Linux for Small Systems

Short on horsepower? Less is more when it's powered by Linux.

Linux is an amazingly scalable OS — that is, it can be used on anything from tiny embedded devices to large supercomputer clusters. This scalability is important for Linux as a whole, but it might not seem critical to the average office or home user who runs Linux on a PC, at least not at first. Upon closer examination, though, Linux’s scalability can be a useful boon to PC users. Do you have old computers gathering dust in a corner? Is your desktop system still functional but a bit sluggish because it’s a couple of years old? Did you buy a low-end bargain PC and now regret it because it’s too slow? If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, Linux’s scalability may be the answer to your problems (well, some of them, anyway).

The key to using Linux on underpowered computers is to learn how to divest a standard Linux installation of the unnecessary cruft that tends to attach itself to mainstream distributions. There are a couple of ways of doing this: You can start with a less feature-laden distribution or strip down a larger one. In some cases, you might consider using Linux as a dedicated thin client. However you do it, you can have a fully functional Linux desktop or server on a very modest computer indeed, simply by choosing your software carefully.

Of course, there are limits to this — you won’t be able to get high-definition video playback or host a massively popular Web site on an old 486. You should, though, be able to use a somewhat elderly computer for some of the most common desktop functions such as browsing, word processing and e-mail. And you may even want to run low-bandwidth network servers.

Choosing a Lightweight Distribution

One of the best ways to get the most out of a less-than-powerful computer is to use a lightweight distribution. Although Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, Mandriva, SuSE, and many other distributions are powerful and easy to install, these distributions also tend to install lots of software that you don’t really need, but may impose hefty requirements on a small computer.

Two relatively mainstream distributions spring to mind as candidates for small-system use: Debian and Slackware. Both distributions make it easy to install a bare-bones Linux system, without all the flashy extras that more popular distributions install.

Debian has a couple of advantages over Slackware:

Debian Advantages

  1. Debian uses the Debian package system, which is popular and enables network-based software updates. Slackware, by contrast, uses modified tarballs, which aren’t used by any other major distribution.
  2. Debian is available on ten architectures, including some that may be of interest to small-system users, such as PowerPC. Slackware is available only on x86 CPUs, although at least one spin-off project (Slamd64) exists to provide Slackware on the AMD64 architecture.

Both Debian and Slackware are well-established Linux distributions with long histories. Debian is the basis of Ubuntu, and Slackware is among the oldest surviving Linux distributions. Both are being actively maintained.

One drawback to both of these distributions is that they provide relatively little in the way of hand-holding GUI installation and system administration tools. Thus, you must be prepared to use text-mode tools, at least initially. If you really must have GUI system administration tools, you can install them after setting up the system. One useful option in this respect is Webmin, which provides Web-based administrative tools for a wide variety of Linux distributions, including Debian and Slackware. You can even remotely administer your Linux system using Webmin, although doing so increases your security risks.

I installed Debian 4.0-r3 on a system with a 1.2GHz AMD Duron CPU. Installing the “Standard system” and “desktop environment” package sets consumed 2.3 GB of disk space. If 2.3 GB is more space than you’ve got, try installing just the “Standard system” and then add software to that. Another of my systems is a ten-year-old notebook computer with a 470MHz AMD K6 CPU. It has a Slackware 12.0 installation (the current version is 12.1), which consumes 2.7 GB of disk space; however, I’ve added a number of packages to the Slackware system, so it could install on a smaller hard disk, in a pinch. Even these systems could be further slimmed by judicious use of a package manager, as described shortly.

Of course, your choices for running Linux on limited hardware aren’t restricted to Debian and Slackware. A Web search will turn up plenty of others, such as Arch Linux, CRUX, Damn Small Linux, and Vector Linux. You might want to visit the Web sites for these distributions and perhaps even use one of them. However, sticking with Debian or Slackware gives you the advantage of keeping you fairly close to the mainstream, and thus improving your chances of finding help should you need it.

Stripping Down a Heavyweight Distribution

A second option for running a slim Linux system is to install one of the big distributions, such as Fedora or Ubuntu, but trim the system after you’ve installed it. Unfortunately, this task can be a tricky one, particularly if you’re relatively new to Linux. If your disk space is limited, you may also be faced with the challenge of installing your chosen distribution to begin with — in some cases, you may not be able to fit even the base installation on your hard disk!

Assuming you can install a base system, though, how can you then strip it down? The best tools for the job are GUI package management programs. If you’re using Debian or a Debian-based distribution, Synaptic is the standard utility for the job. In Fedora, Yumex is a good choice.

