Four Lightweight Distros Compared

In the past year I’ve reviewed four lightweight Linuxes for OS News: VectorLinux, Puppy Linux, Lubuntu, and Damn Small Linux. This article compares the four distributions. I invite your comments in response: what are your own experiences with these and competing lightweight distros?

Here are links to the OS News reviews:

The reviews all cover current releases (except for Lubuntu, which is
now at version 12.04). This article refers to the current 32-bit
versions of these OS’s — including Lubuntu 12.04.

Hardware and Performance

As lightweight distros, all four products provide excellent performance
on any Pentium IV or better with at least 512M of memory. This makes
them great candidates for reviving any old PC you may have lying around
the house. Why not make use of that old laptop?

Even if you have only 256M, VectorLinux and Puppy run fine. Puppy runs
entirely from memory by default on any computer with least
256M. It releases the CD/DVD for your use even if you booted from it.
Damn Small Linux requires even less resources. Detailed specs are in
the chart at the end of this article.

On the other end of the hardware spectrum, what about 64 bit systems?
The Lubuntu project is furthest along. They’ve offered 64
bit versions ever since their release of 10.04 over two years ago.
VectorLinux is beta
testing its first 64 bit version right now. Vector will likely roll out
the various editions
they support in 64 bit throughout the year.

Puppy Linux has several official releases and many
unofficial “puplets” or special builds. The official releases are all
32 bit but 64 bit puplets like FatDog and Lighthouse
are available. Damn Small Linux is no longer an active project. It will
have no 64 bit version.


Puppy and VectorLinux both bundle all the
apps needed for typical desktops. They are easy to use. Both used to
offer their own middling-sized repositories for
downloading additional software, but that’s all changed now.

Puppy Version 5
“Lucid” uses Ubuntu’s huge repositories, while the “Slacko” build uses
the Slackware repositories. Puppy includes dependency-checking when
these software libraries.

Similarly, VectorLinux 7 boasts a newly-expanded repository that now claims
one thousand packages. You can also use Slackware’s
big repositories with VL, but you don’t get dependency checking if you

Lubuntu’s bundled apps are
roughly equivalent to those offered by Puppy and Vector. Lubuntu
directly accesses the Ubuntu repositories with their 11,000+ apps.

Damn Small Linux is a much smaller distro than the others. It
weighs in as only a 50M download. While DSL bundles a full range of apps,
they were selected for their small size, rather than for functionality
or ease of use. The apps are pretty geeky. And they show their age,
since the final release of this distro was in 2008. DSL uses its own
repository for software downloads called myDSL.

Support & Documentation 

Puppy Linux and VectorLinux have active, friendly forums. I’ve used
both for over five years and have never had a single question that
wasn’t answered. Puppy Linux has a ton of documentation, though it’s a
bit disorganized and not always clear to which release any particular
document applies. Vector’s documentation is less voluminous but it is
better organized and clearly labelled. Vector is the only distro that
offers a paid support

How you judge Lubuntu’s support and documentation depends on whether
you view the product as part of the Ubuntu family or as independent.
For example, Lubuntu users tap the huge, very active Ubuntu forum, where they tag their
questions as pertaining to Lubuntu. Lubuntu doesn’t have its own
independent forum. Similarly, the Lubuntu doc is sparse though expanding
rapidly. Of course, users can rely on the tons of material available
for Ubuntu.

Damn Small Linux is no longer maintained so support is limited. The DSL
website is still up and
you can buy the highly-rated DSL
. If you have DSL questions you must post them on generic Linux
forums like LinuxQuestions
or the LinuxForums.

Which are Suitable for End Users?

End users easily and productively use Puppy and VectorLinux. Both
distros should be installed and configured by an experienced person

Lubuntu is also very user-friendly. Some argue that end users can
install and configure it, but I believe it’s similar to Puppy and
Vector — users will love the system, but it’s preferable that an
experienced hand installs and configures it for them first.

