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I have a spare machine with an 80GB HDD and 512 MB RAM. I want to try a Linux distro that's very small (and free too). What should I try?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Chris Down, Anthon, slm, jasonwryan, terdon Nov 28 '13 at 20:17

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

512MB ought to be enough for anybody. – intuited Apr 19 '11 at 5:38
Exactly the same you are running on your main machine, just tweaked for size/lighter load (e.g, XFCE and not Gnome/KDE). – vonbrand Jan 18 '13 at 2:45

11 Answers 11

For a computer with those specs you really don't need to worry about size. You can run Linux on far smaller machines just fine.

A simple option would be Ubuntu - it does most things right out of the box, so while not quite as lean as some other Linuxes, it is an easy one to try out if you have never used one before. If you want, you can even run it off a CD to try before you install.

There is even an Ubuntu Stackexchange so you can get assistance easily if required.

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Do you know any Linux system that won't happily run on that, or were you playing safe (i.e. there could be, but you don't know)? – Tshepang Apr 11 '11 at 8:20
@Tshepang - I have certainly had Debian, Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, Suse and Slack on much lower specced machines. I was just playing safe (as you never know :-) – Rory Alsop Apr 11 '11 at 8:51
But you are aware that the statement can be misleading right, as in you might know of one that won't happily run on that. So rather change the statement to something like I don't think there's any distro that won't happily run on that (I stand to be corrected). – Tshepang Apr 11 '11 at 9:11
I'm developing software for Unity on a 4 gigabyte USB disk, it runs Ubuntu 11.04 perfectly well, and even after a few weeks of upgrades, I have about 1.5gb of free space. :-) – Stefano Palazzo Apr 11 '11 at 10:30
32MB RAM is 8 times less than the specs being discussed here. Ubuntu's official line is 256MB IIRC for a standard install. – tobyodavies Apr 11 '11 at 11:33

There are several small distributions of linux, like Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux.

But with those machine specs, you don't need such a light-weight distribution. You can install any, like Debian or Ubuntu... you can check many of them to see which one fits better in the idea you have for that machine at Distrowatch.

Update: Just discovered Tiny Core Linux, and seems also a very interesting option for a very small Server/Desktop.

Update 2, 2013 Review:

Another 2 options I've found looking for old computers on Distrowach:

  • AntiX: Based on Debian Testing. On their FAQ they say it fits on 0.7GB if you use just the core or 2.8GB the full install
  • CrunchBag: Debian based, CrunchBag primary aim is to produce a stable distribution offering the best possible out-of-the-box Openbox experience.
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+1 for Puppy Linux. Absolutely amazing mini-distro. – boehj Apr 11 '11 at 9:10
Love Puppy, it's where my Linux experience started. Thanks Barry for making it possible! – neurino Nov 7 '12 at 22:32

Distributions described as lightweight

[BasicLinux]- A very lightweight distribution capable of running on an Intel 386 and 3 MB of RAM.

[Absolute Linux]

[Damn Small Linux] - "light enough to power a 486DX with 16MB of Ram"

[Lubuntu]- light weight in comparison to Ubuntu.

[Puppy Linux] - light weight relative to most other Linux distributions.

[SliTaz] - 25 megabyte distribution

[Tiny Core Linux] - 10 megabyte distribution


[Xubuntu] - light weight in comparison to Ubuntu and Kubuntu.

Source of above

Have fun!

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I wouldn't recommend Lubuntu. For the amount of space that you're going to save, you might as well just use Ubuntu - everything actually works out of the box. – kivetros Apr 11 '11 at 15:46
I can recommend xUbuntu, but won't think other decisions bad. 512 MB is much and could be enough, even for (K)Ubuntu, but it might get slowly, from update to update, a little weak. – user unknown Apr 11 '11 at 16:48
Xubuntu is really the only one of these that makes sense. The others are more "Running it off a floppy" small. – Brendan Long Apr 11 '11 at 18:45
Another one: wiki.alpinelinux.org. Also: archlinux.org comes bare-bones by default. Alpine is substantially smaller and lighter-weight but Arch has a much larger community. – dubiousjim Nov 7 '12 at 21:23

You should try the "tinyCore". This one is so small that you can run it on an Flash with just 128 MB RAM.

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I'm currently running Debian 6 with the Xfce desktop on just such a machine right now. It works very nicely.

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Use XUbuntu.

It's powerful and yet light.

Use this download link.

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I realize this is an old question, but I just had to add my 2 cents worth:

1) I would highly recommend Bodhi Linux. It has a fantastic user interface (nice eye candy) yet requires only these minimum hardware specs: 300+MHz CPU, 128MB RAM, and 2.5GB hard drive space (see their about page)

2) As for a free distribution, you don't have far to look, they are just about all free ;-)

Also, Bodhi is an Ubuntu derivative, meaning it is not only easy to install, but you can benefit from all the packages in the Ubuntu repository.

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What I recommend you, is Debian. It's stable and runs well on most architechture.

I have myself Debian on my iBook G4 (30Gb HDD, 256 MB RAM), what could use most of your memory, is the desktop manager. If you only browse on the internet, check emails, chat with some friends, you could install GNOME. If you need more memory, I recommend you Fluxbox, it's a lightweight desktop manager, but it's not easy to use (not always user-friendly).

I've tried Ubuntu, but it's not as lightweight and stable as Debian...But it's more beautiful :)

It's your personal choice, it depends on what you need.

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I have a Ubuntu virtual machine on a 4GB USB memory stick with enough space for a copy of VMware player, so I can have a full Linux/X/Eclipse development machine any time I need one.

To create it, I just downloaded a standard Ubuntu VM 'appliance' with most of the right components pre-installed, added a few tweaks, and off I went.

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Lubuntu 12.04 works for me, but others have problems installing.

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Build your own distro http://www.linuxfromscratch.org/lfs/

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-1 LFS is not easy, and it's bound to confuse anyone who has no experience in using GNU/Linux. – André Paramés Apr 11 '11 at 11:19
@André Paramés: it's still a proper point matcheek makes. +1 – 0xC0000022L Apr 11 '11 at 11:25
@STATUS_ACCESS_DENIED: I don't agree, LFS is not an OS, it's a guide to build them. It doesn't answer the actual question and it will probably confuse OP. – André Paramés Apr 11 '11 at 11:53
@André Paramés: well, the question wasn't for a ready-to-use distro. So we keep disagreeing :o) – 0xC0000022L Apr 11 '11 at 11:55
@STATUS_ACCESS_DENIED Yes, but the question was about "trying" UNIX/Linux. Talk about heads first! – Jacob Hume Apr 11 '11 at 12:19