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Intel’s Atom processor is a line of low-voltage microprocessors. Featured in many ultra-portable devices, like netbooks, net-tops, and tablets, the power efficient Atom quickly showed its limits in keeping up with current software.

But that doesn’t mean you should let your Atom-powered device collect dust in a closet! Bring it back to life with a lightweight distribution.

Linux operating systems The Best Linux Distributions The Best Linux Distributions There are many Linux distributions available for a number of different purposes, which makes it difficult to choose at times. Here's a list of the very best to help you decide. Read More generally use fewer system resources than their Windows counterparts, and there are many compelling reasons to switch. With full-fledged distros like Ubuntu chewing through less CPU and RAM use than Windows Is Linux Finally Good Enough to Replace Windows? Is Linux Finally Good Enough to Replace Windows? Recent figures show that Linux desktop usage has reached 2%, it's highest yet. Does this mean Linux has reached a point where it can replace Windows and Mac OS X for the average user? Read More , lightweight distributions are incredibly efficient. Xfce and LXDE The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE On a fresh Linux installation, there's not much you can do to speed things up, other than look at your choice of desktop environment. Here we look at three options: LXDE, Xfce, and MATE. Read More environments are designed to consume fewer resources than GNOME and KDE.

There’s no shortage of Linux distributions, or lightweight distros for that matter. Here are the top five lean distros to breathe new life into your Atom-powered devices.

1. Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux Desktop
Image Credit: Mick Amadio via Wikimedia Commons

Puppy Linux boasts a tiny memory footprint (or pawprint). A slogan on the overview page even suggests “Don’t throw away your PC — make it new with Puppy Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Puppy Linux Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Puppy Linux Here, we'll be taking a look at a distribution of Linux that is famous for being able to run with very little hardware requirements, Puppy Linux. Puppy Linux isn't based on another distribution; it is... Read More !” It’s about 100 MB total and can live boot from flash drives and DVDs. The entire operating system may even be run entirely from RAM. This lends a speedy experience on any device, overcoming slow hard drive read-write speed.

The latest iteration, Puppy 6, is based on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS which promises longevity.

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2. Lubuntu

Lubuntu Desktop

Lubuntu pitches itself as both lightweight and fast. This distro uses the LXDE desktop environment, and includes a smattering of apps. Firefox, Pcmanfm file manager, and Lightdm GTK Greeter are pre-installed.

System requirements are undemanding. The Lubuntu Lubuntu: A Lightweight Version Of Ubuntu [Linux] Lubuntu: A Lightweight Version Of Ubuntu [Linux] Love Ubuntu, but feel skeptical about 11.04's new Unity interface? Try Lubuntu 11.04, an extremely lightweight alternative to the main branch of Ubuntu. You'll find the menu-driven interface familiar and the resources hit remarkably low.... Read More website recommends 1 GB of RAM for intensive web apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Google Docs. Lubuntu is my operating system of choice for my Acer Aspire One netbook.

Lubuntu System

3. Linux Mint MATE and Xfce

Linux Mint Desktop

When it comes to Linux, Mint is one of the more popular releases, and for good reason. The Ubuntu and Debian-based distribution has a modern, simple, elegance. It’s pretty user-friendly, too. The most recent iteration, v18 “Sarah” abandoned previously pre-installed multimedia codecs, but these can be installed with ease.

Linux Mint System

There are several releases of Linux Mint Linux Mint vs Ubuntu: Which Distro Should You Choose? Linux Mint vs Ubuntu: Which Distro Should You Choose? Linux Mint and Ubuntu are two of the most popular Linux distros, but there are real differences between the two. Which one is right for you? Read More available, and MATE and Xfce are tied for best lightweight Linux Mint release. Both are well suited to Atom processors, and most under-powered CPUs for that matter. Of all the distributions on this list, Mint offers arguably the best looking environment.

4. CrunchBang

CrunchBang 11 Desktop
Image Credit: Anestis17 via Wikimedia Commons

As lightweight Linux distributions go, CrunchBang is one of the more lean offerings, and it’s glorious. In fact, CrunchBang avoids the traditional desktop environment, instead employing a retooled version of the Openbox window manager. While the Debian-based distro is forgiving to Atom processors, its spartan design may not be for everyone. There’s an emphasis on functionality over form, which posits it as one of the top picks for older hardware, but the eye candy of releases such as Lubuntu just isn’t there.

Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic choice and even runs well on newer hardware CrunchBang: A Lightweight OS Perfect For Old And New Computers Alike CrunchBang: A Lightweight OS Perfect For Old And New Computers Alike Bloated operating systems bogging your system down? Is waiting for software to load on an older computer ruining your entire freaking life? Try something lightweight. Crunchbang is a minimalist OS built on Debian Linux, but... Read More as well (I tried it on an AMD A10-equipped HP and an i5 Dell in addition to my Acer Aspire One). Creator Philip Newborough announced in February 2015 that he was leaving the Crunchbang project, but its continuing mission has been perpetuated by several groups. Consequently, CrunchBang++, BunsenLabs, and CrunchBang-Monara continue the legacy.

5. Porteus

Small, fast, and bootable from a variety of storage media, Porteus is an excellent distribution. At under 300 MB, it’s super efficient, and arrives in both 32- and 64-bit packages, and there’s an option to run Porteus in RAM. Another unique aspect is that Porteus is modular, so rather than using a package manager and connecting to the internet during initial installation, it uses pre-compiled modules that are activated and deactivated before install.

