Modern Lightweight Linux Distro Showdown: Who is the Champion?

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As a Linux user, I was recently in search of a Linux distribution (distro) that is lightweight and runs efficiently on a virtual machine or a physical machine using minimal resources. In the end, only 1 would be chosen as the lightweight Linux distribution of choice. It would have to be good enough to deploy as a daily-driver on my main machine. So, I began the online search and found many articles recommending copious distros which claim to check the boxes for the aforementioned requirements. Needless to say, the number of returned results was staggering.

The Long List of Contenders

The distros which were recommended most commonly have been compiled into a list of contenders as shown below. Whenever possible, the most recent stable release of each distro was chosen. The values provided for the “RAM” and “Disk Space” columns are the preferred/recommended system requirement values (not the minimum system requirement values).

DistroBased OnVersionLast ReleaseRelease ModelPackagesDesktopInitKernelISO SizeRAMDisk Space
AbsoluteSlackware2021032703/27/2021FixedTXZIceWMSysV5.10.262300 MB??
AntixDebian19.301/03/2021Fixed/Semi-RollingDEB/APTIceWMsunit/SysV4.9.2401100 MB256 MB5 GB
BodhiUbuntu5.1.003/23/2020FixedDEB/APTMokshasystemd4.15.0802 MB768 MB10 GB
BunsenLabsDebian2.1 lithium08/02/2020FixedAPTOpenboxsystemd4.19.1181200 MB2048 MB20 GB
EliveDebian3.8.1801/06/2021FixedDEB/APTEnlightenmentsystemd4.19.1603100 MB192 MB?
Linux LiteUbuntu5.404/01/2021FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.4.01400 MB1024 MB20 GB
LubuntuUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTLXQtsystemd5.8.01800 MB1024 MB6 GB
LXLELubuntu18.04.309/09/2019FixedDEB/APTLXDEsystemd4.15.01200 MB1024 MB8 GB
PorteusSlackware4.004/30/2018FixedXZCinnamon/KDE/LXQt/LXDE/MATE/Openbox/XFCESysV4.16.3300 MB512 MB?
PuppyUbuntu/Slackware9.5 fossapup09/17/2020FixedPETJWMSysV5.4.53409 MB256 MB1 GB
Q4OSDebian3.1402/16/2021FixedDEB/APTKDE/Trinitysystemd4.19.171922 MB1024 MB5 GB
SlaxDebian9.11.009/14/2019FixedDEB/APTFluxboxsystemd4.9.189265 MB512 MB?
SliTazIndependent5.011/18/2018RollingTazPKGOpenboxother3.16.5565 MB256 MB80 MB
SparkyDebian5.1402/05/2021Fixed, Semi-RollingDEB/APTLXQt/MATE/Xfce/KDEsystemd4.19.1711600 MB384 MB30 GB
Tiny CoreDSL12.002/17/2021FixedTCEflwmBusyBox5.10.3106 MB128 MB?
Trisquel MiniUbuntu9.0 Etiona10/19/2020FixedDEB/APTLXDEsystemd4.15.01200 MB256 MB5 GB
Ubuntu MATEUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTMATEsystemd5.8.02500 MB4096 MB16 GB
XubuntuUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.8.01700 MB2048 MB20 GB
Zorin OS LiteUbuntu15.309/08/2020FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.4.02200 MB512 MB8 GB

Criteria

With a list this long, it is difficult and impractical to download the ISO and perform a test run for each and every distro. Some qualifying criteria would definitely help in pairing down this list. For my own needs, I wanted a distro that is: (1) modern and (2) updated regularly.

Let’s start by defining “modern”. It can be a very vague term and interpreted as meaning different things. A “modern” distro, as defined for this experiment, is one that has adopted systemd and has a kernel version that is greater than or equal or to the last 2 major LTS kernels (5.10 and 5.4).

Simply being “modern” isn’t quite enough. I don’t want to end up with a distro that is a one-hit wonder or has a short run. So, a track record of routine and regular updates is preferred since it builds more confidence in sticking with the distro for a longer period of time. I didn’t want to run into a short-lived distro and repeat my past experience with Antergos.

