Best Lightweight Linux Distros: Comparison & Analysis..!!

This article is for those of you looking for a Lightweight distro for use in your machine. Users generally go for a lightweight distribution due to one of the following factors

  • Make their old hardware usable again
  • Run a portable distro from a USB drive
  • Run a distro entirely from RAM
  • Run a distro as a Virtual machine
  • Run as a Browse-Only distro
  • Improve the performance of a modern budget machine

Let us go ahead and analyse each of these categories in this article and figure out the best lightweight distros for each. For those of you in a hurry here is the short version of the Answer!

The Short Version Of The Answer

The Table below summarises the results of the comparison and analysis

Category Distro
Old Hardware DSL
Virtual machines Tiny Core
Run from RAM SliTaz
Portable Persistent USB Distro MX Linux
Browsing-Only Distro Neverware CloudReady OS
Modern Budget machines Manjaro

That is just the short version of the answer, let’s go ahead and look at the longer and more informative version and learn what were the factors considered, what other choices you have and see why the above distros are chosen as the best distros that run from RAM. Let’s start by look at the differences between Lightweight and Heavyweight Distros!

Lightweight vs Heavyweight distros

As a beginner to the Linux world you will often hear the words “Lightweight distros”, but what does it mean?

What are Lightweight Distros? Lightweight distros are Linux distributions specially made keeping old and resource constraint hardware in mind so that the user can have a responsive and lag-free computing experience even on your old hardware that has low specs in terms of processing power, disk space, and RAM.

What are Heavyweight Distros? “Heavyweight distro” is a subjective term made up by users of Lightweight distros. These distros are usually at the other end of the spectrum, with the latest and greatest feature, built keeping the best computing experience in mind and the user is expected to have a computer very good processor, lots of RAM and disk space to run it.

All the normal distros are usually considered heavyweight distros!

Some people even use the term “middle-weight” distros to denote the distros which are a mix of both!

Quick Glance At Their Differences

When you hear the term “Lightweight distros” and a number of questions will pop into your minds

Is it their ISO image size?

Is it their about their resource requirements?

Is it because they don’t come with a lot of apps?

The short answer is, generally all the above-mentioned factors like ISO image size, resource requirements, number of preloaded apps, etc are used to differentiate these 2 classes of distros. The table below shows their differences in more detail.

LIGHTWEIGHT DISTROS NORMAL/HEAVYWEIGHT DISTROS
Smaller ISO, usually a few hundred MBs. In the order of GBs
Needs very low resources like less Disk Space, less RAM, and a simple processor to run Needs more resources
Better suited for older hardware and comes with driver support for the older hardware. Better suited for newer hardware
They come with only the absolutely necessary software to run the system. They come with everything a general user needs like LibreOffice, Calc, Browsers, etc.
Has a simplistic desktop environment, like Xfce and LXDE Has a fancier desktop environment like GNOME 3, Unity, etc.
Even the apps installed are lightweight, for example, you will often find Firefox replaced by lightweight ones like Midori The latest and greatest apps are usually used here as defaults.
They usually have very little background services to keep the system responsive. No such restriction is imposed on background services
They can usually be loaded entirely into RAM and run from there for a lag-free experience. Usually, install sizes are too big to be run from RAM

These are the main differences between these 2 classes of distros. To learn more about their differences I suggest reading the article below where I have explained the sacrifices and trade-offs lightweight distros make in terms of usability and computing experiences to make them more suitable for use in resource-constrained hardware!

Lightweight vs Heavyweight Distros: A Comparison!

Now that we have a brief idea of what lightweight distros are and how they differ from heavyweight distros, let us go ahead and look at each of the sub-categories of lightweight distros and find out which one is the best in each subcategory

Category#1: Old Hardware

If you are having very old hardware, chances are you are running on very limited resources such as processing power, RAM and hard disk space. To bring something like that back to their old glory, you are going to need something ultra-light. The following are best ultra-light Linux distros under 100MB

Best all-round Lightweight Distro under 100MB: Tiny Core Linux

Best Lightweight Distro under 100MB for Very Old Computers: DSL

Best User-Friendly Lightweight Distro under 100MB: Slitaz

Best Lightweight Distro under 100MB for Server and Embedded Devices: Alpine Linux

Best Lightweight Distro under 100MB for use with Dockers images: RancherOS

Comparison Table

The table below summarises the top 5 Lightweight distros under 100MB

Distro

ISO size

RAM

Linux Kernel Version

Pros

Cons

DSL

50MB

64MB

2.4.31

Best for really old hardware

Not updated for more than a decade

Tiny Core Linux

16MB

19MB

4.2

Modern GUI

User needs to install necessary apps

RancherOS

41MB

100MB

4.4

Best for use with Dockers

Not suitable for normal desktop usage

Slitaz

43MB

120MB

3.2

User-friendly LXDE desktop

A bit more resource consumption compared to the other distros

Alpine

81MB

20MB

4.4

Best Documentation, focus on security

CLI out of the box, Has support for Graphical desktops

I have already written a separate article on this topic which could be found at the link given below.

