Linux is known for offering tremendous overall hardware compatibility, but Linux is most famous for its compatibility with older laptop hardware. This article will share some of the best Linux distros for old laptop hardware and also touch on what the minimum requirements are for each distro.
Using Ubuntu as its base, Xubuntu is a fantastic release for those looking to stick with a traditional desktop, but forgoing the need to burn through precious PC resources. This is a desktop popular with Linux gamers as it strikes a balance by avoiding unnecessary compositing while allowing a tremendous amount of control over the theming of the XFCE desktop.
The minimum requirements for Xubuntu are quite reasonable at 512 MB of RAM running with a 700 Mhz CPU. This is due to the basic requirements of the Xubuntu desktop. This leaves any extra resources for running common applications like web browsers and office applications.
Similar in many aspects to Xubuntu, Lubuntu is even lighter on resources and will provide the oldest laptop with a brand new lease on life. This is the distro I run on my ancient ASUS Eee 1005HAB netbook. With the netbook's limited RAM and Atom CPU, Lubuntu fits it like a glove.
To run Lubuntu, your PC needs to provide at least an Intel Pentium 2 (or AMD similar) CPU and 128 Mb of RAM. On a laptop like mine that has an Intel Atom CPU and 2 GB of RAM, Lubuntu performance screams in terms of speed. This means running heavy stuff like video or script heavy web pages are no issue as 99% of my resources can go to running applications instead of the mere act of supporting the operating system.
Based on Ubuntu, Bodhi uses an Enlightenment 17 inspired desktop called Moksha. The Moksha desktop provides Ubuntu fans with older laptops a low resource friendly distro that will run practically anything.
Software installation and availability is as expected with any Ubuntu based distro, however the one difference is that Bodhi will support computers with limited resources. You can run Bodhi on 128 MB of RAM and a 300 Mhz CPU. Even better, Bodhi supports 32bit-based laptops even without PAE capability. Next to Lubuntu, Bodhi really should be on your shortlist for those looking for an Ubuntu environment without the bloat.
Tiny Core Linux
I've often argued with friends that you could run Tiny Core Linux on anything with a chip in it. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, due to compatibility. But lets say this – Tiny Core can run on the oldest hardware still working today….well, usually.
The minimal configuration requirements for Tiny Core is 46 MB of RAM and an i486 CPU. Let that one sink in a moment. To be ultimately fair, Tiny Core will be happier on a Pentium 2-based PC with a whopping 128 MB of RAM. But that would be if you wanted to use software going beyond what the minimal configuration will support.
Now unlike the previous options, this is not a distro I would call "user friendly" as it's based on speed, not ease of use. That said, for those in the know who want to breathe new life into their ancient brick-looking laptops, this may indeed be the distro for you.
Despite not being a huge fan of Slackware based distros, VectorLinux has always been an exception for me. It's crazy-fast, runs on computers normally considered too old to keep and has a lot going for it. That said, their forums look like a graveyard, so I would suggest getting any needed help elsewhere. And that is when their site decides to load reliably. That aside, it's a great option for your older laptop.
Even out of the box without any custom configuration, VectorLinux looks good. And it will run on a computer with 96MB of RAM and a Pentium 2 CPU. I would also argue (although Slackware folks may disagree) that VectorLinux might even wet the pallet for Slack based distros in general. It's quite a ride if you're willing to dive into how Slack works.
Out of the non-Ubuntu/Debian distros available for older laptops, Puppy Linux has always had a warm place in my heart. It's super-light weight as to support low resource laptops, plus it has the ability to run from a USB key.
One of Puppy's killer features has always been that it balances outstanding hardware support while making sure you have full GUI control over all aspects of its setup. What's also neat is that while it's possible to run as a live distro, you can indeed install it if you prefer. Personally I think you're better off running it from a USB key while using a persistent storage option for your configuration.
Desktop Environments for Old Laptops
Perhaps more important than the Linux distros themselves, are the desktop environments we choose for older laptops. Considering that any distro worth anything these days will have decent ACPI, wireless, and other related elements the distro base is primarily a personal choice.
The advantage of making the desktop environment a primary consideration is that you can usually run it on most any distro. Allow me to elaborate. Let's say you would rather run Debian instead of Ubuntu. Both of these distros are related as Ubuntu pulls packages from Debian, however they are indeed completely different distributions.
This means if you want to run Debian on an old laptop, you would only need to install a light weight desktop. LXDE for example is one great option. This is the same desktop environment found on Lubuntu, but by installing it on Debian you're free to enjoy that desktop on a Debian installation.
Now there are exceptions to this to be aware of, however. For example, you're really not going to want to install specific desktop environments on distros that don't support it. Lucky for you, everything listed in this article allows you to install whatever you wish. But as a general rule, sticking with the desktop installed by default may lead to an overall smoother experience.
What say you? What are you favorite Linux distros and desktop environments for older laptops? Perhaps you prefer to avoid older laptops and instead, choose to buy new computers on a regular basis? Whatever your approach may be, hit the Comments and tell us about it.