For Ubuntu or other Debian-based distributions, try typing synaptic at a command prompt in X (you may need to be root, or use sudo, as in sudo synaptic). If you get a command not found error, type apt-get install synaptic or sudo apt-get install synaptic to install the package. You may also be able to launch it from a desktop environment’s menu system.

You can use Synaptic to peruse the installed packages using the upper-right pane of the window. Installed packages have highlighted boxes in the column marked S. If you spot a package you don’t need, right-click it and select Mark for Removal or Mark for Complete Removal from the pop-up menu. Once you’ve marked as many packages as you like, click the Apply button to remove the packages you’ve selected.

Yumex on Fedora fills a similar role to Synaptic, but operational details differ. To launch Yumex, type yumex at a command prompt or locate it in a desktop environment’s menus. If Yumex isn’t installed on your system, try typing yum install yumex to install it. Once Yumex is running, select the Installed radio button above the package list. You can unselect the packages you want to remove using the top right pane. Once you’ve done this, click the Add & Process button. Yumex will ask for confirmation, then remove the packages.

One problem with stripping down a big distribution is that you may not know what packages are safe to remove. The descriptions shown by Synaptic and Yumex can help you make this determination, but sometimes these descriptions will leave you scratching your head. Package managers will often warn you of serious problems, either by refusing to let you remove a truly vital package or by informing you that a large number of other packages depend on one you’ve selected for removal. You can then cancel the uninstallation. I recommend proceeding with caution when removing packages lest you create problems. Unless your disk space is very tight, leaving unnecessary packages installed won’t cause really serious problems.

Comments on "Linux for Small Systems"


Great article. I acquired a couple of old lappies for free recently and put xubuntu on one of them. Works fine. I figure I get about as good performance and functionality as the new low-power notebooks just by recycling the old stuff.


I bought a couple of Toshiba Tecra 8000′s and installed DSL on one and xubuntu on the other. Not seeing any functional difference. I prefer xubuntu only because I run ubuntu on my desktop machine. Good article.


It seems to me that this in depth advice is perfect and highly usable for those who wish to equip their offspring with computers that are somewhat restricted in their ability to reach offending sites on the Internet. In fact, the suggestions made can be used to extend life of almost any computer, of any age, for use as a dedicated word processor.


I’m going to take this article and use it as propaganda in my war against paid-for software. I’ll show this to every customer that I have who is thinking about buying a new windows os.

Thanks for the article. keep it up.

Rob Thomas – Owner
OutsideTheBox Technology Solutions.


Wonder if you really did your homework.. First, small systems are rather embedded devices, PDAs, phones, so on.. OK, so it’s rather about old systems, fine. But KMail comes with KDE libraries dependencies, and most distros pack it together with other “goodies” they shove on your throat! (well, since it’s Linux, there always will be alternatives though, like the kdemod on Arch!). Also, I see no mention about Opera- which is not GPL, but still a freebie, and can go toe to toe with Firefox and IE for features. Since we are at it, Openbox is in my opinion as light as IceWM/Blackbox, but comes with easier/friendlier tools to make/edit menus. And KOffice is only relatively lighter than OO, yet still weighs in considerably. Just for word processing you could use Abiword or the older Maxwell (needs compatible libs installed, though)

Overall, I will give credit for the good intention and honest effort, but notice some completely out of subject blurbs; I’ll quote just one now:

“Increasing disk space is usually fairly easy and inexpensive. ..blaj blah blah … Transferring data from one disk to another is possible, but it is beyond the scope of this column to describe the process.”

Not exactly the scope of the article either.

Hope you don’t mind the criticism, it was not my intension to start flame wars … but I appreciate good things …


A really light desktop but that is not as “different looking and handling” than *box, I highly suggest LXDE from
Really lightweight, but you still get the Windows looking menu/taskback/tray/desktop, configurable to the extreme but nice as a default.


Good article… but readers might think you HAVE to do lots of cutting corners.
I recently took a 10yo Toshiba Tecra 12″ laptop and tried to use the existing Windows98 on it, but the free AVG anti-virus said it no longer supported Win98… with a 500MHz processor and 384MB of RAM, it was never going to be good performer under WinXP, so I put the full/normal desktop install of Ubuntu on it and it ran really well. The 10GB hard disk was more than adequate (about 60% free) etc. It is a little slower to load than my 8-years later laptop, but once up you just don’t notice any lesser performance for OpenOffice, Firefox (ie word processing, spreadsheet and browsing), so I leave it at a weekender, and only take a USB memory stick to/from the location…. Just like a Netbook only free!!!