Top 5 Lightweight Distros Under 100MB: Comparison & Analysis..!!

In that article, I have analyzed and compared each of the above distros in much more detail.

Category#2: Run as Virtual Machines

Depending on your machine’s specs you can choose from a wide range of distros to run as a virtual machine

The tables below summarise the best lightweight distros in terms of minimum system requirements

Distro

RAM Requirements

Processor Requirements

Tiny Core

128MB

Pentium 2 or equivalent

Puppy Linux

256MB

Pentium 2 or equivalent

Linux Lite

512MB

Pentium 2 or equivalent

Lubuntu

512MB

Celeron or equivalent

I have already written a separate article on this topic which could be found at the link given below.

A Complete Guide To Choosing A Linux Distro For VirtualBox!!

There I have analysed and compared the available options in much more detail along with a guide on how to choose a distro based on your available RAM and processing power.

Category#3: Run from RAM

This section is for those of you looking for a Linux distro which can run entirely from RAM so that you can enjoy a lag-free experience!

Roles of RAM and Hard Disks

As we know RAM is volatile storage and loses all its contents when power is removed. Hence it cannot store the files we create, the apps we install or the changes we make. For this reason, all our data is stored in the Hard disk and values are copied to RAM whenever needed.

For example, let us say we open a text file for editing. The text file is copied from our Hard disk to RAM so that we can make changes to it using a text editor. When we are done making changes, we give the save command which then takes the copy in the RAM and stores it in the Hard disk. But say we remove the power while doing the editing, all changes will be lost and when we power the machine up again all the changes will be lost and the file will look the same before we made any changes.

Now that we have seen a simplistic explanation of the RAM-HDD model, next, let’s go and see how we can run the OS from RAM!

How to run the OS from RAM?

Basically, how this is accomplished is by keeping 2 copies of the entire data, one in the Hard disk and another in the RAM. On boot up, just copy all the data from the Hard disk into RAM and run from there, whenever we make any changes on the RAM’s copy, just copy over the values to the Hard disks copy too. This way we don’t need to load something from RAM every time we need that, and we have an ultra-smooth user experience!

Sounds simple, doesn’t it!

The next logical question that comes to mind is: If that’s the case why can’t the OS designers do it all the time?

Let’s look at an example and see why this is not possible!

Consider Ubuntu, the system requirement of Ubuntu is the following

  • 4GB of RAM
  • 25GB of hard disk space

So only one-sixth of the entire operating system, applications and data can be held in RAM at any given time. This is because of the fact that RAM per GB is expensive compared to Hard disks. For the same money that can get you 4GB of RAM, you can get 500GB of hard disk space. Due to this reason the operating systems usually store all the applications and files on your hard disk and load up only the active applications and files onto the RAM and when you close the application, the RAM space is freed up so that the next app you load can utilize that space.

If that is the case how can the above method even work? Yes, it can be provided we have a small enough operating system footprint and a big enough RAM to accommodate this footprint!

The below are the best Linux distros that can be run from RAM.

Best Distro with RAM boot: SliTaz

2nd Best: Puppy Linux

Best Distro with the smallest RAM need: TinyCore Linux

Best Distro with RAM boot for running Servers: Alpine

Comparison Table

The table below shows the comparison of the distros considered.

Distro

RAM needed

Pros

Cons

SliTaz

300MB

Can do network boot

300MB RAM needed so may not be the best option for really old machines!

Puppy Linux

1GB

Runs best on older hardware

The GUI feels a bit dated

AntiX

2.7GB

Good support for older hardware through AntiX Magic software

Hard to install some apps that don’t come directly with the OS

Alpine

128MB

Very good documentation

No GUI, only Text console

DSL

128MB

Comes loaded with so many apps

Updated more than a decade ago in 2008 and hence not actively maintained

TinyCore Linux

19MB

Smallest footprint

Loading everything into RAM on boot is not the default behaviour, some tinkering around needed

I have already written a separate article on this topic which could be found at the link given below.

Top 5 Linux Distros That Runs Entirely From RAM: Comparison & Analysis!

There I have analysed and compared the available options and have explained why SliTaz is chosen as the best in much more detail.

Category#4: Portable USB Linux distro

This category is for those of you looking for a Linux distro which is USB persistent so that you can run Linux using just your USB flash drive.

What are USB Persistent Distros?

Most distros can be booted up and run from a USB flash drive these days to test them out or do system repair jobs without affecting the contents of the hard drive. But what is the meaning of USB persistent?

USB persistent distros are those which can store user data in the USB flash drive so that on next boot all the software you have installed will not vanish like traditional USB Live sessions do. When you are booting up from a Live CD image burnt to a USB (like Ubuntu and Fedora Live CD’s) all the changes you make are written to the RAM and once your session is over and you shut down the machine, all the data is gone. For example, when you are trying out a distro using Live CD’s and you wish to save some text file or install an application, you will not be able to see those files and apps on the next boot. This is because USB persistent distros runs off of read-only images on your USB flash drive and as such are unable to write information on the USB flash drive. Instead, they use the RAM to write the session data.

