One of the benefits of the Linux kernel is that you can add as much or as little on top of it as you want, and the kernel itself is rather small, requiring only a small amount of processing power and memory. This means that small devices like phones can run Linux, and large supercomputers can make use of it as well.
You can run Linux on pretty much anything that needs an operating system. Most modern operating systems have modern hardware prerequisites, but some Linux distributions are designed with lower-end hardware in mind.
1. Damn Small Linux (DSL)
Its name is an indication of its very small hard drive footprint and its low RAM and CPU requirements. DSL can run on a 486DX with 16 MB of RAM. With DSL, there is no need for a hard drive. At only 50MB, you can run it from even the smallest USB flash drive. Despite its small size, DSL still features useful applications, such as a web browser, word processor, and image viewer.
Lubuntu has more modern disk space requirements, but it can still run from a CD or USB drive. Furthermore, its system requirements are only a Pentium II or Celeron processor with 128MB of RAM, which means even the slowest netbook will fly with Lubuntu installed. Lubuntu is a derivative of Ubuntu but uses the lightweight LXDE desktop/window manager rather than Unity or Gnome.
3. Puppy Linux
Aren’t puppies cute? So is Puppy Linux. This distro has become very popular for those looking for something lightweight. The entire distribution is only 100MB. Puppy boots fast and is designed to be easy, even for users with little technical knowledge. Puppy Linux uses JWM as the default window manager, and also offers other lightweight window manager options.
A derivative of Puppy Linux, Macpup intends to add a little more eye candy to your Puppy desktop with the Enlightenment E17 window manager. The distro’s website does not include a great deal of information about it, so it would seem most of the other features are similar to Puppy Linux.
Using only 30MB, SliTaz is by far the smallest on the list, even smaller than DSL. It includes its own applications such as TazWeb, a web browser, and Tazpkg, a package manager. SliTaz can run with as little as 16MB of RAM. It uses the Openbox window manager and somehow manages to include 2300 packages.
Crunchbang (#!) is the sound you make when you squeeze a lot into a little distro. Anyway, that is my theory, and I am sticking to it. Based on the ever-reliable Debian GNU/Linux, Crunchbang aims to offer the right blend of “speed, style, and substance”. Using either Openbox or Xfce, Crunchbang also manages to stay pretty lightweight. It includes a greater range of quality applications than the others on the list, while still managing to run very smoothly, even on a slow netbook.
Formerly DeLi Linux, ConnochaetOS uses IceWM window manager and a lightweight webkit-based web browser. It can run on a Pentium system with as little as 64MB of RAM. It is based on Arch Linux with its own rebuilt system. The ISO weighs in at 391MB, putting it about halfway in between the smallest and largest distros on this list. That allows it to have a good mix of applications and still be lightweight.
Linux is a versatile OS kernel, powering the world’s best servers, such as those at web server hosting company 34SP.com and some of the latest and greatest Android smartphones. This list goes to seven, but there are many other lightweight options out there. If you have not given Linux a try, now is a great time to start.
Tavis J. Hampton is a long-time Linux user and author of an upcoming book, KDE for the Graphical User, published by rapidBooks. Nearly all of the devices in his house run Linux, even his TV.