Linux

Best Linux distributions for hardware detection and older hardware

Jack Wallen responds to a question from a long-time Linux fan about small distributions and hardware support. Here is Jack's advice on lightweight distributions.

Hello Linux lovers and those of the curious nature -- today's blog topic comes thanks to a TechRepublic reader. Here's the original email:

I have used Linux for years, primarily Ubuntu,  but seem to struggle with Puppy.  I have 3 or 4 older machines I want to use and Puppy seems like a good choice. Off the top can you think of anything I should be thinking when using Puppy instead of Ubuntu?  Or do you think the Ubuntu 'version' of Puppy might be more comfortable for me? ...I have download and tried (unsuccessfully) so many different "small" Linux versions (Peppermint being the latest) that my frustration level is high.  I liked how quickly Puppy loaded and ran but had  compatibility issues. Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

First and foremost -- the small Linux category is a tough one simply because the size restricts the inclusion of the vast hardware support most Linux distributions offer. But many of these smaller flavors do a fairly good job with this. My two favorites in this category are:

Now, here's the thing -- Knoppix is really the mother of all small Linux distributions AND it's based on Debian (so there should be some familiarity to it). Puppy Linux has always been fairly strong with hardware recognition, with the exception of wireless.

Of course there are ways around even a stubborn lack of hardware support. This is especially made true that Puppy Linux is now based on Ubuntu. That major change to the underpinnings of Puppy also brings along with it a tool that will make your life quite a bit easier. That tool is QuickPet. QuickPet is a far more user-friendly version of the Puppy Package Manager. Now, what's really, really nice about QuickPet (for those with hardware issues and Puppy) is the fact that there's a Drivers tab to QuickPet that allows you to install drivers for your hardware. QuickPet will even recommend specific drivers (similar to that of Ubuntu's Restricted Drivers tool.)

Outside of Puppy Linux, Knoppix is really the Mac Daddy of the small distributions. It's really quite far ahead of other distributions and, as it stands out of the box, is a complete desktop distribution with tools to spare. But although Knoppix is quite good at hardware detection, it doesn't include a tool like QuickPet. You can, however, remaster Knoppix so to include the exact device drivers as well as applications you want. There is a great guide to remastering Knoppix here.

I will not lie, the process is quite complex and time-consuming, but for those with the desire and the need, the step by step will walk you through the process of pretty much rolling your very own super-customized distribution based on Knoppix. This section, in particular,  will be the first section you will want to check out as it details the addition of device drivers.

But for those of you who are looking for a solid Linux distribution for older hardware, and don't want to be limited by the small (or tiny) flavor of Linux, I highly recommend the following Linux distributions:

Xubuntu: It's Ubuntu with the XFCE desktop, so you won't have to worry about the more CPU, GPU, and RAM-intensive KDE, GNOME, or Unity.

MacPup: A Puppy derivative but with the elegance of the Enlightenment E17 desktop.

CrunchBang (#!) Linux: Small install, but good amount of software. #! Linux offers a minimalist desktop that is also quite attractive. And with repositories based on Ubuntu, you'll find plenty of software to choose from.

Lubuntu: Even lighter than Xubuntu, Lubuntu uses the LXDE desktop and makes for one of the lightest Ubuntu-based distributions while still retaining enough user-friendliness to make it a viable alternative for anyone.

There you go! Anyone needing to take advantage of a lightweight (or small in size) Linux distribution, and cover the hardware bases, should have enough information. One of the nice aspects of Linux is that it's incredibly flexible. And although sometimes it might require a bit of extra work, the end results will be worth the effort.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

26 comments
N4RPS
N4RPS

Hello!


I used to use Lubuntu, but with continued support for Lubuntu in doubt after 14.04 (its first LTS release), I have moved on to Linux Lite OS. Based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, LL has low resource requirements (runs nicely on a 1 GHz P3 with 512 MB RAM), VERY simple to set up and use, and GREAT support when something goes haywire.


LL uses the XFCE desktop environment, has LibreOffice bundled in and still fits on a CD, and uses scripts for many functions and to load additional software. Simply ingenious!


73 DE N4RPS

Rob

lcafiero
lcafiero

Hey, Jack -- Interesting article, and thanks for mentioning CrunchBang. However, you say it's Ubuntu-based and several months ago (I think) it changed to being a Debian-based distro. If you could, you may want to correct that. Thanks.

drednot57
drednot57

such as XFCE, LXDE, or OpenBox. I've read on the PCLOS website these community remasters do well on older hardware.