The Shortened List of Contenders

After applying the criteria above to the list of contenders, the list was refined as follows. Interestingly enough, all of the qualifying distros are based on Ubuntu (although this was not the intention). However, it does highlight the lack of modern distros that are lightweight and based on something other than Ubuntu.

DistroBased OnVersionLast ReleaseRelease ModelPackagesDesktopInitKernelISO SizeRAMDisk Space
Linux LiteUbuntu5.404/01/2021FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.4.01400 MB1024 MB20 GB
LubuntuUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTLXQtsystemd5.8.01800 MB1024 MB6 GB
Ubuntu MATEUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTMATEsystemd5.8.02500 MB4096 MB16 GB
XubuntuUbuntu20.1010/22/2020FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.8.01700 MB2048 MB20 GB
Zorin OS LiteUbuntu15.309/08/2020FixedDEB/APTXfcesystemd5.4.02200 MB512 MB8 GB

Methodology

The procedure for this experiment is quite simple. Create a virtual machine with no operating system installed and take a snapshot. Download the ISOs of each distribution. Install a distro to the virtual machine using the default settings whenever possible (avoiding the option to install additional drivers and media codecs). Then, measure the results at an idle state of the running distro. Finally, revert the virtual machine back to the snapshot (no OS installed) and repeat for the next distro.

Download the ISO Files

Thanks to some useful criteria, it is a lot easier to test 5 distros as compared to 20 distros. I downloaded the latest ISO file directly from the respective website for each distro. The sizes of the ISOs differed significantly (sorted below in descending file size order).

DistroFile NameFile Size
Ubuntu Mate 20.10ubuntu-mate-20.10-desktop-amd64.iso2.6 GB
Zorin OS Lite 15.3Zorin-OS-15.3-Lite-64-bit.iso2.3 GB
Lubuntu 20.10lubuntu-20.10-desktop-amd64.iso1.8 GB
Xubuntu 20.10xubuntu-20.10-desktop-amd64.iso1.7 GB
Linux Lite 5.4linux-lite-5.4-64bit.iso1.4 GB

Create a Test Environment

Since I was testing for lightweight efficiency, a virtual machine seemed to be the best medium on which to test each distro. Using virt-manager, I created a virtual machine which would be the installation target and testbench for each distro. The specifications of the virtual machine are shown below. The greatest RAM amount and greatest hard disk size were chosen from the recommended system requirements of the 5 distros to be tested to ensure that the greatest common factor (GCF) was considered.

Simply put, the virtual machine was created with the following set of attributes:

CPURAMHard Disk
24096 MB20 GB

Virtual Machines Specs: Configuration File

For an exact set of specifications, here is the XML configuration of the virtual machine.

<domain type="kvm">
  <name>lwl</name>
  <uuid>fa517b06-9b81-47de-ad10-7f08f3ec28b9</uuid>
  <memory>4194304</memory>
  <currentMemory>4194304</currentMemory>
  <vcpu>2</vcpu>
  <os>
    <type arch="x86_64" machine="pc-i440fx-focal">hvm</type>
    <boot dev="hd"/>
  </os>
  <features>
    <acpi/>
    <apic/>
    <vmport state="off"/>
  </features>
  <cpu mode="host-model"/>
  <clock offset="utc">
    <timer name="rtc" tickpolicy="catchup"/>
    <timer name="pit" tickpolicy="delay"/>
    <timer name="hpet" present="no"/>
  </clock>
  <pm>
    <suspend-to-mem enabled="no"/>
    <suspend-to-disk enabled="no"/>
  </pm>
  <devices>
    <emulator>/usr/bin/qemu-system-x86_64</emulator>
    <disk type="file" device="disk">
      <driver name="qemu" type="qcow2"/>
      <source file="/mnt/virtuals/QEMU-KVM Boxes/vm1.qcow2"/>
      <target dev="vda" bus="virtio"/>
    </disk>
    <disk type="file" device="cdrom">
      <target dev="hdb" bus="ide"/>
      <readonly/>
    </disk>
    <controller type="usb" index="0" model="ich9-ehci1"/>
    <controller type="usb" index="0" model="ich9-uhci1">
      <master startport="0"/>
    </controller>
    <controller type="usb" index="0" model="ich9-uhci2">
      <master startport="2"/>
    </controller>
    <controller type="usb" index="0" model="ich9-uhci3">
      <master startport="4"/>
    </controller>
    <interface type="network">
      <source network="default"/>
      <mac address="52:54:00:87:e9:7d"/>
      <model type="e1000"/>
    </interface>
    <console type="pty"/>
    <channel type="spicevmc">
      <target type="virtio" name="com.redhat.spice.0"/>
    </channel>
    <input type="tablet" bus="usb"/>
    <graphics type="spice" port="-1" tlsPort="-1" autoport="yes">
      <image compression="off"/>
    </graphics>
    <sound model="ich6"/>
    <video>
      <model type="qxl"/>
    </video>
    <redirdev bus="usb" type="spicevmc"/>
    <redirdev bus="usb" type="spicevmc"/>
  </devices>
</domain>

