In Search of a Lightweight Linux Distribution

In Search of a Lightweight Linux Distribution

The first decision, for many Linux users with a new machine, is what distro to install? Now I understand that many users that have been using Linux for some time have settled on one main distribution they prefer, that they’ve come to know, etc. In my case, I prefer Debian on my main laptop, (although use of a Fedora VM has me curious about other distros), but the machine I’m hunting for a distro to install isn’t as powerful as my main machine. Thus begins my research into lightweight Linux distributions.

Acer Aspire V3 Laptop
Acer Aspire V3 Laptop

My main machine as I’ve mentioned before, is an Acer Aspire, with a decent i5, 16GB of RAM and a 240GB SSD. The new machine (which I have reviewed – part 1, part 2 and part 3), is running a 1.6 Ghz Intel Celeron, 4GB of RAM, with 64GB of eMMC, this is definitely something I didn’t want to install a full desktop distribution on. While I’m still getting comfortable with my Linux world, but I know even less about a lightweight Linux distributions. Let the research begin.

A quick Google search turned up plenty of articles, top 5, top 10, what to look for in a lightweight distro, it looks like I had plenty to go on! My criteria for this search wasn’t too strict, and too be completely honest, I could have most certainly used a full desktop distro on this machine, but when given a chance to learn a little more, why not? I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to install Debian on this laptop, I’ve gotten very comfortable with Debian using it as my main distribution, and I wanted to expand my horizons. (The flip-side of this is perhaps I should install Debian, as I am most familiar with, and there’s a lot to say about consistency)

So after an hour of browsing the internet, I came up with what I hoped was an easy shoe to fill, I wanted a less resource intensive distribution, freeing up as many resources as I could for actually USING the machine, but I didn’t want the OS to look lightweight. To elaborate, I was looking for something visually pleasing, I didn’t want a geometric boxed task-bar and a lack of anything visually enticing. Think TinyCore Linux, too lightweight for me. I was also trying to avoid a system expressly meant to run from a live CD/DVD or USB drive. I know most of these systems can be installed locally, and a lot of speed comes from running the system from RAM, but the dynamic nature of the filesystems, etc on these distros wasn’t something I wanted to fiddle with, PuppyLinux and Porteus are two that come to mind.

Arch Linux LogoThis brings up the next point. Arch Linux. Arch Linux is the favorite to many a user out there, and it’s customization is all but legendary. Ive been told that Arch is a great distro to use with a lightweight DE. That may be so, and maybe I’ll devote an entire article to that one day, today is not that day.

I will make a side-note here, that I realized more and more as I did research, that a lot of these lightweight distros were really meant for the older PC, to breath life into the antiquated hardware. Since my laptop was brand new, capable of running Windows 10, I definitely don’t think it fell into this category, but I’d come this far, I decided to keep going. One final note, after going through all these distros, I still had a few issues;

  • Will this machine even take a Linux install? – EFI, eMMC and all that
  • Will the drivers be available for this machine? – I know Lenovo Thinkpads have been generally friendly to Linux installs in the past, and this machine is relatively low on features, perhaps that’s for the best in this case.
  • Will Linux run better on this machine than the native Windows 10 install? – A lot of machines are “meant” to run Windows, I guess this ties in with the above point.

With this in mind, I began my search.

First was Trisquel Mini, I’ve heard a little bit about the Trisquel distro, Ubuntu based, but other than that I don’t know too much about it. The website describes it as a distro meant to run on lower powered machines, and netbooks, while I wouldn’t go so far to call this Thinkpad a netbook, (besides the fact that that’s a stupid name IMO) this could be a viable option. Trisquel mini uses a custom implementation of LXDE, and many of the GNOME or KDE applications that tend to be more resource intensive are replaced with light alternatives, often GTK+ based. The issue with Trisquel Mini is there avoidance of non-free drivers, which can cause some issues on certain hardware, or so I’ve read.

Next up was Lubuntu. I used to have an older Dell tower running Ubuntu, so it’s not a foreign world to me. I feel like everyone Linux curious uses Ubuntu at some time, whether or not this is a bad thing, I will not comment. Like Trisquel Mini, Lubuntu runs on LXDE, and their website mentions that they focus on being lightweight and energy efficient. Energy efficient is always a plus for me, the longer I can be out and about in the city without having to find that open seat at the cafe with a nearby power outlet is a plus, so if Lubuntu can keep my machine running longer, +1.  Another Lubuntu selling point, is that is uses lighter versions of office applications and other common media applications, (like most light distros). An interesting feature of Lubuntu, is that it is compatible with the Ubuntu repositories, making Ubuntu software accessible, although installing full versions of software may negate some or all of the benefits gained by using a lighter distribution, you be the judge.

I’ll take a moment here to mention LXLE, Lubuntu based, with LXDE for their Desktop Environment. Its touted as a distribution that you can drop in and go, with not much configuration needed, meant to revive that old machine. Again, my needs aren’t to bring back an old machine, but if efficiency keeps my laptop running better, I’ll take it. The difference between LXLE and Lubuntu I can gather, is that LXLE is based on the LTS (Long-Term Support) version of Ubuntu, with the end goal being stability. I like to consider myself better with computers than the average person, but on the scale of Linux users I’m towards the green side, stability is not something normally high on my list, I do enjoy fixing things when they’re broken (I’m looking at you X Server), but I always say this up until something breaks.

Next on my list was MX Linux, one that looked very interesting, I love my Debian-based distros. This was a departure from the LXDE desktop environment distros previously listed, settling on XFCE. It looks pleasing, definitely one I’d be willing to try, with some interesting features, like the Whisker Menu and Qupzilla. I have some experience with the Whisker Menu, although I’ve never come in contact with Qupzilla, maybe that’ll change.

Lastly the MATE distributions. Ubuntu MATE and Linux Mint MATE are said to run well, with most of the system resources reserved for actually use by the applications, instead of being squandered by poor overhead management, seems like it would check off a couple points on my list. Familiarity with Mint and Ubuntu made the thought of one of these distros coupled with MATE an interesting prospect.

For now, I think next steps are perhaps a few USB drives to boot from, and while this wont give me a full feel on a native install, I can learn my way around, and see if this is something to carry forward. Expect a full post of any trials and testing I perform, as well as any final decisions made. Please leave a comment or tweet if you have advice!

2 thoughts on “In Search of a Lightweight Linux Distribution

  1. I’m actually right now looking at this laptop as a more portable laptop for school. I’ve started to use Arch myself, but you could be right about that being a whole topic to itself. It was certainly an experience the first time I installed Arch. Whichever you choose, I’m very interested in how your Linux install goes on it.

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