Windows 8 may be lighter than Windows 7 yet lightest than Vista, but it’s nowhere near as lightweight as these free Linux distributions. If you have an old Windows XP PC or a netbook, you can revive it with a lightweight Linux system.
All of these Linux distributions can run from a live USB drive, so you could even boot them directly from a USB drive. This may be faster than installing them to the computer’s slow, aging hard drive.
Puppy Linux is designed to be extremely lightweight. When installed to a USB flash drive, it consumes only 100 MB of space — 256 MB if you want the version with a full OpenOffice office suite instead of more lightweight office applications. Puppy Linux is loaded to your computer’s RAM when you boot it up, so it will run entirely from RAM and be as snappy as possible. The computer’s old, slow hard drive won’t be a factor. You can even save your files and customizations to the USB drive containing Puppy Linux — there should be plenty of space considering how small Puppy Linux is.
Puppy Linux has very low minimum system requirements and requires only 128 MB of RAM, although at least 256 MB of RAM is recommended. It offers the most basic applications you’d expect — an extremely lightweight web browser named Dillo, and other programs like an email client, media player, text editor, and image editor. It uses the Openbox window manager by default.
VectorLinux Light is the lightweight edition of Vector Linux. The developers claim it works well on systems with 256 MB of memory — you could even install the Barebone option instead, which will give you a graphical web browser that the developers say performs well on even a Pentium 3 with 128 MB of memory.
VectorLinux Light isn’t optimized for booting from a USB drive and running from RAM in the same way that Puppy Linux is. VectorLinux doesn’t offer a live environment of the latest VectorLinux Light you can take a test drive with at all — it must be installed to your computer’s hard drive before you can use it.
However, if you plan on installing a Linux system to disk, VectorLinux Light is similar to Puppy Linux, with similar system requirements and included applications. You’ll find all the typical programs included — web browser, email client, chat program, text editor, and image editors. It uses the JWM window manager, which previous versions of Puppy Linux used, by default.
Between Puppy Linux and VectorLinux, you should probably go with Puppy Linux — it’s better supported and allows you to run it from a USB drive or just take it for a test run much more easily. VectorLinux’s installation process is less automatic and more dated. On the other hand, choice of Linux distributions often boils down to personal taste, so you may want to try VectorLinux Light if you don’t like Puppy for some reason.
Lubuntu is based on Ubuntu — it’s an Ubuntu derivative, which means it’s based on the same software as Ubuntu but it includes a different graphical desktop environment and included software. Lubuntu is the most lightweight derivative of Ubuntu, including the lightweight LXDE desktop instead of Ubuntu’s default Unity desktop. Because it’s based on Ubuntu, you can install programs from Ubuntu’s software repositories. The Ubuntu compatibility may also be useful if you ever need to find information about a problem — the web is full of tips for troubleshooting and tweaking Ubuntu, and many of them will also apply to Lubuntu.
This distribution is a bit heavier than Puppy. For example, it includes the full Chromium web browser — based on Google Chrome — instead of more lightweight web browsers like Puppy Linux and VectorLinux Light. Its documentation says it requires at least 256 MB of RAM for daily use, but 512 MB is recommended. It will take up more disk space when installed, too.
Lubuntu is ideal for Ubuntu users who are looking for the most lightweight Ubuntu desktop system possible — or at least the most lightweight Ubuntu desktop system possible without creating your own from scratch. It requires more RAM so it won’t perform quite as well as Puppy Linux or Vector Linux Light on older computers with 256 MB of RAM.
If none of these Linux systems runs well, then your old computer is probably way overdue for an upgrade. These Linux distributions may be tiny and lightweight, but they’re not magical. Even if you’re just using them to browse the web, the modern web is heavier than ever.
If you’re a Linux geek, you have other options for getting a tiny, lightweight operating system. You could install a minimal Debian, Slackware, or even Ubuntu system without a graphical desktop and install the most lightweight graphical desktop possible — or skip the graphical desktop entirely and use terminal programs like the W3M web browser.