With the test environment and methodology established, it was now time to put each distro to the test. Here’s how things went.


linux lite logo

First Impressions

Linux Lite is a beautiful distro. There are no visible rough edges and there is a lot of thought and consideration that has gone into the design, look, and feel of this distribution. The welcome screen offers a good collection of options to help get you started and familiar with the distribution itself. The software selection is well-curated and includes everything you need to get started with a fully-functional operating system. The inclusion of a partial LibreOffice Suite, Thunderbird, Firefox, VLC, and Timeshift are a nice touch. The Control Panel/Settings is also great and provides for many of the critical settings and tweaks in one convenient location. The distro prominently features desktop shortcuts to the Control Panel, This PC, User Files, Network, Trash, and the Help Manual. The manual, launches a web-based navigation which has good documentation that is written for both the technical and non-technical. Considering all of this, I would definitely recommend this distro to any newbie trying out Linux for the first time.

The Welcome Screen

Linux Lite Welcome Screen

Control Panel/Settings

Linux Lite Settings Control Panel

Resource Usage at Idle

With a name like “Linux Lite”, one would expect that the resources usage for this distribution to be quite minimal. Here’s how it fared in terms of CPU and RAM usage at idle along with installation footprint size.

System Monitor

Linux Lite System Monitor Desktop

Disk Usage

Linux Lite Disk Usage DF Output

Usage Stats Summary

CPURAMHard Disk
3%573 MB (14%)7.3 GB (41%)


Lubuntu Logo

First Impressions

Lubuntu may not have the polish of Linux Lite, but it makes up for it with sheer simplicity and noticeable performance. The LXQt desktop environment is snappy and quick to respond to user interactions. The Configuration Center offers a good selection of settings and configurations that can be accessed from one location. The default installation comes complete with the full LibreOffice Suite, Firefox, and VLC. In an interesting move, Trojita is the default email client (and not Thunderbird). There are a few unnecessary applications which also come preinstalled: K3B, Quassel IRC, and nobleNote. I don’t remember the last time I had to burn to an optical disc OR the last time I had to use IRC (in lieu of Telegram, Matrix, Discord, etc.) OR the last time a sticky note was created (maybe back in the Windows Vista days when experimenting with widgets). Being a lightweight Linux distribution, the inclusion of these applications seems all the more contrary. This distribution is perhaps best targeted at Linux users who have at least some basic experience with Linux.

Configuration Center

Lubuntu Settings Control Panel

Unnecessary Applications

Lubuntu Unneeded Apps

Resource Usage at Idle

Lubuntu absolutely shines when it comes to being light on resources. It’s hard to tell that this distribution is based on Ubuntu. The LXQt desktop environment is a very lightweight and elegant choice for this distro. The inclusion of superfluous applications has not impacted the disk install size of the operating system.

