Can you help me pick a Linux distro?
February 14, 2014 8:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if there's a specific distro that will breathe new life into my spare aging Dell WinXP machine...

This is a Dell Latitude C640 with minimal RAM. It is my workshop computer and is used for little more than streaming music and video off my NAS and occasional web browsing. It can do these things, albeit awkwardly, with it's original installation of XP Pro but I'm hoping to streamline things. I tried Ubunu 12LTS but it's choking on that (and not playing nice with the NAS, either...). There's obvious pauses between hovering over drop-down menus and their appearance, for example.

Any recommendations? Thanks!
posted by werkzeuger to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If you run a GUI on a modern OS, you need more ram. If ubuntu is choking, everything else with a GUI will too. I wish I had better advice, but unless you want to run a minimal server install on it, you won't get much out.
posted by bensherman at 8:08 AM on February 14, 2014

Response by poster: The RAM is currently not maxed out. I might be able to find some in the scrap pile to adress that bottleneck.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:13 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: Find something with a very slim window manager. Lubuntu uses LXDE which is designed for a small footprint.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:15 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

My *NIX knowledge is a little out of date, but I used to run Linux on old boxes and I would always use XFCE for the window manager because it was much less laggy on slow hardware.
posted by selfnoise at 8:16 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: You can try Puppy Linux. You don't even have to install it to try it -- you can boot it off a CD.
posted by alex1965 at 8:22 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: If you run a GUI on a modern OS, you need more ram. If ubuntu is choking, everything else with a GUI will too. I wish I had better advice, but unless you want to run a minimal server install on it, you won't get much out.

Ubuntu is actually a huge resource hog, compared to many other Linux distros. Xubuntu, Lubuntu, and Puppy Linux are good options.

I prefer XFCE over LXDE, if your machine can run it.
posted by jsturgill at 8:27 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Minimal RAM is highly subjective. How much RAM do you have?

Very true, apologies. Currently it's 512MB. I recently had a power fluctuation that seemed to ruin a second 512MB stick.

With that 2nd stick the machine performed adequately under XP for what I do. I'll try to locate replacement memory, but I was also wondering if lighter weight OS might help; I was under the impression there were Linux distros that specifically addressed this.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:28 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: Unity is really kind of bloated. It's pretty on new machines, but bloated. Count me among those who does not understand why everybody thinks so much stuff needs to be animated and transparent. The older window managers like LXDE and XFCE are lighter and will run quicker, but will have a bit more of a learning curve. I have an elderly laptop that's done quite well with KDE with all the settings turned down, but YMMV. There are, basically, a lot of options and one of the things about being a Linux user is that there's kind of an expectation that you'll sit down and try all of them.

It's not the back end of Ubuntu, though, it's almost certainly Unity. So other Ubuntu-based things are still possibilities. I've gotten XFCE running on a 512mb-RAM VPS before, on a lark. That said, I'd probably try to get it up to at least a gigabyte, if not two. There are some even more stripped-down things, but the further down you get the less user friendly things tend to be.
posted by Sequence at 8:36 AM on February 14, 2014

I'd recommend a linux distro where you only add what you need instead of having a bunch of stuff auto shoe-horned onto your aging computer, like Debian (stable branch was just updated on the 8th, I think).
posted by destructive cactus at 8:46 AM on February 14, 2014

Response by poster: I'd recommend a linux distro where you only add what you need instead of having a bunch of stuff auto shoe-horned onto your aging computer...

I like the sound of this approach, but...
I only know enough about Linux to be dangerous. I've made a couple of Live CDs and got Puppy working on a USB stick.

Is the process of choosing what is needed for debian easy enough I could do it? I'm afraid I don't have the time to troubleshoot, and I reached to Ubuntu first because I knew it a little and it seems relatively noob-friendly.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:59 AM on February 14, 2014

Ubuntu is based on Debian. It shouldn't be a huge reach to go from one to the other. (Most of the real, functional things that Ubuntu does are derived from Debian -- it's the polish that Ubuntu adds.)

If you don't have time for troubleshooting, though, you may be in for struggles.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:04 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: If you're truly scared of the install process the lighter grade Ubuntus (Xubuntu and Lubuntu) are your best bets. If you're not petrified of the install process, you can get a nice clean install of Debian with a good gui just by booting the Debian Net Install and choosing 'Desktop' as a task option (I forget what step it is in the install process), and nothing else.

Once you get there, just choose one of the lighter desktop environments, (LXDE, XFCE, Fluxbox, etc).
posted by eclectist at 9:05 AM on February 14, 2014

Best answer: I actually paid for an account just to help with this question, As I was once here. For alot of the linux community, Ubuntu and its respins are synonyous with linux, but ubuntu and ubuntu-based distros aren't all there is to offer. You do have a few options for an aging laptop, and each will take you a different route, Usability-wise.

