Do you have an old PC lying around gathering dust? Would you like to make use of the old small-capacity USB flash drive sitting in your draw? You can reuse your old computer and a USB flash drive by installing a super small Linux operating system (also known as a “distribution” or “distro”) on them.
There are lightweight Linux distros specifically for the Intel Atom Processor. Others will give your old PC a new lease of life. The vast majority install direct to your USB flash drive, too.
Here are eight of the smallest Linux distros that need almost no space!
Before You Start: How to Create Bootable USB Flash Drives
The first thing you need is a tool to create bootable USB flash drives. There are numerous tools you can use to create a bootable USB flash drive. However, I would suggest Windows users try Rufus, while Linux and macOS users should try Etcher.
Rufus is one of the fastest, smallest, and easiest USB burning tools available to Windows users. It has decent customization options and can automatically detect your USB flash drive. Furthermore, Rufus can detect the type of ISO you are attempting to burn and apply a common setup.
Download: Rufus for Windows (Free)
Linux and macOS users should use Etcher, an open source USB burning tool. Like Rufus, Etcher is tiny, very fast, and comes with a great GUI that makes the tool incredibly simple to use. Etcher doesn’t have many settings, but it does work well the overwhelming majority of the time. Windows users who find Rufus confusing can also use Etcher.
Download: Etcher for macOS, Linux, and Windows
Now, onto the tiny Linux distros, all of which are free (unless otherwise stated)!
ArchBang is based on Arch Linux and inspired by CrunchBang, which was another small Linux distro. ArchBang is essentially Arch Linux made easier and reduced in size. It includes the power and flexibility of Arch Linux without the complex setup and installation. (Here’s 10 reasons why you should consider switching to an Arch Linux distro.)
ArchBang works on i686 or X86_64 compatible machines, uses 700MB of disk space, and requires just 256MB of memory.
You can use ArchBang as a fully featured desktop operating system or as a portable live OS. It is fast, stable, and always up to date.
Download: ArchBang for i686 | x86_64
Tiny Core Linux is an extremely small Linux distro developed by Robert Shingledecker, lead developer for former-distro, Damn Small Linux. (The Damn Small Linux site is now dead, but you can find active ISOs online.)
The Tiny Core Linux “TinyCore” installation is a minute 16MB, including the base distro and a decent GUI. The base installation requires at least 46MB RAM to run, but you will need a little more if you want to run additional applications and other software. Note you’ll need to use an Ethernet cable to get online with TinyCore as there is no out of box wireless support.
The best option for most people is the “CorePlus” installation, which comes in at 106MB. CorePlus has wireless support, support for non-US keyboards, plus installation tools for alternative window managers, and other handy setup tools.
Elive is a lightweight Linux distro with a custom desktop environment. Based on Debian, Elive comes pre-installed with a bunch of handy apps, plus a few games, too.
“Elive is not made for newbies. Elive is not made for experienced people. Elive is not made for enterprises or personal user. Elive is art. It is simply for the people who appreciate it and want to use it. Feel free to try Elive, because only you decide what you want in this world!”
It is quite the statement from the Elive development team.
The Elive desktop environment is a highly customized version of Enlightenment, offering a light and beautiful experience. (Check out the 12 best Linux desktop environments to rival Enlightenment.) It works well, even on very old hardware. The minimum requirements for Elive are a CPU speed of 500MHz and 198MB RAM, plus 700MB hard drive space.
You cannot direct download Elive. The developer understandably asks for a small donation to keep the project alive for an instant download. Otherwise, you must head to the site, enter your email address, and wait for four hours.
Windows users must use Elive’s USBWriter to create a bootable USB flash drive. The Elive developer states that other programs make unintended changes to the ISO during the burn process. macOS and Linux users can continue using Etcher.
Download: Elive USBWriter for Windows (Donationware/free)
Porteus is a lightweight, but complete, Linux distro that is optimized to run from a USB flash drive. Don’t have one? Don’t worry! Porteus will also work on an SD card, CD, DVD, hard drive, or other bootable storage media. It’s small and insanely fast, allowing you to boot and get online while other operating systems are still thinking about booting.