And I should have pointed out that the 10yo laptop did not play full-resolution DivX (MPEG4) compressed movies under Win98 without lots of pauses and stuttering… to the point where full-res (not high-res but even 720×480 video) were not watchable. And of course such on-the-fly decompression and concurrent rapid full-screen display of movies needs a good processor, so full-res movies are still not viewable under Ubuntu on that same 10yo processor.

Good to talk about upgrading USB1 to USB2 etc, but in practice, unless you have a lot of IT junk around, it never really pays to buy new hardware upgrades for very old PCs.


Good article, I have installed “Puppy” linux on a few systems. It is remarkable for such a small OS. If you need some diagnostic tools, try out Backtrack3, I have run it successfully on some really primitive laptops, one of which only has a 5gig hd and about 128meg of RAM! ;-) bobby b


Good article, basically. But it’s better to look for down stripped derivates like Antix, DSL, Puppy, TinyME etc before take a normal distris and reduce it.

Antix for example is a good and light wight debian based system. It runs quick and consumes not much RAM (with IceWM about 28MB on my Dell Latitude with 192MB and Celeron 500).

Also TinyME has a light environment and the Openbox WM is good configured.

Some comments to the article:
Lightweight Applications – the listed apps are not useable on old systems only if you have time to wait that each click needs 3 or 5 sec before something happens.

Hardware upgrades:
Best upgrade on old system is to increase RAM as much as possible cause swapping is the factor which makes working on old system absolutely unusable.


I’ve installed Puppy Linux frugally on an old laptop. (256Mb mem, 10 Gb disk) So after a boot all runs from memory in greased lighting mode. Don’t be fooled by the weird name Puppy. All common applications under 100Mb. I’m impressed.


No need to strip down your “heavy” standard distro when there are plenty of JeOS and tiny distributions that fit the bill. Our biased favorite (more for appliances then portable users) is our SourceForge Orange JeOS project ( – which has both a JeOS command line release and a Gnome/X11 GUI release.

And I second the votes for Puppy and DSL! Both work great on a old USB flash key.

pastaputer has all kind of goodies about using older equipment.
I use debian on p1 laptop with 96 megs of ram. I love it.


Puppy is also my distro of choice. I’ve been running it on an old IBM NetVista and it was one of the few ones that was able to detect my Ralink USB wifi adapter and have my network up in no time. Also, running in root all the time is a definite plus.


Experienced Linux users can use gentoo’s feature customization features and build all their Linux packages from source to be very lightweight.



I agree. I wouldn’t use KDE nor Gnome on an old machine with limited memory.

There are many tiny distros that addresses this problem :

Damn Small Linux
Feather Linux

I wouldn’t consider anything with a heavy bloated desktop.




Puppy is my Pretty Good OS for my old desktop. It is really old – The config is P-1 1.3 Mhz, 128 MB RAM and 4 GB HDD. It works at great speed, better than the latest things on latest computers. I think one with old hardware should give a try and have a feel of it. I have even installed a older Openoffice suite on it to work with. Most of my friends could not believe that a OS with many built-in packages under 100MB can do many things for us.


What about LFS (Linux from Scratch)?


linux for old systems?


What about LFS…or OE (OpenEmbedded)!? Ever try to build a system up from scratch? Ever google for same beyond LFS? A coherent community with good documentation would be of vast use for “old computers” and the lighter weight systems (recent Asus or Via C7 & Intel Atom based systems ) with little mfg support, but great potential. We (me included) as a community aren’t fulfilling that need.


I’m using Gentoo on my libretto 110CT with 64Mb ram with a kernel, tuned for the libretto.
Was a bit of a hassle to install but with a Gentoo live and a usb-ide connected and a different (much faster) computer it runs great with X and icewm.
And yes it even plays dvd’s using Margi dvd-to-go and zoomed video via PCMCIA. see


I second the mention of Gentoo.


Instead of stripping down systems, what I did to my desktop was to first install ubuntu server. That will leave you with the base system. Then I add the apps and packages I want via synaptic.
For my PIII 128MB Desktop I have Fluxbox, XFce file manager, and firefox (i know there are lighter browsers). It runs pretty normal, not the fastest thing on earth but neither as slow as when it had MS W98!


I realise that this comment is slightly off-topic, but I think it relates to the whole “stripped down Linux” topic, plus the author has written an article on “linux power tools”.