Your first option for a low resource computer is puppy linux. Puppy THRIVES on low resource systems and ships with a modern kernel (more drivers). The setup uses very minimal ram using apps and desktop enviornment, with something of a start bar type GUI. This distro will cover all your needs and run reasonably fast on your laptop, but a word of caution, you may feel like you are using an aged OS. I say this because the look and feel (to the developers) are mostly second, they put features and usability first. I'd definately give it a try though.

another option if you are really gunning for an Ubuntu based distro is lubuntu. all the features of ubuntu sans unity. They use a modern kernel as well as the lxde desktop enviornment to speed up the bulk that is ubuntu. Very polished and very funtional.

another option, is Bodhi linux. with this distro you get the speedy enlightenment window manager as well as under the hood tweaks meant for increased speed. This one is based on ubuntu and comes with a very very minimal set of apps, so whatever you choose to install for word processing and chat and web browsing will really determine how bulky this is. Very functional, very elegant.

lastly is Zenwalk. this one is based on slackware and has a repo full of goodies. they just came out with their latest release today I believe too. you can choose from a variety of window managers and a complete or "core" setup, allowing you to choose how speedy your end product will be.

all in all, I'dm go for bodhi or zenwalk, they are the closest to additional distros without sacrificing functionality. good luck!
posted by tahu363 at 9:06 AM on February 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: If you just want a simple suggestion, I'd say try XFCE on Ubuntu (via the Xubuntu distribution), then start down the hole of tweaking things if you still find that too slow.

The hole of tweaking things:

Arch Linux, while being a completely unreasonable time sink even if you know what you're doing, has some good documentation on its wiki, which can be translated to other linux distributions.

If you don't need a full-blown, ready to go desktop environment, there's a list of window managers, which may help you get a feel for what each window manager actually does, and how memory-intensive they are.

For a useful GUI, where you don't also need to install all the applications that do things (like a file manager, a web browser, etc), there's a list of desktop environments, too.

Ubuntu also has some documentation on its wiki for getting started on a low memory system, although there's a disclaimer at the top of that page stating that it's out of date.

Basically, the more time you're willing to invest in setting things up on Linux, the less RAM usage you can get away with.
posted by t3h933k at 9:07 AM on February 14, 2014

Response by poster: There are loads of fantastic answers here and I thank everybody, especially tahu363.
posted by werkzeuger at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

No problem. I didnt mention xubuntu mainly because its claim to fame is that it has a lowerER resource Desktop enviorment. everything I mentioned is designed for low resource computers. Don't discredit XFCE as a window manager, the Xubuntu team mainly focus on XFCE usability and not speed under-the-hood. happy hunting :)
posted by tahu363 at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2014

In this order:

1. Max out the RAM.
2. Install Xubuntu. If it's too slow for you...
3. Install Lubuntu.

You'll be able to squeeze out more performance if you use Debian or something Debian-based. Pure Debian does involve a bit of learning and donkey work before you're set up (though nowhere near as much as Arch), but it's definitely worth it.

You might do well with Solydx, which is like Xubuntu, only with a Debian base. Solydx is designed to work out of the box, a lot like *buntu distributions, and there's a good community for support too.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 9:22 AM on February 14, 2014

Additionally, If you settle on something debian based, give the Liquorix kernel replacement a look. Its a modern linux kernel with tons of speed and functionality tweaks and can be installed on any *buntu system to make it faster
posted by tahu363 at 9:26 AM on February 14, 2014

Nthing xubuntu as first choice, lubuntu if xubuntu won't fit, and puppy as last resort. And if at all possible bump up the RAM. Even Xubuntu should be OK with 512MB, but life will probably be easier with more.
posted by pont at 12:08 PM on February 14, 2014

Response by poster: I'll mark this resolved, but if anyone wants to share more please do. This has been a really helpful thread and I'm grateful to everyone for taking the time to answer.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:51 PM on February 14, 2014

In addition to lxde, or xfce, as lighter-weight window managers there is also openbox. Crunchbang (#!) is a debian distro with sane defaults and installs openbox. It is my default choice for 'small' installs like those on old gear or in small virtual machines.
posted by mce at 3:06 PM on February 14, 2014

Adding one more voice: I have installed xubuntu on several computers with similar specs and have been mostly happy with the results.
posted by 1367 at 7:19 PM on February 14, 2014

To amend my answer - the difference between 512mb of memory and 256 (as listed on your page) is huge in terms of how well X will run. Everyone has already covered it, but other distros will run X fine. The problem will be that almost anything else on top of it (firefox for example) will eat the rest of it, nearly instantly.

Back in the day™, we used linux with X on 32mb, but the apps I ran were tiny. If you are content with 9 terminal windows running pine and gopher, you won't have a problem.
posted by bensherman at 11:30 AM on February 19, 2014

Response by poster: Just a final update: I got rid of Ubuntu and installed Lubuntu, and I'm loving it. Even with 512mb it's at least an snappy as it was with WinXP (with twice the RAM!!), and video playback within Firefox is better than it used to be. If I can find another stick of RAM for this thing I'll be golden.

Also, before using LXDE, everyone's descriptions were leading me to think it would be something primitive-looking like Win 3.1. It's actually quite elegant and beautiful, and just where I want to be for a GUI especially on this limited-use computer.

Thanks you guys!

To amend my answer - the difference between 512mb of memory and 256 (as listed on your page) is huge in terms of how well X will run.

Yeah 256 would be painful. That page was absolute minimum physical RAM, sorry.
posted by werkzeuger at 9:03 AM on March 1, 2014

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