Lightweight vs Heavyweight Distros: A Comparison!

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!

In this article, we are focussing our attention on Lightweight distros to see the sacrifices and trade-offs they make in terms of usability and computing experiences to make these Distros more suitable for use in resource-constrained hardware!

Let’s start by taking a quick glance at these and compare these 2 classes of distros to see how they differ!

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.

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 runNeeds 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 LXDEHas 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. Don’t worry if can’t understand everything presented in the table above, we will look at them in more detail in the rest of this article!

Need That Gave Birth To Lightweight Distros

Operating systems have gotten more and more complex over time and as a result, older computers that used to run Windows XP have become unusable since Microsoft’s support period for XP has ended and Microsoft has stopped giving security updates to XP.

Updating them to Windows 10 renders them unusable as they become too slow to do anything with. This is because the animations and graphics that come with these newer environments have started to be a significant impact on performance and they are too much to handle for older hardware.

Also, we have lots more background services running and the installation size has increased quite a bit, and the older hardware simply cannot keep up with these newer operating system’s requirements.

Hence even though the hardware is working perfectly, these older devices cannot be used anymore because of the lack of secure up-to-date software!

This is where Linux and Lightweight Distros come in. They can make these devices usable once again, as they require an XP’ish level of processing power as the fancy stuff is usually gotten rid of leaving a very simple, responsive and system. Thus you don’t have to throw your perfectly running old PC!

Now that we have understood the need for Lightweight distros in the first place, let’s see the 3 main factors that make a distro Lightweight in the next section.

3 Main “Factors of Focus” on Lightweight Distros

If you look closely at the table presented in the previous section above, the essence of all these differences boils down to 3 major factors.

  1. Focus on usage of fewer resources
  2. Focus on minimalism and
  3. Focus on responsiveness

Factor#1: Fewer Resources

Older hardware

This is the most important factor that characterizes a distro as “Lightweight”. As the main target user for these distros are usually people with older hardware as we saw in the previous section.

Let’s look at a brief comparison for resource requirements between a regular distro (e.g. Ubuntu) and a lightweight distro (e.g. Puppy Linux).

UbuntuPuppy Linux
Processor 2 GHz dual-core processor  Pentium 900 MHz
RAM (system memory) 4 GiB RAM (system memory) 256 MB RAM
Disk Space 25 GB of hard-drive space Optional
Source Linkslinklink

As you can see, there is a huge difference in the requirements!!!

This difference will directly result in a big boost in the performance of the operating system on our older hardware!!

Also, lightweight distros don’t need to look bad as the desktop environments are usually modern-looking with some emphasis on the design itself so that it doesn’t look like we using something that belongs to the ’90s era of computing!

Have a look at the Puppy Linux Desktop below.

Screenshot of BionicPup64 8.0
Puppy Linux Desktop (Image link)

Other resource-constrained hardware

Nowadays, these lightweight distros are also finding use-cases in several scenarios where the processing power and related resources are limited. Devices like Routers, switches, and Raspberry Pi are good examples of this.

These devices belong to a special class of devices known as Embedded Linux Devices. I have written another article about Embedded Linux Devices

Embedded Linux Explained..!!

I also have made a YouTube video about it that you can find below.

Factor#2: Responsiveness

As we have seen in the previous section, Lightweight distros can make our older hardware more usable, but what happens when we install such distros on our newer hardware?

The answer, as you might have guessed, is a huge improvement in responsiveness!! If you have a USB drive, just download a Lightweight distro like Puppy Linux on it and try it on using the instructions here.

As it tries to load everything onto RAM as it runs, you will experience responsiveness that you have never experienced before!

Just use it for a day or 2 and then go back to your usual operating system and you will feel the difference in responsiveness!

So what’s the catch?

If lightweight distros are good looking, responsive and need fewer resources to run then what is the use of having heavyweight ones?

Let’s see the answers to that in the next section!

Factor#3: Minimalism

The only way to achieve all this goodness is by getting rid of a lot of “nice to have” features and keeping just the “need to have” features! In other words, these distros are Minimalistic by nature!

Once you start using these distros, initially you will feel like a lot of essential features are missing, but as time goes on, you will adapt to these changes!

The target users for this class of distros are the ones who need responsive computing experience and not a feature-rich one!

The features that have been gotten rid of or made to be minimalistic usually consist of the following.

Desktop Environments

The modern desktop environments are usually heavy on resource consumption as they are designed with keeping the best hardware in mind. They come with fancy animations and notifications and some more fancy features which usually adds very little to the end-user’s productivity but adds a ton of resource requirements. These modern desktop environments include Unity of Ubuntu, GNOME3, Cinnamon of Linux Mint etc.

Lightweight distros on the other hand uses less resource hungry distros like LXDE, XFCE, etc,. which does not include the fancy animations and other features that come with the above mentioned desktops, but the get the job done.

You can read more about desktop environments in this article

Linux Distros vs Desktop Environments: Differences Explained!

In the above article, I have explained in depth about the different classes of Desktop environments and their place in the Linux world.

Package Managers

Package managers are software that does the function of installing and removing packages in a system.

You can read more about these package managers in the article below where I have explained the need for package managers, functions of them and architecture of package managers.

A Beginners Introduction To Linux Package managers: apt, yum, dpkg & rpm

Top notch package management systems like Dpkg and RPM can manage packages in a very easy to maintain way keeping the user of the system to do as less work as possible.

But this also makes the entire system complicated, so lightweight distros usually have have simple package managers, which usually have the minimal functionalities of the more complex ones like Dpkg and RPM

Applications and Background Services

This is another one of the factors where lightweight distros take a minimalistic approach.

For example, instead of using a resource hungry browser like Firefox and Chromium, these distros usually go for a minimalist browser like Midori. And instead of using resource hungry Libreoffice, you get Abiword and Numeric for your documents and spreadsheets.

Lets take a look at a couple of related questions before we wrap things up for this article.

Related Questions

Is it not possible to make any given distro minimalistic and lightweight by getting rid of unnecessary features?

Yes it is possible as long as you know exactly what you are doing! Else you might end up with a broken system so if you are planning to experiment, I suggest using a VirtualBox environment where you can use snapshots to go back to the previous working version to “unbreak” the system and you can start your experiments again!

Its a great opportunity and fun way to learn Linux! To avoid headaches, just make sure you don’t do it on your main computer where you have all your important data!

What’s the best distro to take if someone wants to do customize the distro to be minimalist and lightweight?

Arch Linux is a distro that encourages DIY attitude and the best thing is you can make Arch Linux anything you want it to be and that the one I would recommend if you are planning to take this route.

And with that, I will conclude this article!

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

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Balaji Gunasekaran
Software Engineer with a background in Mechatronics and Electrical Engineering with a love for writing about tech.