Porteus runs on any Intel, AMD, or VIA x86/64 processor, requiring only 512MB of disk space and 256MB of memory. No hard disk is required, as it can run from removable storage media. If you use Porteus on a removable storage media device, you can take advantage of its “Persistent” mode, which saves data directly on the storage device.
It is available in both 32-bit (perfect for older PCs) and 64-bit. A kiosk edition is also available, which is a minimal system that is locked down for use by the public on web terminals. You can choose to download the Cinnamon, KDE, MATE, or Xfce version of Porteus.
Download: Porteous 32-bit | 64-bit
5. Puppy Linux
Puppy Linux is a very lightweight Linux distro that you should only install on and run directly from a USB flash drive, SD card, CD, DVD, or other bootable storage media. You can install Puppy Linux on your hardware if you want. But there isn’t really a need if you have your bootable USB flash drive with you.
It is also worth noting that Puppy Linux isn’t a single distribution, nor is it a Linux distribution with numerous “flavors” (for instance, Ubuntu variants include Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, and so on). Rather, Puppy Linux is a collection of Linux distributions built using the same shared principle, using the same tools, using a specific set of “puppy” applications.
Check out the below image to see the various Puppy Linux paths, in the official Puppy Linux family tree.
At the time of writing, there are four official Puppy Linux distributions. All require 300MB or less hard drive space but do have varying CPU and RAM requirements.
To find out more, and choose the right version for you, head to the official Puppy Linux distribution download page.
SliTaz, or Simple Light Incredible Temporary Autonomous Zone, is a lightweight, fully-featured graphical Linux distro. Simply put, SliTaz is small, fast, stable, and easy to use.
SliTaz’s minimum requirements include an i486 or x86 Intel-compatible processor, at least 80MB disk space, and 192MB RAM (however, this can drop as low as 16MB RAM depending on the version of SliTaz you use).
One cool feature of SliTaz is that it runs largely in your system memory. Once you boot SliTaz up, you can remove your bootable USB flash drive for other tasks. SliTaz also has a “persistent” feature that allows you to store your data and personal settings to the removable media, ready to use on your next boot. (You have to keep your media in the machine for this feature to work, mind).
Download: SliTaz Universal Version (Free)
wattOS is a fantastic tiny Linux distro based on Ubuntu. You can run wattOS from a USB flash drive, CD, DVD, or other bootable media. Furthermore, wattOS has a kiosk mode, or you can install it directly to your hard drive.
The minimum hardware requirements include an Intel or AMD processor, 700MB disk space, and 192MB for the “Microwatt” edition of wattOS. The wattOS LXDE version uses slightly more RAM, but has considerably more customization options and is suitable as a daily desktop environment.
The Microwatt edition is extremely lightweight, however. It is based upon the i3 tiling window manager, offering low resource requirements and a simplistic design.
Download: wattOS LXDE edition 32-bit | 64-bit
8. Bodhi Linux
Your final tiny Linux distro to check out is Bodhi Linux. Bodhi Linux is an Ubuntu LTS-based fully-featured Linux distro that uses the Moksha Desktop. Furthermore, Bodhi Linux comes in three flavors: the Standard edition, the AppPack edition, the Legacy edition.
The Standard edition comes with a limited range of options and applications, whereas the AppPack edition offers more features, applications, and options out of the box. Of the three, the Legacy edition is the smallest, designed to work with older, less powerful hardware.
Bodhi Linux’s minimum specifications require a 500MHz processor, at least 128MB RAM, and 4GB disk space.
Revive Your Old Hardware With a Tiny Linux Distro
You can bring your old PC or other hardware back to life with any of these super small Linux distros. These lightweight Linux distros are a great way to provide a single computer for a relative who doesn’t need the bloat of a more complex operating system.
- Tiny Core Linux
- Puppy Linux
- Bodhi Linux
Furthermore, these Linux distros will allow them to surf the web, watch and listen to media, check email, and create simple documents.
If you are preparing a machine for someone new to Linux, you should take a look at the MakeUseOf Linux FAQ. Also, why not check out the changes Windows users need to accept when moving to Linux. It certainly makes switching easier!