Bob-El
Bob-El

I have a 9-year-old Toshiba Satellite Laptop. I expanded the RAM to the max (2 GB) and installed a 120 GB drive. It works great with Ubuntu 10.10 that I upgraded to from 10.04. The only problem is that the Gnome screensaver doesn't work. It didn't work in 10.04 either. I installed an alternate screensaver called Xscreensaver and now I have 2 screensavers that don't work. Oh, bother! Should I be running Kbuntu or another version instead?

phil
phil

I have found this to be very fast on anything with 256Mb and upwards: it uses a very fast window manager called Enlightenment and comes highly reccomended.

loke46
loke46

I've used grml for years and years - there's just nothing like it!! My favourite version is 2009-05 which still used grub. Later versions have grub2 and they have started with some small x-stuff as well. Do yourself a favour and download the 2009-05 version and put it on a usb-stick - and you have a mobile 'arsenal'. Command-line only, guys - but hey - that's we need when there is trouble! I would 'never leave home without it'!!

Brainstorms
Brainstorms

This is an interesting, full-featured, lightweight Linux distro that was "built from scratch" by a team in Switzerland (and available in several languages). It has an attractive, polished GUI and good hardware support. Their website contains a large amount of excellent documentation, too. SliTaz can be customized with additional packages from its large repository (more than 2000 packages). You can also choose from a few customized installs (or roll your own) scaled up or down to fit the limitations of your hardware, including one that I've run in a laptop with 48 MB of RAM and a 1.3 GB hard drive. Even on old, slow, limited hardware it runs fairly fast without requiring a lot of configuration or customizations -- and it looks good (the 'spider' logo notwithstanding).

Rayyanahmed
Rayyanahmed

"And although sometimes it might require a bit of extra work, the end results will be worth the effort." Agreed...

russoisraeli
russoisraeli

My experience tells me that the majority of resources on any modern GNU/Linux system is eaten by the Graphical User Interface - usually Gnome or KDE. Although, both are easy to use and user friendly - I highly suggest to look into XFCE as a replacement. OpenBox is another lightweight choice. As to distro's, Debian or Slackware are my choice.

binaryme
binaryme

Another very useful version of Linux is PinguyOs (http://pinguyos.com). It a Ubuntu spin with some elements of Mint and loads of other added goodies. PinguyOS has a 'little brother' called Ping-eee, designed with low powered netbooks (Asus EEE series and others) in mind but it works very well on older hardware too. It's slick and fast, yet contains loads of pre-installed software.

CFWhitman
CFWhitman

One thing that you can do with older hardware is do a minimal install of Debian from the net-install disk and then add lightweight applications until you have software that works for you. You can install LXDE or even Fluxbox or IceWM. You may need to enable the non-free repositories or directly download a firmware package and install it to get some network chipsets working. Another possibility is Slackware, but it has no dependency tracking by default. Slackware is especially viable if you have plenty of hard drive space but not much RAM or CPU power. Then you can install everything from the disc(s) and you'll have less trouble figuring out which packages to install. Of course there are also Slacko Puppy and Slax for Slackware compatible minimal distributions. One thing to be aware of with Puppy is that now they maintain alternate distributions with different bases, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, for some old video hardware, you may have better luck with Wary Puppy than Lucid Puppy, etc.

a.portman
a.portman

I have used Peppermint and Mint on Dell D610 and D620 laptops. Found all of the drivers on install. I did install with a wired connection, but the wireless worked on first boot. I have had zero problems. The Peppermint machine with a centrino chip and 512 of RAM runs fine. It goes without saying that it is up and running before a two year newer XP machine can ask for a password. Mint is a full fledged distro, it includes everything. Peppermint uses GoogleDocs as its office suite. It took about ten minutes to drop OpenOffice on Peppermint and make me happy. I am not a fan of GoogleDocs.

joshuatan17
joshuatan17

I'd tried Puppy Linux; I'd agree that Fluppy does better at wifi. I'm using Puppeee on my netbook. Both Fluppy and Puppeee are done by jemimah (if I got the spelling right!) I'm running CrunchBang as my main distro on my eeepc. Absolutely love the keyboard shortcuts. #! used to be based on Ubuntu. Now it's been switched to Debian! Bodhi Linux is also a good choice as it uses E17 for the window manager. Based on Lucid LTS. And not to forget Tiny Core Linux! TCL is the smallest at 10MB (now 30MB with other wifi drivers). Absolutely amazing! I have all of the above on my eeepc :)

scowen
scowen

Tried the likes of Puppy, DSL, CrunchBang and they do a good job. Found that some picked some hardware up and other didn't. Sometimes you have to try a couple of distros to get the desired effect with old hardware. Most recent try out was Vector Linux, uses the KDE desktop when loaded but does a simple wizard walk through to get installed. Give it a try.

