only a limited selection of software available for Minix, but the selection includes most of the important Unix tools. In fact, the list of ported software is pretty impressive for an educational operating system. Thus it is great choice for learning Unix or programming - you can basically install it on any old PC you still have in your garage.

If you are interested in Minix, you should read the interview of Andrew Tanenbaum, its creator, in Free Software Magazine (2007).

News: Arch Linux 2008.06 released

Arch Linux is not a beginner's distribution. On the contrary, it is oriented towards an user who is willing to hack text files in order to get the system running.

Some years ago I had considerable difficulties in configuring Arch Linux. Now that there seems to be more documentation available, I might try it again.

Arch Linux 2008.06, a.k.a. Overlord (why on earth do they have to use these silly names for every release of every distribution??) was released June 24th, 2008. You can download your own Arch from this page.

Text mode Linux

Most of the common tasks can still be done with text-based console applications. I myself read my email using pine (some of my friends still use elm) and follow Internet's news groups with strn. In addition, I use only console applications for playing music on the background, and I edit text files mostly with Emacs on a virtual terminal.

In fact, I am more productive on a computer without all the "must have" things of a modern desktop. I do not spend time on playing online games, and I spend a lot less time surfing on the net. All kinds of applets, clocks and widgets don't disturb me and interrupt my thinking and writing. Unfortunately, IRC is just as addictive in console as when I'm using a graphical desktop environment.

One more reason for using the console applications is of course the "geek factor". Console applications wont probably make you especially popular among the members of the opposite sex, but using text mode IRC-client Irssi earns you certainly more geek credibility than using some GNOME or KDE applications for chatting on the Freenode.

I would not install a text mode Linux for the average user, but the geeks among us should certainly think at least twice before discarding the idea of using command line only with an old computer. Living a month in text mode forces you to learn more about UNIX and Linux than you would learn in twelve months of latest KDE. In 30 days, you would be a real power user!

Top 10 of lightweight Linux distributions

In this post, I will introduce ten most useful and best known lightweight distributions. Eight of these distros are meant to be lightweight, and do not demand newest hardware. The rest two can be used as the basis of a custom lightweight system.

I will not present any detailed review of the distributions as I intend to present them later one by one in more depth. During the next few months I will install them on one of my computers. I have already during the last seven years used most them for at least some time as my main desktop system. It will be interesting to see how they have developed in the last years.

First four miniature distributions:
  • Damn Small Linux, a.k.a DSL is a popular extremely small distro. It is a 50 MB live CD, but it can also be installed on the hard drive. DSL can be run completely in RAM, and it can install more programs from an online repository. DSL recommends a P200 and 64 MB.

  • Puppy Linux is another installable live CD. It should run on any Pentium with at least 32 MB and boot under 60 seconds. It aims to be as easy to use as possible and assumes no technical expertise.

  • Feather Linux is a Linux distribution which runs completely off a CD. It takes up under 128Mb of space. It is just like DSL a Knoppix remaster (based on Debian), includes software which most people use every day. Feather can be installed on a USB stick, but AFAIK not on a hard drive.

  • DeLi is a Linux Distribution for old computers, from 486 to Pentium III or so. It's focused on desktop usage and it includes email clients, graphical web browser, an office programs with word processor and spreadsheet, and so on. A full install, including XOrg and development tools, needs only 750 MB of harddisk space.

The next four could be called mid-sized distributions:
  • Vector Linux. Vector Linux Standard GOLD is the freely downloadable distribution, which includes applications for every task. It is based on Slackware and specifically designed for use on older computers with slower processors and less RAM. It can be run effectively on a Pentium 200 with 128MB of RAM and 3GB of hard drive space. The forthcoming VL Light will take only 350 MB in full install and needs only 64 MB RAM to run.

  • Zenwalk is another distribution based on Slackware. It is designed to be fast and simple, with no redundant applications. It is optimized for i686, but is still compatible with i486. Zenwalk requires for comfortable use a Pentium III class processor, 128 MB RAM and 2Gb free disk space.

  • Antix is a lightweight, installable live-cd remaster of Mepis. It should run on most computers as long as you have a P266 with 64MB. antiX-M7 will not run on older processors such as Pentium I, AMD K5, and AMD K6 as it uses an i686 kernel.

  • PClos TinyME is a lightweight remaster of PCLinuxOS. It includes Abiword, Opera web browser, Audacious for playing music, Sylpheed email client and other famous programs. TinyME requires a Pentium processor and at least 64 MB RAM. Screen resolution 800×600 is recommended.

And finally two full-size distros which lend themselves especially well to custom lightweight installs:

These two classics should not need any introduction. These ten distros are of course not the only possibilites for installing Linux on an low end computer, but to make a list of ten I had to leave something out. Did I forget to mention Your favourite lightweight distribution?

Minimal requirements

Sometimes, one encounters in web forums newbies who have heard the rumor that Linux can be run on old computers. Usually they either have a three to four years old 3 GHz box with a lot of RAM or some dusty old 486 they used for running Windows 95 a decade ago.

In the first case, one could easily run any modern linux on the box. In the second case, it is best to discourage the newbie. Her first contact with Linux would probably be a disaster and she might decide to never again try that crappy operating system.

I would suggest the following requirements:

  • P200 for a reasonably usable desktop with X Windows, probably with a minimal distro like DSL or DeLi

  • Hard drive: 600-800 MB for a bare minumum system, > 2 GB for a useful multi-purpose system, 3 GB for a full-sized system like Slackware

One can install and use Linux on hardware with lower specs. It might, however, be too difficult for a newbie to get a reasonable system running. For those willing to learn and use a simple system, even P100 will not be too old.

Old and new hardware

Save the environment

You can also help to save our environment by using your old computer or by using recycled hardware. Nowadays, computers that have very low power consumption (less than 10 W) are also available for public. This usually means their specifications are rather low on modern standards. Thus information on this site could equally well be used for building a usable desktop on such a box. Using low specs or recycled hardware is truly green computing, a part of modern and sustainable way of living.

Also modern low end computers are often used for running Linux. Ultraportable laptops by Asus have Xandros Linux preinstalled on them. Linutop is a small low end desktop computer designed for Linux. Users of this kind of computers can also benefit from reading this blog.

Is it worth the trouble?

Only you can decide, whether to install Linux on an old computer or to recycle it. Even if you have another, modern desktop computer, you could use the old one with Linux. You could use this as a learning experience: you will learn a lot about how the operating system works. This knowledge can be useful, and learning is always fun!

Welcome to Lightweight Linux!

Linux runs on old computers, doesn't it? Many people have heard or read that also old computers can run Linux. This is true, but you should not expect to be able to run newest multimedia programs or play 3D games on old hardware. If you just want to read and send email, write a book, browse the Internet, learn to program, or maybe write a book with your computer, read on. Only your imagination can limit the uses of old hardware or modern hardware with low specifications.

Save your money for better uses. You don't have to buy a new computer just to update the operating system. Even computers one can get free or buy for a few euros or dollars can be used to run a modern desktop with lightweight software. Everyone living in the industrial world can afford a used computer for running a free operating system. Thus Linux helps to cross the digital chasm between those who can afford to participate in the modern computerized world and those who cannot.

If your computer is not older than ten years, it definitely can be used as a Linux desktop. You can either use a distribution specifically tailored for older hardware or you can use almost any modern distribution and customize the installation for your needs. You might have to hack some configuration files with a text editor and forget using the latest GNOME or KDE. You might have to install the distribution of your choice in text mode. You might need some help in tweaking your system to run as smoothly as possible.

But it can be done. And you can do it, too!