I have been looking for information on setting up a home server which is low-power (I am hoping for


If you’re looking for a low power linux server, look into the Western Digital MyBook World Edition or the NSLU2. If you didn’t want something quite so low powered, look into a desktop using Intel’s Atom or Via’s C7. Here is a good example.

Some of these guys take server appliance to the extreme.


puppylinux nuff said


Fantastic post.Really getting excited about read more. Will read on…


I have been browsing online more than three hours today, yet
I never found any interesting article like yours.

It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did,
the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.|
I could not resist commenting. Very well written!|
I will right away grab your rss as I can’t in finding your e-mail subscription link or e-newsletter service.
Do you have any? Please permit me recognise so
that I may just subscribe. Thanks.|
It is appropriate time to make some plans for the future
and it’s time to be happy. I have read this post
and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions.
Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article.
I wish to read even more things about it!|
It’s the best time to make a few plans for the future and
it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this put up and if I may just I
desire to recommend you few interesting things or suggestions.
Maybe you could write subsequent articles referring to this article.

I desire to read more issues approximately it!|
I’ve been surfing online greater than 3 hours
nowadays, yet I never discovered any interesting article like yours.
It’s lovely worth enough for me. In my view, if all webmasters and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web shall be a lot more helpful than ever before.|
Ahaa, its nice dialogue on the topic of this piece of writing here at
this weblog, I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting here.|
I am sure this paragraph has touched all the internet people, its really really good paragraph on building up new web site.|
Wow, this piece of writing is fastidious, my younger sister
is analyzing these things, thus I am going to convey her.|
bookmarked!!, I like your blog!|
Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing
this post and also the rest of the site is also really good.|
Hi, I do think this is a great web site. I stumbledupon it ;)
I am going to return once again since i have book marked it.
Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be
rich and continue to help other people.|
Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this website.
It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s challenging to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and appearance.
I must say that you’ve done a very good job with this.
Also, the blog loads extremely fast for me on Firefox. Superb Blog!|
These are truly great ideas in concerning blogging. You have touched some pleasant points here.

Any way keep up wrinting.|
I really like what you guys are usually up too. This type of clever work and exposure!
Keep up the good works guys I’ve you guys to blogroll.|
Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us
so I came to take a look. I’m definitely loving the information.
I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this
to my followers! Outstanding blog and fantastic design and style.|
I really like what you guys tend to be up too. Such clever
work and coverage! Keep up the great works guys I’ve included you guys to
my personal blogroll.|
Howdy would you mind sharing which blog platform
you’re using? I’m going to start my own blog soon but
I’m having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.

The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m
looking for something completely unique. P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had
to ask!|
Howdy would you mind letting me know which hosting company you’re
using? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different
web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most.

Can you suggest a good internet hosting provider at a reasonable
price? Kudos, I appreciate it!|
I like it whenever people get together and share thoughts. Great website,
keep it up!|
Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it.

Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! By the way, how could we communicate?|
Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
The words in your content seem to be running off the screen
in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser
compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know.
The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon.
This is a topic that’s close to my heart…
Take care! Where are your contact details though?|
It’s very trouble-free to find out any topic on web as compared to books, as I found
this piece of writing at this site.|
Does your website have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d
like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your
blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and
I look forward to seeing it improve over time.|
Hola! I’ve been reading your web site for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead
and give you a shout out from Atascocita Tx! Just wanted to
say keep up the fantastic work!|
Greetings from Florida! I’m bored at work so I decided to browse your site on
my iphone during lunch break. I really like the info you present here
and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised
at how fast your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just
3G .. Anyhow, superb blog!|
Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to know so much about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it
or something. I feel that you just can do with some % to pressure the message house a little bit, but instead of that,
that is great blog. A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be
I visited multiple sites but the audio quality for
audio songs current at this website is truly excellent.|
Hello, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar
one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses?
If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any assistance is very much appreciated.|
Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It
is the little changes that produce the biggest changes.
Many thanks for sharing!|
I truly love your site.. Pleasant colors & theme.
Did you make this site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my own site and would
love to learn where you got this from or what the theme is called.
Appreciate it!|
Hello there! This post could not be written much better!
Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
He continually kept talking about this. I most certainly will
forward this post to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have a great read.
Thank you for sharing!|
Wow! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a completely different topic
but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Wonderful choice of colors!|
There’s certainly a lot to know about this topic. I like all the
points you made.|
You’ve made some decent points there. I checked on the net
to find out more about the issue and found most people will go along with
your views on this site.|
What’s up, I read your blog on a regular basis.

Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!|
I just couldn’t depart your site prior to suggesting that I actually loved the usual information a person supply to your guests?
Is gonna be back steadily in order to inspect new posts|
I wanted to thank you for this good read!!
I definitely enjoyed every bit of it. I have got you
saved as a favorite to check out new stuff you post…|
Hi there, just wanted to tell you, I loved this article.
It was funny. Keep on posting!|
I comment whenever I appreciate a article on a website or I have something
to valuable to contribute to the conversation.

It is triggered by the fire communicated in the post I looked at.
And on this post Linux for Small Systems | Linux Magazine.
I was actually moved enough to post a thought :-P I do have
a few questions for you if you don’t mind. Is it just me or do a few of these responses appear like
they are coming from brain dead individuals? :-P And, if you are writing on additional
places, I would like to follow anything fresh you have to post.

Could you list every one of your social sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?|
Hello, I enjoy reading through your article. I like to
write a little comment to support you.|
I always spent my half an hour to read this blog’s articles or reviews
daily along with a mug of coffee.|
I always emailed this weblog post page to all my associates, because if
like to read it next my friends will too.|
My developer is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP.
I have always disliked the idea because of the costs. But he’s tryiong none the less.
I’ve been using Movable-type on various websites for about a year and am worried about switching to another platform.
I have heard good things about

Is there a way I can import all my wordpress
content into it? Any help would be greatly appreciated!|
Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website
before but after going through many of the articles I realized it’s new to
me. Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be bookmarking
it and checking back regularly!|
Terrific work! That is the type of information that are meant to be shared across
the internet. Disgrace on the search engines for
not positioning this publish higher! Come on over and visit my site .

Thanks =)|
Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and
I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others
like you helped me.|
Howdy, I do think your web site may be having browser compatibility
issues. When I look at your site in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in IE,
it has some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you
with a quick heads up! Other than that, great site!|
Somebody essentially assist to make severely
articles I might state. This is the very first time I frequented
your web page and so far? I amazed with the analysis you
made to create this actual submit extraordinary.
Magnificent job!|
Heya i am for the primary time here. I found this board and I find It really useful & it helped me out
a lot. I hope to offer one thing back and help others like you helped me.|
Hi there! I simply wish to give you a huge thumbs up for the great information you’ve got right here on this post.
I will be coming back to your site for more soon.|
I every time used to study paragraph in
news papers but now as I am a user of web therefore from now I am using net for articles or reviews,
thanks to web.|
Your mode of explaining everything in this paragraph
is in fact pleasant, every one be capable of simply understand it, Thanks a lot.|
Hi there, I found your site by the use of Google while looking
for a similar matter, your website came up, it appears to be like great.
I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
Hi there, simply became alert to your weblog thru Google, and located
that it’s really informative. I am going to be careful for brussels.
I’ll be grateful in case you proceed this in future. Many other people shall be benefited out of your writing.
I’m curious to find out what blog system you’re using?
I’m having some minor security issues with my latest website and
I would like to find something more risk-free. Do
you have any recommendations?|
I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the
layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself?
Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a great
blog like this one nowadays.|
I am really inspired together with your writing abilities as
smartly as with the structure to your blog. Is that this a paid subject matter or did you modify it your
self? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see
a great blog like this one these days..|
Hi, Neat post. There is a problem along with your
web site in internet explorer, could check this? IE still is the market leader and a big
section of folks will miss your excellent writing
because of this problem.|
I am not sure where you are getting your information, but good
topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this information for my mission.|
Hello, i think that i saw you visited my web site so i came to “return the favor”.I
am attempting to find things to enhance my website!I suppose
its ok to use some of your ideas!!\


I just want to mention I’m very new to blogs and definitely loved your web blog. Most likely I’m planning to bookmark your blog post . You actually have tremendous articles. Cheers for sharing with us your website page.


Chemise HOLLISTER en coton – Catalogue –
abercrombie pas cher


Linux for Small Systems | Linux Magazine


I owned or operated various twos for winter season in time, these are the most effective two though! Our shearling utterly is not overcom with regards to leaving your legs warm and also clothing fashion ~ they as well assist you stay dry looking in the winter snow storms, damp plus slush. Furthermore, i really love their tread, would neat located on snow! My business is the type which unfortunately outlet stores approximately in quest of the ideal component that features just about everything I’m so looking for, on the grounds that We rather have one set of two brilliant compared to cabinet complete with “Ehhh…Within, any of these will be definately something i was ready for: professional, wonderful, fashion, and so within your means ~ they can indeed be worthy of just about every single penny, Simply put i Very highly reccomend!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>