Snookybear
Snookybear

I recommend Linux Mint. www.linuxmint.com Its 32bit and 64 bit releases have almost every device driver you can think of. I used the 64 bit distro on an older P3 computer with 512MB of RAM very smoothly. That is until I had 5 audio/ video podcasts downloading at the same time.

framefritti
framefritti

I recently installed Lubuntu on a tiny EEE Asus and everything works fine, maybe not as fast as your latest desktop, but still much smoother than the Windows that was installed before. To be honest, I hadn't the occasion to try the wireless part, but it seems that the system recognizes it.

mikep
mikep

AntiX M11 has 3 builds available; Core @ 115-118MB, just the core OS, build your own from there, available with 486 or 686 kernels Base @ 361-364MB, a simple basic installation with GUI, available with 486 or 686 kernels Full @ 678-680MB, a beautiful Desktop that is flexible and scaleable, able to easily hold its own as a rock solid, production quality OS that will grace almost any machine, old or new. Release announcement http://forum.mepiscommunity.org/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=30415

robo_dev
robo_dev

www.damnsmalllinux.org/ CrunchBang is great. I ran that on a Dell Mini9 for years. It was as close to windows you could get in Linux. One hint for Distros: look at what the hardware makers are using. Dell ships lots of PCs with Ubuntu, so therefore loading up that distro on a Dell PC is fairly painless.

CFWhitman
CFWhitman

Without further information it's hard to say why your screensavers are not working. It seems to me that screensavers work on an old laptop that I have which only has 256 MB of RAM (it's only expandable to 1 GB). If the screensavers are OpenGL based, then there could be some problem with OpenGL running on your video hardware, but that's just speculation. Edit: Incidentally, I have Xubuntu 11.04 on that machine.

dold
dold

I have a Fujitsu PIII laptop with 256MB of RAM. I have been running Ubuntu 10.something on it, but it's so slow I rarely use it. So, I booted Lubuntu 11.10 LiveCD. My DLink DWL-630 isn't recognized properly. It seems to be, but it just connects and disconnects, and asks for my WPA2-PSK login again. I rebooted Ubuntu, and it connects fine. I presume there's a driver that's been dropped in the Lubuntu distribution, but I don't see my card listed in the Ubuntu site, either. lshw: *-network description: AR5001-0000-0000 product: Wireless LAN Reference Card product: AR2413 802.11bg NIC vendor: Atheros Communications Inc. Or, should I just install the lxdm on the Ubuntu? Would that make an overall performance improvement, or is there more to the "lightweight" aspect of Lubuntu? -- Clarence

alzie
alzie

I too have an old eee pc 900, and ive tried Lubuntu on it and liked it. I currently run Xubuntu on it and love it. Hint - use Synapse. Way beats menus! Ive tried the regular Ubuntu / Unity, but that combo is almost too slow. Firefox? Feh! Chromium - Ah.

Brainstorms
Brainstorms

The guy largely responsible for DSL, Robert Shingledecker, moved on to TCL, Tiny Core Linux. DSL is moribund, yet it still works great, and supports old hardware when many other distros won't/can't. It just looks kind of "creaky". TCL, on the other hand, is based on the latest kernel, has a nice (if simple) look & feel, and is otherwise very up-to-date. Its model is based on the cloud -- you get a 'core' Linux (which is very small), and download only the elements you want/need to build out a system. Your additions can persist, and you can run in 'frugal' mode (i.e., boot out of a directory of an existing OS install). I've run it on a 1997 laptop with 48MB of RAM and a 1.3 GB hard drive. Didn't break a sweat...

darkduck
darkduck

I doubt they have enough tools for proper detection and, even if detected, activation (I mean drivers and firmware)

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

You may have better luck simply installing the "lubuntu-desktop" package -- simply boot into Ubuntu, find and install that package (in Synaptic, Ubuntu Software Center, or apt-get/aptitude via command line), then logout. At the login screen, there's a dropdown that will let you switch to LXDE as your desktop. That leaves the "standard" Ubuntu packages/infrastructure in place, but lets you use LXDE.

dold
dold

I'm a command line kind of guy, so really, I don't need any menus at all. I usually ssh into bigger boxes, and sometimes invoke GUI on those, so on the Fuji laptop, all I need is an Xserver, terminal, ssh, and a browser. And a driver for my WiFi.

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