Porteus is a top pick because it’s compressed, may be run in-RAM, and features a sweet modular install Tweak Your Own Custom Linux Distro with These Four Tools Tweak Your Own Custom Linux Distro with These Four Tools Linux offers a wealth of options for anyone wanting to tweak their operating system. You can also create your own distro, burn it to disc and install it. These four tools will get you started. Read More . As a result, these combine to make a fast, efficient experience that can be booted in typically under 30 seconds.

Porteus Linux Build Atom

While these are the top five, there are loads of alternate lightweight Linux distros. Xubuntu is an awesome runner up that powered my Acer netbook for a spell until I tried Lubuntu, and also resurrected my ancient Shuttle XPC before the motherboard died. Now all that’s left is to figure out a use for your lively new (old) PC.

Which distribution do you use, and what are you going to use your Atom-powered PC for? Got a favorite lightweight distro to recommend? Leave a comment below and kickstart the conversation!

  1. John WB
    December 2, 2016 at 4:05 am

    I have an asus transformer book with the x5 processor and 4gigs of RAM. My rig is pretty vannilla I haven't installed grub on it I have just been using Linux live. Anyway Kali isn't bootable or at least I haven't got it to. Ubuntu gives me a black screen after choosing to run it live. Android works except it doesn't seem to play -at all- with the touchscreen. Anyone have any ideas on OS's to try?

  2. John S.
    November 15, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    I have been using Cub Linux. It is a lightweight Openbox distro based on Ubuntu 14.04 with a lot of GTK3 Gnome apps added. It also does a great job of emulating a Chromebook which is a plus on a laptop.

  3. George
    October 12, 2016 at 2:15 am

    I also have a acer aspire one but can't find a distro that will work with the Cedarview graphics
    . You can't play back HD video

    • Moe Long
      October 21, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Crunchbang and Lubuntu are my top picks, but then again I'm not playing HD vids on my Acer. Got a Plex server set up for that, and my regular laptop with Ubuntu runs HD video great. Thanks for chiming in! What distro are you currently using on it?

  4. Jouni "rautamiekka" Järvinen
    October 11, 2016 at 10:24 am

    LXDE instead of Lubuntu.

  5. Utkarsh Amitabh Srivastava
    October 11, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Remix OS is also a great option.

    • Moe Long
      October 21, 2016 at 3:55 pm

      Thanks Utkarsh! Haven't tried it, but may need to make a live CD to give it a go.

  6. Tim Vels
    October 11, 2016 at 5:45 am

    One problem is that we cannot install Linux on the cheap 32GB internal / 2GB RAM 11 inchers like the Asus X205 and E200 series.
    Is there Linux OS for them as well? I always wanted to try that instead of having Windows 10 fill up the space :( (i personally don't own it, i want to try it for a friend's X205ta system)

    Any suggestions?

    PS: I know there is a customized Arch linux for it. But a big pain to install.
    Something simple and easy?

  7. William Vasquez
    October 11, 2016 at 4:20 am

    I have an old Lenovo Atom PC and I have been using Zorin Linux on it for 2 years. I even dual booted it with Windows XP and it works flawlessly. Easy to use because of it's DE that resembles Windows. Another one that I have used is Linux Lite. As I have mentioned in the past, a good distro on an old computer should be easy to install; similar to the OS that I used before; run everything right out of the box (i.e. wifi, video card, printer, ethernet, music, videos); and rock solid stable so no crashes and blue screen of death. Both of these distros fit those requirements quite well and the old Atom PC feels as fast as a medium quality current model computer.

    • john
      October 12, 2016 at 4:43 am

      Linux Lite rocks, I have it installed on 2 old machines that ran xp.

      • Moe Long
        October 21, 2016 at 4:03 pm

        So true! I tried a live CD, and it's pretty sweet. The bundled apps (Libreoffice, VLC) are great for me as I mainly use my devices for writing/editing and multimedia. So the included programs cut down on install time for me at least.

        What machines are you running LL on?

    • Moe Long
      October 21, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Hey William! I'm not familiar with Zorin, but will totally check it out. Sounds like a great distro. Currently using Crunchbang, but since it's not technically supported anymore, may switch to something that's guaranteed to be stable which Zorin sounds.

      Cheers!

  8. James Ramsey
    October 10, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Lubuntu and Puppy have always been my go to when people upgrade and GIVE ME a machine that once cost $500. Simple to setup and use. Thankfully Open Source software is available for tinkerers like us.

    • Moe Long
      October 21, 2016 at 4:07 pm

      Upvoting Lubuntu and Puppy. Totally go-tos for breathing new life into my aging machines. Funny what you mention about open source software. The other day a friend was commenting on newer OSes (Windows and OS X) using more system resources and I suggested they look into open source OSes.

  9. dragonbite
    October 10, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    I've found CentOS being a good fit because being a stable-first distribution uses secure but older applications and environments (e.g. Gnome 3.14 instead of the 3.20/3.22 other distributions are using).

    In some ways this means the version used may be not as far off in age from when the atom-powered PC was release so they are more in-line with each other.

    For desktop environments I do prefer Xfce but have found Mate to be surprisingly light without sacrificing features or ease of use.

    If I wanted to revive my netbook today, I think I would be looking at Mate running on CentOS (with possible steps found here http://www.45drives.com/wiki/index.php/Installing_MATE_on_CentOS_7 )

    My problem now is that most of my older, low-powered systems are 32bit architectures and most distributions are dropping support for non-64bit.

    • Moe Long
      October 21, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      Ah, CentOS! Great pick, and yep MATE is pretty slick. I like Mint with MATE, but Mint Xfce is solid as well. I'm with you there on the 32-bit thing! Had an old 32-bit desktop (RIP MOBO), and the Linux distro options were pretty limited by non 64-bit options.

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