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 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, lightweight distributions are incredibly efficient. Xfce and LXDE 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 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!” 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.
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 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.
3. Linux Mint MATE and Xfce
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.
There are several releases of Linux Mint 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.
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 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.
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. As a result, these combine to make a fast, efficient experience that can be booted in typically under 30 seconds.
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!