Puppy Linux: Top Dog of the Lightweight Distros

How can you run a full range of current applications on older
computers, netbooks, thin clients, and mobile devices? One way is to
install a lightweight Linux like Puppy, Lubuntu, or Vector Light.
Select the distro with the apps that meets your needs while matching
your computer’s resources.

Puppy is worthy of your attention because it’s pushed its way into Distrowatch‘s
top ten most popular operating systems by merit alone. It doesn’t
have a corporate sponsor or advertising budget. This article describes Puppy. Screenshots follow the article.

What’s Unique About Puppy

Puppy runs on many limited-resource computers. This includes Pentium
IV’s, III’s, M’s, D’s, Atom and Celeron netbooks, and even Pentium
II’s. I’ve used it in
refurbishing computers donated to charity yet I also run it on my
state-of-the-art computers. What makes it appealing is
how it combines three characteristics that normally force a trade-off:

1. A full range of applications

2. Ease of use

3. Good performance on limited hardware

Puppy supplies all the
applications most users need while running
on low-resource computers. It does this
while retaining ease-of-use. So you can install it for
consumers on low-end or older equipment.

Puppy combines high
with minimal
. These
two goals force a direct trade-off — typically you get one or the
other, but
not both. Puppy employs specific techniques to circumvent the
trade-off and combine these two goals. Among them:

  • Bundled applications are selected for high
    functionality and minimal
    resource consumption.
  • Puppy excludes all but the mandatory Linux functions, code,
    services, and
  • The OS and bundled apps automatically load and run from memory on
    computer having 256 M or more. This executes code at in-memory
    speeds and eliminates slow hard disk and optical
    disc access. It yields good performance even on older computers with slow devices.
  • Graphical user interfaces are the most resource-consumptive
    component of modern operating systems. Puppy dodges the GUI performance bullet with the
    lightweight JWM as
    its default interface,
    based on X-server with either Xorg or the more limited but efficient XVesa.
  • Puppy’s frugal install
    option copies the Live CD code into any Windows or
    Linux disk partition and boots from there. This yields hard disk boot
    speed without requiring disk re-partitioning.

Puppy doesn’t require the anti-malware software
overwhelms older Windows systems. You can take a Windows ME/98/95
system, replace Windows with
Puppy, and
have a secure, performant system running current software. Puppy is a prime candidate for reusing these old systems.


Flexibility is essential when working with low-end computers. You need
software that runs on the system you have, rather than requiring you to
upgrade, change, or fix hardware. Puppy doesn’t impose hardware requirements.

For example, Puppy installs and boots from any
bootable device and saves your work to any
writeable device. No hard disk, optical drive, or USB?
No problem. Want to use your old SCSI drive, floppy, Zip
drive, LS-120/240 Superdisk, or compact flash memory? Puppy does it.
It’s great to see a distro that leverages whatever odd old devices your system has.

Puppy can even use write-once
CDs or DVDs for persistent storage. It will
prompt you to insert a new disc when needed. It then carries all your
work forward onto the newly inserted CD or DVD.

Puppy gives you a choice of Linux kernels. It comes with the
latest one for
current equipment and older “retro” kernels for aging machines. So it
runs on computers most other lightweight Linuxes no longer support.

Puppy complements Windows. You can install and load
it from
within a Windows disk partition. Or install on its own partition using
Linux filesystems like ext2, ext3, ext4, or reiserfs. Puppy’s
boot manager, GRUB, recognizes all existing Windows install(s) and
generates a boot-time menu that asks you which OS you want to run. So
you can install Puppy on a computer that already runs Windows or
Linux without worry.

All this flexibility makes Puppy better suited for revitalizing mature computers than many competing lightweight distributions.

Apps Are the Name of the Game

I’ve described how Puppy achieves good performance on minimal hardware.
But what can you do with it?

Puppy bundles the applications to perform the same tasks as much larger
distros. I can comfortably use it for everything I do instead of Ubuntu. With Puppy you can —

  • Perform home and office tasks with word processors, file and HTML
    editors, PDF viewers, spreadsheets, and HomeBank
    finance manager. Puppy bundles GNOME Office.
  • Surf the Internet with your choice of browsers, and read, write, send and manage email with Sylpheed
  • Play, record, mix, rip and manage music
  • Scan in documents and pictures, read or scan photographs,
    alter and manage images and graphics with image and vector editors
  • Write your personal blog with PPLOG and the Hiawatha web
    server, or create your own wiki with DidiWiki
  • Telephone, chat, or message via Voice Over IP with Psip, and instant
    message and chat with Ayttm
  • Manage your address book, personal contacts, and daily calendar
    with Osmo daily
  • Read, write, and burn CD’s, DVD’s, and Blu-ray discs
  • Log in to remote computers with telnet and send & receive
  • Manage your files and data with file managers, a file finder,
    and tools for backup
  • Manage your computer and its performance with a full set of
    utilities for setup, configuration, and performance monitoring and

a full list of Puppy’s bundled apps and their version
numbers. Of course, like any mainstream distro Puppy makes it easy to download and install addtional apps with its package GUI.

