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Basic Linux distro for text-only system?
March 4, 2013 5:56 AM   Subscribe

What is a suitable Linux distribution for a text-only system?

I am looking for a good Linux distribution to use in text-mode only. This is for a netbook (Eee 1000H) which really struggles to run GUI applications. I want to try to use it as a simple text-editor-on-the-go.

It would be ideal to be able to run Dropbox on it but I think this will require a GUI. I am reasonably comfortable with administering Linux from a CLI (although years of Mac use have atrophied those reflexes). I can live without Internet access.

An alternative would be a GUI distribution that is lightweight. (I'm currently using Ubuntu 12.04, which is probably overkill.)
posted by Grinder to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of text editor? Something like vi or EMACS? Any distro will do if you don't run the GUI on it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:03 AM on March 4, 2013

I don't think Dropbox requires a GUI on Linux, fwiw, though I could be wrong.
posted by hoyland at 6:18 AM on March 4, 2013

lxde might be useful.
posted by nicolin at 6:21 AM on March 4, 2013

I'm running Dropbox without a gui on Linux, so it's possible. I don't remember if the .deb file required gui libraries to install though.

I use Debian, because I use it on my server and want something that's very stable, so I'm familiar with it. This is at the expense of the most up to date packages. There are Debian for netbook distributions out there.

You don't need to abandon the gui. You could install a lightweight window manager such as fluxbox and it should work fine. I've done it on my Asus 900A. Just look for apps that don't require a large amount of resources.
posted by beowulf573 at 6:23 AM on March 4, 2013

You can disable the GUI on Ubuntu.

Seconding beowulf573 that it should be usable with fluxbox or even classic Gnome.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:37 AM on March 4, 2013

For CLI-only servers, I like to use CentOS which is based on Red Hat. Part of the preference is the extended life cycle, which may not be such a factor on a personal use machine.

For a personal system, I think Ubuntu is a great option. Why not stick with that? You don't need to install a graphical interface.
posted by doomtop at 6:40 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dropbox daemon installation instructions. I run it perfectly fine without GUI. You may have to write up your own service start script (i.e., /etc/init.d/dropboxd).

Realistically, any modern Linux should serve your needs. Just boot without GUI. Pick the one you're more comfortable with.
posted by chengjih at 7:19 AM on March 4, 2013

Why not just stick with Ubuntu 12.04 and ditch the GUI? Or switch to a lightweight GUI like lxde or jwm.
posted by pont at 7:25 AM on March 4, 2013

Once you have your OS installed, have a look at Inconsolation, by K.Mandla. "Adventures with lightweight and minimalist software for Linux"
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:00 AM on March 4, 2013

You could check out damn small linux. It's designed to be run from a usb drive. Though, I believe you can also do a proper install if you want. I haven't used it but it might be worth a try. It's only a 50 MB download. I think it uses fluxbox as the default window manager.

Fluxbox is great. I use it on both my netbook (eee 701) and my desktop (debian testing on both fwiw). Not because I'm starved for resources but just because I like it better than anything else. It's super fast and ridiculously customizable through simple config files.
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand at 9:03 AM on March 4, 2013

Ubuntu server installs without all the X windows crap. Then again if you have the drive space there's no harm in installing a full environment; you don't have to use it.

Virtual consoles are your friend for text mode Linux.
posted by Nelson at 9:51 AM on March 4, 2013

Almost any distro will do ... a lot is going to be up to personal preference.

You can install Ubuntu Server, which leaves out XWindows and just installs the GUI and gives you a nice base for a development / editing / general-hacking system.

Fedora and Scientific Linux (my current favorite) have similar options if you want `yum` rather than `apt-get`.

Plain old Debian can also be purely console/CLI driven without a GUI, and it's really stable. You may find that the help forums are more "friendly" to someone working on a non-GUIed system too (i.e. less advice will simply assume that you have the GUI). Only downside to Debian is that it sometimes doesn't have the latest versions of software in the repos, and you can destabilize things pretty quickly if you start pulling in packages from Ubuntu or 3rd party repos.

And then there's always Gentoo and Slackware, the latter of which just had a new release in Sept '12 and has always been very console-focused.

For your netbook I think you could get away just fine with a server / CLI-based install of any mainstream distro; I don't think it's necessary to go to one of the super-compact distros like Damn Small. There's no reason you can't use one of them, but their software options are much more limited and you may find yourself wanting the options that you get with Ubuntu/Debian/Fedora/SL/Slack/whatever down the road. Although your netbook isn't a speed demon by modern standards, it's easily hundreds of times more powerful than multiuser Unix systems I used over the years.

The only thing to look out for is that the installers for some distros will fail if you don't have humongous amounts of RAM, because they assume you're going to install X and some memory-hogging desktop environment and a modern browser and god knows what else. Generally this restriction doesn't apply to the "server" install variants, but I know at least one version of Ubuntu didn't remove it (accidentally, I think?) and thus artificially cut out some low-spec systems that would have operated just fine. I believe the issue was resolved though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:26 PM on March 4, 2013

You could check out damn small linux.

I have DSL installed on the HD of an old laptop [with a whole 24MB RAM]. It works fine in text mode and also with a GUI.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 4:53 PM on March 4, 2013

Crunchbang is a lightweight Linux Distribution. If you're looking for likeminded people, #! is likely the place for you.
posted by pwnguin at 10:10 PM on March 4, 2013

Most of the big well-known distros offer command-line only installation options.

You can install a command-line-only Ubuntu from the Minimal CD or the Alternate Install CD. I'm a text and command-line lover who did that for a long time, but Ubuntu's priorities are very much not on command-line users, and it began to show.

I migrated to Debian (which just had a new release) which wasn't a big shift because Ubuntu's a Debian derivative. Debian stable is super-stable; that's its blessing and curse. I thought Ubuntu's 6-month cycles made for a sweet spot of instability vs. currency.

At the far end of the instability vs. currency trade-off, Arch facilitates staying on the bleeding-edge of everything. This offers some risks, but a plus of Arch is that it probably has the largest population of textphiles, so there are other people facing the same situations you are. Their forum and wiki are an important resource for textphiles even if you don't use Arch -- much of the content is applicable elsewhere.

There are lots of minimal WMs you might want to consider -- I use Ratpoison, which full-screens everything by default. I have a single (textual) bar of status info at the top, and that's only there because I set it up that way -- by default, there'd be nothing and not much of a way to tell I'm in an xterm in X and not on the console.

But if you don't need Web access, you can go a long way on the console -- check out fbterm, tmux, and there are some framebuffer-based PDF viewers like fbi and fbgs.
posted by Zed at 12:40 PM on March 5, 2013

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