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Four Lightweight Distros Compared
By Howard Fosdick on 2012-06-18 04:20:02
In the past year I've reviewed four lightweight Linuxes for OS News: VectorLinux, Puppy Linux, Lubuntu, and Damn Small Linux. This article compares the four distributions. I invite your comments in response: what are your own experiences with these and competing lightweight distros?

Here are links to the OS News reviews:

The reviews all cover current releases (except for Lubuntu, which is now at version 12.04). This article refers to the current 32-bit versions of these OS's -- including Lubuntu 12.04.

Hardware and Performance

As lightweight distros, all four products provide excellent performance on any Pentium IV or better with at least 512M of memory. This makes them great candidates for reviving any old PC you may have lying around the house. Why not make use of that old laptop?

Even if you have only 256M, VectorLinux and Puppy run fine. Puppy runs entirely from memory by default on any computer with least 256M. It releases the CD/DVD for your use even if you booted from it. Damn Small Linux requires even less resources. Detailed specs are in the chart at the end of this article.

On the other end of the hardware spectrum, what about 64 bit systems? The Lubuntu project is furthest along. They've offered 64 bit versions ever since their release of 10.04 over two years ago. VectorLinux is beta testing its first 64 bit version right now. Vector will likely roll out the various editions they support in 64 bit throughout the year.

Puppy Linux has several official releases and many unofficial "puplets" or special builds. The official releases are all 32 bit but 64 bit puplets like FatDog and Lighthouse are available. Damn Small Linux is no longer an active project. It will have no 64 bit version.

Applications

Puppy and VectorLinux both bundle all the apps needed for typical desktops. They are easy to use. Both used to offer their own middling-sized repositories for downloading additional software, but that's all changed now.

Puppy Version 5 "Lucid" uses Ubuntu's huge repositories, while the "Slacko" build uses the Slackware repositories. Puppy includes dependency-checking when using these software libraries.

Similarly, VectorLinux 7 boasts a newly-expanded repository that now claims one thousand packages. You can also use Slackware's big repositories with VL, but you don't get dependency checking if you do.

Lubuntu's bundled apps are roughly equivalent to those offered by Puppy and Vector. Lubuntu directly accesses the Ubuntu repositories with their 11,000+ apps.

Damn Small Linux is a much smaller distro than the others. It weighs in as only a 50M download. While DSL bundles a full range of apps, they were selected for their small size, rather than for functionality or ease of use. The apps are pretty geeky. And they show their age, since the final release of this distro was in 2008. DSL uses its own repository for software downloads called myDSL.

Support & Documentation 

Puppy Linux and VectorLinux have active, friendly forums. I've used both for over five years and have never had a single question that wasn't answered. Puppy Linux has a ton of documentation, though it's a bit disorganized and not always clear to which release any particular document applies. Vector's documentation is less voluminous but it is better organized and clearly labelled. Vector is the only distro that offers a paid support option.

How you judge Lubuntu's support and documentation depends on whether you view the product as part of the Ubuntu family or as independent. For example, Lubuntu users tap the huge, very active Ubuntu forum, where they tag their questions as pertaining to Lubuntu. Lubuntu doesn't have its own independent forum. Similarly, the Lubuntu doc is sparse though expanding rapidly. Of course, users can rely on the tons of material available for Ubuntu.

Damn Small Linux is no longer maintained so support is limited. The DSL website is still up and you can buy the highly-rated DSL book. If you have DSL questions you must post them on generic Linux forums like LinuxQuestions or the LinuxForums.

Which are Suitable for End Users?

End users easily and productively use Puppy and VectorLinux. Both distros should be installed and configured by an experienced person first.

Lubuntu is also very user-friendly. Some argue that end users can install and configure it, but I believe it's similar to Puppy and Vector -- users will love the system, but it's preferable that an experienced hand installs and configures it for them first.

Damn Small Linux has a primitive GUI and the geekiest apps because it runs on very minimal hardware. It's a fun hobbyist tool but I would not recommend it for end users.