For smooth video, you need a machine running at perhaps 800 ghz or faster. In my experience Puppy runs video fluently
with a slightly slower processor than larger distros like Ubuntu, where
you need at least 1 ghz.

Where Puppy Plays

The current Puppy release — Puppy 5 or “Lucid Puppy” — boots in 128 M
ram and runs entirely from memory on
systems with 256 M or more. The CD download is 130 M.
Puppy releases are about 100 M
downloads and prior to version 4 Puppy boots in only 64 M).

Puppy is a performant system for Pentium IV’s, III’s, M’s, D’s, and Atom and Celeron netbooks. Pentium II’s
work well with many Puppy releases if you can maximize their memory to
256 M, which allows Puppy
run entirely from memory and perform optimally. You can actually use a
P-II for serious work! One important limitation is that
can’t run web video because the P-II line topped out at 450mhz. This is a processor limitation rather than a Puppy shortcoming.

If you have a really old computer in your basement or attic, Puppy
can help you revitalize it. Puppy also runs on P-II’s with less than
256 M and P-I’s. But here you forgo the speed advantage that comes
running the system solely from memory.

For my purposes — refurbishing older computers with software that
is user-friendly enough for end users — Puppy presents the right
balance of
usability with minimal hardware requirements. As long as you install
and configure Puppy, end users will be quite happy using it on Pentium IV’s, III’s, and even II’s.

I don’t want to leave the impression that Puppy is only
suitable for
low-end hardware. I install it as one of several operating systems on my state-of-the-art
computers. It’s a fun alternative to some of the full-sized distros like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, or Fedora.

Puppy makes a handy
portable “rescue disk” on CD, DVD, or bootable USB pen drive. Just last
month my friend
corrupted his disk’s master boot record on a Windows computer. With a
Live Puppy CD, we fixed this fatal error in minutes. Puppy scanned the disk and regenerated
the master boot record for us. (My
friend could also have used the Windows recovery console with commands like fixmbr
and fixboot but he didn’t
know how).

I recently used Puppy to save data from a DOS FAT32 partition on a
failing disk. I booted Live Puppy CD, then used its tools to
rebuild the DOS partition’s corrupted file allocation table. After verifying the FAT structure was
good, I carefully copied files from the failing disk to a good one,
concentrating on the highest priority files first. Eventually we saved
all data from the bad disk partition except for two files that had damaged
sectors. Then we replaced the bad disk.

Puppy’s Profile

Puppy makes a nice match for computer
consumers — assuming a knowledgeable person installs and configures it
for them. It brings old equipment back to life. But it may not be the best fit for
corporate users who require software that changes little from
release to release, or for companies that need a distro with corporate backing. Puppy is:

Community-developed and supported
— Puppy originated with one individual, Barry Kauler. A small inner circle adds
to his
efforts. No corporation underwrites or directs Puppy. Free support includes videos, wikis,
how-to’s, online documentation, tutorials, web sites, and active
forums. With one or two exceptions it does not offer corporate support contracts.

No “road map” — This is an
evolving distro. Every
version differs. There is no
long term “road map” for future development or set schedule for planned
releases and upgrades. The community develops Puppy as consensus evolves.

Version upgrades only — Updates are traditionally
through point releases. Puppy
5 adds a push-button for downloadable software fixes like Ubuntu or

Root user id — Puppy runs as a
single-user system and this drives its development. The Puppy user
runs as the Linux root user id.
In theory this could be a problem — but in practice it presents
no downside. I’ve never heard of a single Puppy user suffering
problem due to this.
If this concerns you, see the discussions
that explore all angles of this topic
in this
forum thread and this

How to Run Puppy

In Puppy version 5.2, the Live CD download file is
127 M. Once you’ve downloaded the product, burn it to a “boot CD” and
ready to run.

Given its small size and quick boot time,
many run Puppy as a Live CD or DVD without ever
installing it. Puppy allows you to save your session work by asking if
you want
to create a Save File the first time you request a shut down. Place the
Save File
on any writeable device
(disk, USB, writeable CD or DVD, whatever). Next time you boot the
Live CD
or DVD Puppy finds the Save File to start your session. Ever after Puppy automatically saves your session work in the Save
without asking.

You can install Puppy to any
bootable device — disk (SATA, PATA/IDE or SCSI), writeable CD or DVD,
Superdisk, USB devices, Zip drive, or whatever will boot your
computer. You have two options here: a full install and the frugal

The full install is a
traditional Linux install. You need to create a
disk partition for Puppy’s use. Puppy helps you do this with its bundled GParted
partition manager. Puppy also comes with GRUB for setting up an OS selection menu at startup. A Puppy partition need only be
500 M, though if you install additional apps, I’ve found 1 G to be a spacious
round number.

The frugal install simply
copies the Live CD files to
disk. Place these files in a single directory within
existing partition. This partition can be Windows NTFS or FAT32, or any
of the
common Linux partition types, such as ext2, ext3, ext4, or reiserfs.

