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

This article is for those of you looking for a Linux distro which is ultra-lightweight under 100MB to install in their old computers or other devices like routers, switches, Network Attached Storage devices and home entertainment systems like smart TVs, etc, with very little resources but is capable of running Linux.
Let’ go ahead and explore what choices we have and analyze their differences of the best Linux distros under 100MB!

Let us start by look at the short version of the answer for those of you in a hurry!

The Short Version Of The Answer

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

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 under 100MB! Let’s start by looking 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!

Next, let us get back to the focus of this article which is a list of distros options we have under 100MB

Distro Option#1: DSL

DSL stands for Damn Small Linux. This distro is targeted for Desktops, originally developed as part of an experiment to see what can realistically fit into 50MB live CD, later grew into a community project with so much work put into this distro to make it into what we see today!

According to the distro’s official webpage (http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/) this small 50MB iso packs the following applications!

“XMMS (MP3, CD Music, and MPEG), FTP client, Dillo web browser, Netrik web browser, FireFox, spreadsheet, Sylpheed email, spellcheck (US English), a word-processor (Ted), three editors (Beaver, Vim, and Nano [Pico clone]), graphics editing and viewing (Xpaint, and xzgv), Xpdf (PDF Viewer), emelFM (file manager), Naim (AIM, ICQ, IRC), VNCviwer, Rdesktop, SSH/SCP server and client, DHCP client, PPP, PPPoE (ADSL), a web server, calculator, generic and GhostScript printer support, NFS, Fluxbox and JWM window managers, games, system monitoring apps, a host of command line tools, USB support, and pcmcia support, some wireless support.”

ISO size: 50MB

RAM: Minimum required is 16MB for the CLI version. With 128MB the entire system can run from RAM to give an ultra-responsive experience!

Kernel-Version: 2.4.31

Pros

  • Can run inside windows
  • Supports frugal install to run from Flash drives
  • Has SSH, HTTPD and FTP capabilities out of the box
  • Comes loaded with so many apps
  • Can be extended to suit user needs
  • Apt package manager

Cons

  • The GUI looks very outdated, a direct result of the trade-off to limit size and increase speed.
  • Updated more than a decade ago in 2008 and hence not actively maintained

Distro Option#2: TinyCore Linux

According to www.tinycorelinux.net

“Tiny core is a unique and minimalist distribution of the Linux operating system and tools”

TinyCore comes with bare essentials and it is the duty of the user to install whatever app he/she needs. Installation of apps can be done using a GUI tool so you don’t need to go for command line installation processes!

ISO size

Tiny core comes in 3 variants

  • Core: Only CLI (11MB)
  • TinyCore: Core + GUI Desktop (16MB)
  • CorePlus: TinyCore + List of configurable window managers and support for WiFi (106MB)

Kernel-Version: 4.2

RAM: 19MB

Pros

  • Modern looking desktop UI
  • BusyBox command-line utilities
  • Very minimal iso

Cons

  • Does not ship with OpenSSH
  • User need to install whatever he/she needs

Distro Option#3: RancherOS

Rancher is a Lightweight Operating System designed specifically for the use of Containers. According to the official website https://rancher.com/

“RancherOS includes the bare minimum amount of software needed to run Docker. Everything else can be pulled dynamically through Docker. RancherOS makes it simple to run containers at scale in development, test, and production. By containerizing system services and leveraging Docker for management, the operating system provides a very reliable and easy to manage container-ready environments.”

Thus this OS comes with just enough components to run Dockers

ISO size: 41MB

Kernel-Version: 4.4

Ram: 100MB

Pros

  • Has OpenSSH
  • Can build a Modular system using Dockers

Cons

  • Not suitable for normal desktop usage

Distro Option#4: Slitaz

Slitaz offers a good balance of size and features. According to the official website http://www.slitaz.org/

“SliTaz GNU/Linux is a free operating system working completely in memory from removable media such as a CD-ROM or USB key. It is light, speedy and fully installable on a hard drive. SliTaz is distributed in the form of a LiveCD that you can easily burn to a cdrom and boot from. When the system is running you can eject the LiveCD and use your CD drive for other tasks. The Live system provides a fully-featured, working graphical distro and lets you keep your data and personal settings on persistent media. The system can be extended with the Tazpkg package manager and security updates are provided for the cooking and stable versions.”

ISO size: 43MB

Kernel-Version:    3.2

Ram: 120MB

Pros

  • Runs OpenBox LXDE desktop
  • Can be installed inside windows
  • Comes loaded with many preinstalled apps like
    • Midori browser
    • Transmission torrent client
    • Text editor
    • Calculator
    • Basic spreadsheet

Cons

  • 300MB disk space
  • 150MB RAM space

Distro Option#5: Alpine

Alpine Linux is a security focussed lightweight distro. According to the official website https://alpinelinux.org/

“Alpine Linux is an independent, non-commercial, general purpose Linux distribution designed for power users who appreciate security, simplicity and resource efficiency.”

ISO size: 81MB

Kernel-Version:    4.4

RAM: 20MB

Pros

  • Busybox command-line utilities
  • Best For Server and Embedded Scenarios
  • APK Package manager is very good
  • Very good documentation

Cons

  • No GUI, only Text console

Analysis Of these Distros

Depending on what your needs are, each of these above distros can be the perfect choice for you. The table below summarizes the specific use cases these distros are a perfect fit for

Distro Ideal Use Case
DSL Best for bringing very old hardware back to life with minimal effort as this distro comes with all the necessary everyday apps preloaded
Tiny Core Linux Can be anything you need it to be but requires a little effort from your part after the installation
RancherOS Best if you planning to install the required functionalities using Dockers
Slitaz Has a balanced priority on user experience and size as it comes with an LXDE familiar desktop environment
Alpine Best small distro for use with servers and embedded Linux devices like Raspberry Pi

If 100MB limitation does not apply to you very strictly, then I suggest reading the other article I have written below for choosing the best distro for your particular scenario.

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

Most of us are looking for lightweight distros, just to make our old PCs come back to life. If going a bit over the 100MB limit is okay for you, then the below 3 distros are worth trying out!

Distro

RAM Requirements

Processor Requirements

Puppy Linux

256MB

Pentium 2 or equivalent

Linux Lite

512MB

Pentium 2 or equivalent

Lubuntu

512MB

Celeron or equivalent

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!

References

Some of the smallest Linux distributions (DistroWatch.com)

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!

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