The graphical user interface of a distro partially determines its ease of use and configurability. Here are the install defaults:

Distro:
Default GUI:


Lubuntu 12.04 LTS
LXDE
VectorLinux 7.0 Standard Edition Xfce
VectorLinux 7.0 Light Edition Several  (you choose when installing)
Puppy Linux 5
JWM
Damn Small Linux 4.4.10 Fluxbox

Which Run on Old Computers?

All four of these products run great on Pentium IV's with 512M. Beyond that ...

Puppy Linux 5 includes a "retro release" called Wary, specifically designed for older hardware with an older kernel. Wary runs on topped out P-II's or better. It is a good choice for aging hardware because it has a large active community actually using old machines.

VectorLinux has been around since 1999, so older versions support older hardware. For Version 7 I'd recommend a P-III or better.

Lubuntu's first independent release dates from late 2009. It's a poor bet for old hardware simply because the product post-dates that era. Pentium IV's or better are recommended, preferably with at least 384M to 512M of memory.

Damn Small Linux is frozen in time. Its final release dates from 2008. DSL still runs the 2.4 kernel and it includes the SYSLINUX bootloader for machines that won't boot ISOLINUX. DSL is your best bet if you're playing around with a really old computer like a P-II, P-I, P-I MMX, Pentium Pro, or 486.

When to Use Each Distro

Let's wrap up with a few recommendations.

Puppy Linux and VectorLinux have very low system requirements and run on P-III's or better. Both give you a full selection of bundled apps and are easy to use. They offer nice CD mastering systems for creating your own customized versions. Their enthusiastic online forums get my highest marks.

Puppy is very fast because it runs entirely from memory by default. Lucid Puppy gives you access to the huge Ubuntu repositories, while Slacko Puppy taps the Slackware software libraries. Wary Puppy is specifically designed to support older hardware.

VectorLinux is a fast, bloat-free distro you can build up into your own tailored system. VL offers a nice range of editions to satisfy all tastes. The benefit is that you can stay within the Vector family even if you have varied needs or if your needs change over time. VL's paid support option distinguishes it from competitors.  VectorLinux is a good choice for those who want a Slackware-based distro with a long history and strong track record: Vector's proven itself since 1999.

Lubuntu is a good option for those who want to stay within the Ubuntu family but need a lighter distro that requires less CPU and memory. It's also an alternative for those fleeing Ubuntu's Unity--HUD--Dashboard design. Lubuntu has none of these because it runs LXDE instead of Unity. Lubuntu keeps you in the Ubuntu family with a more traditional, resource-light interface.

Damn Small Linux should be your choice only if you have really old hardware you're geeking around with -- like a P-II, P-I, or 486. DSL is excellent for that one specific purpose. If you have newer hardware, Puppy, Vector, and Lubuntu are all better choices from the standpoints of currency, support, user-friendliness, and range of apps.


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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. You might also be interested in his OS News article The Sins of Ubuntu. Read more of his articles here.


Lightweight Distro Specs

Distro & Website:
Download Size:
Installed Footprint:
64 bit too?
CPU:
RAM:






Lubuntu 12.04 LTS
1 CD
4.2G




Yes

Sys Reqs state P-II minimum but a P-III or P-IV is probably the practical minimum Sys Reqs state 128M minimum but the 12.04 download recommends 384M or better for the Live CD
VectorLinux 7.0 Standard Edition 1 CD 3.4G


In Beta

Sys Reqs state a P-III @750mhz or better for Live CD Sys Reqs state 256M or better for Live CD
Puppy Linux 5.x
130M
0.5 - 1G *



As Puplet

P-II or better works best
128M minimum required to install, with 256M it runs it entirely from memory
VectorLinux 7.0 Light Edition
1 CD
3.4G



In Beta

Sys Reqs state a P-I @166mhz minimum, works best with P-II or better
Sys Reqs state 64M minimum, works best with 128M or more
Damn Small Linux 4.4.10 50M 200 - 300M *



No

Sys Reqs state a 486 minimum
Sys Reqs state 16M minimum to run GUI, with 128M it runs entirely from memory
The numbers in this chart are approximate rather than precise.
*  For a full disk install.

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