The benefits to the frugal install are:

  1. Puppy can reside in any existing partition (assuming sufficient
  2. No need to shrink the Windows partition or create a new Linux
  3. Easy to upgrade — just replace the older version files with the
    ones from a newer version

These advantages make frugal installs more popular with Puppy than
full disk installs.
USB boots are also quite popular. Puppy fits on any 512 M USB memory stick with space leftover for your data.

New in Version 5

Puppy 5.x presents some
big enhancements over previous versions. It was created from Ubuntu
packages through a
new tool inventor Barry Kauler calls Woof. Woof
builds Puppy from the package repositories of various Linux distros.
Right now the supported distros include Ubuntu, Debian,
Slackware, Arch, T2 SDE, and Puppy.

The result is that Puppy 5 runs any Ubuntu or *.deb package! This opens
up the whole word of Ubuntu and Debian applications to Puppy. Prior to
version 5, you could only install apps from Puppy’s own repository.
While this repository contains
of common Linux applications, enough for most people, it does not
compare to the thousands of free apps now available in the
Ubuntu/Debian repositories.

Puppy 5 tweaks the user interface. It boots directly into a
pre-configured desktop for quick startup. It gives users the
ability to easily customize the desktop with choices for
applications such as the browser. The new QuickPet tool makes
installation easy. Wireless and internet configuration are also much
improved. Barry Kauler’s blog and the
Version 5 Release
give full details on everything that’s new in Puppy 5.

You can customize Puppy into your own distro with either Woof or the Puppy re-mastering tool. These are
so easy to use that they have resulted in an explosion of Puplets,
customized Puppy-based distros. Puplets address all sorts of special
interests, including multi-user
, Puppeee
for the eeePC notebook, UbuntuStudio
Puppy, and many more
designed for gaming, scientific disciplines, religious interests,
international languages, etc. If you’re interested in
customizing your own
Linux version, Puppy is an especially good choice.

Time to Adopt Puppy?

Puppy Linux combines a full range of applications and performance
in an
system. Given its light resource requirements, it works well on older computers, netbooks, mobile devices, and other
limited-resource systems. It’s a great hobbyist system for revitalizing an older computer. You can make an old Windows ME/98/95
box useful again with Puppy.

I like Puppy because it’s the lightest Linux
distro I’ve found that is still suitable for end users. Install it on
an old P-III or P-IV computer and your family or friends will use it
just as effectively for common tasks as any expensive new

At OS News, we’re all computer enthusiasts, so it may be hard to believe.
But many people see absolutely no reason to pay for
a new computer
every few years if their old one suffices. Puppy is a godsend for
these folks.

I’ve run Puppy for five years with few problems. Forum support
is outstanding. And Puppy really flies — when the entire system runs from
memory, even an
older computer is responsive. A P-III with adequate memory runs Puppy
as fast as my dual-core e5200 runs Windows.

Without advertisements or corporate backing, Puppy has risen to become one of the world’s
dozen most popular distros. If you’re looking for a lightweight distro you should
give it a try.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
specializes in
databases and operating systems. His hobby is computer refurbishing as
a form of social work and environmental contribution. You can reach him
at contactfci at the domain
name of sbcglobal (period) net.

Puppy Links

and Getting Started
Puppy 5 review
and intro
Puppy 5 review

Previous Articles in
This Series

1. Smart
Reuse with Open Source
How refurbishing defeats planned
2. Scandal: Most
“Recycled” Computers Are Not Recycled
What really happens to many
3. How
to Revitalize Mature Computers
Overview of how to refurbish
mature computers
4. How to
Secure Windows
A step-by-step procedure to
5. How to Performance Tune Windows How to tune Windows (any version)
6. How Microsoft Missed The Next Big Thing How Microsoft missed the boat when it comes to the exploding popularity of small portable devices
7. How to Run Multiple Operating Systems Describes and contrasts techniques to running multiple operating systems on a single computer
8. Lubuntu: Finally, a Lightweight Ubuntu! Lubuntu review — why you should consider it on low-end systems.

Puppy Linux Screenshots

The Main Screen

The icons in the upper-left side of the screen
are the main
applications. The optional row of disk icons at the lower left-side of
the screen shows the mount status of disk partitions. I’ve changed the
background wallpaper here from version 5’s default to that of an
earlier Puppy release —

Puppy Main Screen

Bundled Graphics Tools

This screenshot shows Puppy’s bundled graphics tools. Just right-click
at any open position in the screen to see JWM’s pop-up application
menus —

Bundled Graphics Tools

Using Puppy

I wrote this article on several of old P-IV and P-III computers with Puppy.
Here’s a screenshot where I’m researching and writing using tools like the KompoZer HTML Editor, Firefox, the ROX-Filer
File Manager, and the System Tools menu. I snapped and resized the screenshot with
mtPaint —

Writing This Article

The Package Manager

Puppy 5 now installs and runs applications from the
Ubuntu as well as Puppy repositories. You can install any *.deb package —

The Package Manager (with Ubuntu Repositories)


This easy tool allows for one-click app installation and is an
easy-to-use addition
to the Package Manager —

Quickpet Application Installer

Network Connectivity Tools

Puppy Version 5 enhances Puppy’s network connectivity
tools. Wireless and modem configuration are much improved —

Network Connectivity Tools


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