Damn Small Linux has a primitive GUI and the geekiest apps because it
runs on very minimal hardware. It’s a fun hobbyist tool but I would not
recommend it for end users.

The graphical user interface of a distro partially determines
its ease of use and configurability. Here are the install

Default GUI:

12.04 LTS
7.0 Standard Edition
VectorLinux 7.0 Light Edition Several 
(you choose when installing)
Puppy Linux
Small Linux

Which Run on Old Computers?

All four of these products run great on Pentium IV’s with 512M. Beyond
that …

Puppy Linux 5 includes a “retro release” called Wary, specifically
designed for older hardware with an older kernel. Wary runs on topped
out P-II’s or better. It is a good choice for aging hardware because it
has a large active community actually using old machines.

VectorLinux has been around since 1999, so older versions support older
hardware. For Version 7 I’d recommend a P-III or better.

Lubuntu’s first independent release dates from late 2009. It’s a poor
bet for old hardware simply because the product post-dates that era.
Pentium IV’s or better are recommended, preferably with at least 384M
to 512M of memory.

Damn Small Linux is frozen in time. Its final release dates from 2008.
DSL still runs the 2.4 kernel and it includes the SYSLINUX bootloader
for machines that won’t boot ISOLINUX. DSL is your best bet if
you’re playing around with a really
old computer like a P-II, P-I, P-I MMX, Pentium Pro, or 486.

When to Use Each Distro

Let’s wrap up with a few recommendations.

Linux and VectorLinux have very low system requirements and run
on P-III’s or better. Both give you a full selection of bundled apps
and are easy to use. They
offer nice CD mastering systems for creating your own customized
versions. Their enthusiastic online forums get my highest marks.

Puppy is very fast because it runs entirely from memory by
default. Lucid Puppy gives you access to the huge Ubuntu repositories,
while Slacko Puppy taps the Slackware software libraries. Wary Puppy is
specifically designed to support older hardware.

VectorLinux is a fast, bloat-free distro you can build up
into your own tailored system. VL offers a nice range of editions
to satisfy all tastes. The benefit is that you can stay within the
Vector family even if you have varied needs or if your needs change
time. VL’s paid support option distinguishes
it from competitors.  VectorLinux is a good choice for those who
want a
Slackware-based distro with a long history and strong track record:
Vector’s proven itself since 1999.

is a good option for those who want to stay within the Ubuntu family
but need a lighter distro that
requires less CPU and memory. It’s also an alternative for those
fleeing Ubuntu’s Unity–HUD–Dashboard design. Lubuntu has none of
these because it runs LXDE instead of Unity. Lubuntu keeps you in the
Ubuntu family with a more
traditional, resource-light interface.

Damn Small Linux should be your choice only if you have really old hardware you’re geeking around
with — like a P-II, P-I, or 486. DSL is excellent for that one
specific purpose. If you have newer hardware, Puppy, Vector, and
Lubuntu are all better choices from the standpoints of currency,
support, user-friendliness, and range of apps.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
supports databases and operating systems. You might also be interested
in his OS News article The Sins
of Ubuntu
. Read more of his articles here.

Lightweight Distro Specs

Distro & Website:
Download Size:
Installed Footprint:
64 bit too? CPU:

12.04 LTS
1 CD


state P-II minimum but a P-III or P-IV is probably the
practical minimum
state 128M minimum but the 12.04 download recommends 384M or
better for the Live CD
7.0 Standard Edition
1 CD 3.4G

In Beta

state a P-III @750mhz or better for Live CD
state 256M or better for Live CD
Puppy Linux
0.5 – 1G *

As Puplet

P-II or better works best
128M minimum required to install, with 256M
it runs it entirely from memory
7.0 Light Edition
1 CD

In Beta

state a P-I @166mhz minimum, works best with P-II or better
state 64M minimum, works best with 128M or more
Small Linux
50M 200 – 300M *


state a 486 minimum
state 16M minimum to run GUI, with 128M it runs entirely from

The numbers in this chart are
approximate rather than precise.

*  For a full disk install.


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