This is where USB persistent distros come in handy. The USB Persistent distros write the changes you make onto the flash drive so that your USB flash drive can act like a traditional hard drive. This way you can

  • Run Linux from the USB drive for a long time without touching your main operating system on the hard drive
  • Have several distros in different USB drives and choose which one to boot based on your requirements, etc.

USB persistent distros are usually lightweight to accommodate the space constraints of a USB flash drive as compared to a traditional hard drive or SSD installation. Let us next look at the differences between lightweight and heavyweight distros!

Our focus will be to do this with a space flash drive we already have with limited space, so this article’s focus will be on distros that are

  • designed to be able to run from USB on your flash drive while being persistent between sessions. (so that we don’t need to do too much hacking)
  • consumes minimal space so that we can do this on relatively smaller USB drives

Best Middleweight USB persistent distro: MX Linux

2nd Best Middle Weight USB persistent distro: Antix Linux

Best Lightweight USB persistent distro: Puppy Linux

Comparison Table

The table below summarises the main features of these 3 distros

Distro

ISO image size

Installation space

RAM needed

Pros

Cons

MX Linux

1.5GB

5GB

512MB

Support recent hardware

The footprint is very big as MX Linux needs 5GB of hard disk space

Antix Linux

700MB

2.7GB

256MB

Good support for older hardware through AntiX Magic software

Hard to install some apps that don’t come directly with the OS

Puppy Linux

354MB

1GB

300MB

Lightest of the options

The GUI feels a bit dated

I have already written a separate article on this topic which could be found at the link given below.

Top 3 USB Persistent Linux Distros: Comparison & Analysis..!!

There I have analysed and compared the available options and have explained why MX Linux is chosen as the best in much more detail.

Category#5: Browsing Only Distros

Need for a Browser Only Linux Distro

A user may need a Browser only Linux distro in one of the following 3 situations.

#1 Old Laptop, New Life

You might be having an old laptop which is in perfect working condition, but the hardware is simply too old to run the latest software and an Operating System optimized for just browsing can take a whole lot of stress off the old hardware while making the machine comparable in terms of performance to modern laptops due to factors like less overall RAM consumption, the absence of unnecessary background services, etc.

#2 You Only Use Browser On Your Home Laptop

You might use your home computer just for browsing purposes and you wish to allocate as all of your resources to the browser as possible to get the maximum out of it.

#3 All You Need To Do For Your Work Can Be Done Via A Browser

Everything you may need to do on a computer like making documents, editing photos and videos, playing games, storing data, etc can be accomplished using cloud processing and you need an OS that will help allocate maximum resources for the kind of workflow you use. There is a whole class of devices being made these days called Google Chromebooks. Through these devices, Google is trying to push the idea of cloud computing to the next level!

It is predicted by experts that in the near future we will all switch to cloud computing with minimal processing being done on our devices and our data will be sent over to the servers through the internet where the actual heavy lifting will take place.

Best Browsing Only Distros

The best Linux distros in this category are the following

Best: Neverware CloudReady OS

2nd Place: JustBrowsing

3rd Place: BrowserLinux

I have already written a separate article on this topic which could be found at the link given below.

Top 3 “Browsing-Only” Linux Distros

There I have analysed and compared the available options and have explained why Neverware CloudReady OS is chosen as the best in much more detail.

Category#6: To improve performance of Modern Budget Hardware

If your computer belongs to this category then you can install almost any popular distro!

The list for this one can go on and on so I am just mentioning some famous ones here.

Distro RAM Requirements Processor Requirements
Bodhi Linux 512MB 1GHz processor
Manjaro 1GB 1GHz processor
Linux Mint 1 GB x86_64 or amd64 compatible processor

Any of the above should run just fine on your computer. If you ask me to pick just one, I will pick Manjaro here, the arch-based efficient and popular distro with a modern-looking KDE user interface and in my experience, it provided an efficient and smooth experience!

If you are new to the Linux world check out this other article I wrote

Reasons Behind The Existence of SO MANY Linux Distros: An Analysis!

to understand the Linux distro world better before making your pick!

Summary

Here is the summary table again!

Category Distro
Old Hardware DSL
Virtual machines Tiny Core
Run from RAM SliTaz
Portable Persistent USB Distro MX Linux
Browsing-Only Distro Neverware CloudReady OS
Modern Budget machines Manjaro

And with that, I will conclude this article!

I hope you guys enjoyed this article and learned something useful.

If you liked the post, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Related Articles

Here are some of my other articles that might interest you!

A Step By Step Plan To Learn Linux..!

Best Linux Distro For Workstation: Analysis and Comparison!!

A Complete Guide For Choosing A Distro For Your Computer’s Specs..!!

Best Distro For Software And Hardware Support: An Analysis.!!

Distro-Hopping, What, Why & How Explained!

Reasons Behind The Existence of SO MANY Linux Distros: An Analysis!

EI

We’re passionate about inventing embedded devices and we hope you are too! This blog deals with a wide variety of topics from C programming to IOT to networking certifications and more. Hope you enjoy your time spent here and hope you get some value out of our blog!

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