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.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....