Now, you’re never going to use that old machine for anything particularly demanding, but if a simple web browser and word processor is the order of the day then there’s plenty of lightweight solutions that can come to your rescue.
The first on the list and the first to be based on the immensely popular Ubuntu distribution. Xubuntu uses Ubuntu as a base, which provides great compatibility and full access to Canonical’s repositories.
Instead of the usual GNOME desktop environment found in Ubuntu (or KDE in Kubuntu) this release uses the lightweight XFCE environment for a speedier interface. It’s not quite as shiny as vanilla Ubuntu, but if you’re a fan of the operating system then it’s certainly worth a punt.
The only real drawback is that much of the packages you’ll be downloading will require quite a lot of disk space, though this depends on your taste in software and demands from the OS.
Another highly popular and light distro, often heralded as the be-all and end-all of lightweight computing. Built from the ground up (and thus, not based on any previous Linux distributions) Puppy is designed to run from a USB stick or CD and weighs in at less than 100MB.
The OS runs completely in RAM, and should be compatible with decent selection of older hardware (often an issue with built-from-scratch distributions). You can choose to save personal data to USB devices or even the cloud using services like drop.io.
There’s a limited amount of software available, but for older machines that just need to type and surf, it’ll get the job done.
A derivative of Puppy Linux, Macpup is based on Lucid Puppy which provides binary compatibility with Ubuntu 10.04 packages. This gives you a great amount of freedom with regards to software, though if you’re going to be doing any serious downloading you’ll need the disk space.
Another major difference between Puppy and Macpup is the desktop environment. Macpup uses the Enlightenment E17 window manager for added desktop sparkle. At 188MB, the current version isn’t the smallest of the bunch but there’s plenty of bundled software to get you going.
Another Ubuntu-based distribution, providing the usual compatibility and software availability. Lubuntu uses the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) to provide a basic yet functional graphical interface.
The team eventually aim to earn official endorsement from Ubuntu’s overseers Canonical. Whilst not being the prettiest distribution here, Lubuntu is fast and functional and definitely worth keeping an eye on if light distros are your thing.
With a tiny download size of just 30MB SliTaz really manages to pack a decent punch for its minute size. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects to SliTaz is the inclusion of a fully functional web server (Lighttpd) with PHP and CGI support. There’s also SSH and FTP tools for all your server needs.
Firefox is included for web browsing, and there’s a couple of other useful tools such as a PDF reader, media player and a few text editors.
Built from scratch from the ground up, some users may have difficulty with hardware support, though it’ll only cost you 30MB and a blank CD to find out. A very impressive package!
Based on Debian, CrunchBang evolved later than other lightweight derivative Linux distributions such as Xubuntu and Lubuntu. Despite being notably larger than SliTaz and co. with a download size of just under 700MB, CrunchBang does provide an impressive roster of software in its basic install.
Harnessing the versatility of Openbox and the XFCE desktop environment, CrunchBang provides an attractive and minimalistic desktop which should suit both experienced users and newcomers to Linux.
CrunchBang is built almost entirely from packages available in the Debian repositories and thus has excellent compatibility with a huge range of software. If you’re familiar with Debian or Ubuntu (and its many brothers and sisters) then you’ll have no issues using CrunchBang.
Hopefully at least one of these operating systems is able to breathe some new life into your old hardware. It’s up to you whether you want to use a derivative distribution for software compatibility or keep it plain and simple with something like SliTaz or Puppy.
One thing’s for sure – your old box is bound to get more use out of lightweight Linux than older Microsoft operating systems that are no longer supported. Every OS in this list is still under active development (at the time of writing) which provides a more feature-rich and secure way to access the web and get your work done.
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