System Monitor

Lubuntu System Monitor Desktop

Disk Usage

Lubuntu Disk Usage DF Output

Usage Stats Summary

CPURAMHard Disk
1%392 MB (10%)5.2 GB (28%)


ubuntu mate logo

First Impressions

Ubuntu MATE is also another great distribution for those who are new to Linux. Ubuntu MATE offers a Normal and Minimal installation. For this experiment, the Normal installation was chosen since it offered LibreOffice, Evolution, utilities, and media players as part of the installation. This makes the installation similar to the other 4 distros. The user interface, menus, and settings are very well-designed. The Control Center provides a central location for many of the distribution’s configurations and settings. The Software Boutique is the best application store I have ever seen for any distribution. I went ahead and looked up my favorite game of all time, 0AD, and was impressed at how the Software Boutique displayed the information regarding this application. Overall, using this distro feels good.

Control Center

Ubuntu Mate Settings Control Panel

Software Boutique

Ubuntu Mate Software Boutique (app store)

Resource Usage at Idle

From the looks of things, Ubuntu MATE doesn’t seem to be competing in terms of being a lightweight desktop distribution. Although it is definitely worthy of being a daily driver, it would be difficult to run this enjoyably on a machine with meager resource availability.

System Monitor

Ubuntu Mate System Monitor Desktop

Disk Usage

Ubuntu Mate Disk Usage DF Output

Usage Stats Summary

CPURAMHard Disk
2%815 MB (21%)7.8 GB (44%)


Xubuntu  Logo

First Impressions

The one thing that jumps to mind is minimalism (at its finest). If you want a desktop environment that stays out of your way, Xubuntu featuring Xfce is definitely a great fit. The installation comes complete with the full LibreOffice suite, Thunderbird, and Firefox. There are obviously other useful applications that also come pre-installed, in addition to some applications which seem to be irrelevant. Similar to the criticism of Lubuntu, an optical disc burning application and a sticky notes application just don’t seem that useful (although the latter perhaps has more utility). The Settings Manager is a comprehensive collection of settings and configuration options, but isn’t readily visible in the drop-down Whisker menu at first glance (it appears as an icon in the bottom right corner of the menu next to logging out and shutting down and also is available by right-clicking on the desktop and choosing Applications). All-in-all, Xubuntu is snappy in performance while being a very attractive looking implementation of a GTK-based desktop environment.

Settings

Xubuntu Settings Control Panel

Unnecessary Applications

Xubuntu Unneeded Apps

Resource Usage at Idle

Although Xfce is a lightweight desktop environment, it does not necessarily make Xubuntu very lean on resources. The resource usage is simliar to that of Linux Lite (which also uses the Xfce desktop environment).

System Monitor

Xubuntu System Monitor Desktop

Disk Usage

Xubuntu Disk Usage DF Output

Usage Stats Summary

CPURAMHard Disk
2%573 MB (14%)7.0 GB (39%)


Zorin OS Logo

First Impressions

Zorin OS Lite looks good. Actually, Zorin OS Lite looks great. It stretches Xfce to new aesthetic limits. It offers the most polished desktop experience when compared to any of the other 4 distros on this list. I would argue that it is probably in the top tier of polished distros for any and all Linux distros out there (ranking right up there with deepin, elementary OS et al). The full suite of LibreOffice is made available along with Thunderbird and Firefox. I also noticed that Remmina is installed by default. This might be for Windows users who are migrating to Zorin OS. After all, Zorin OS does target this demographic of users. The Pitivi video editor is also a default application. I can see this being a good idea on the full version of Zorin OS, but it doesn’t make too much sense for Zorin OS Lite which is meant to be installed on systems with less resources; video editing is a resource-intensive task. And, once again, an optical disk burning application (Xfburn) is pre-installed. I think it is safe to not include these types of applications by default. There are many hardware manufacturers in the market which haven’t even offer an optical disk drive for a few years now.

Settings

Zorin OS Settings Control Panel

Unnecessary Applications

Zorin OS Unneeded Apps

Resource Usage at Idle

Zorin OS Lite is essentially the heaviest Xfce-based distro in this analysis, especially when RAM usage is considered. The installation footprint size is also on the higher end. It may be relatively light in comparison to full-blown Zorin OS, but it’s usage statistics do not look very flattering when compared to the other 4 distros who are also attempting to be meager on resources.

System Monitor

Zorin OS System Monitor Desktop

Disk Usage

Zorin OS Disk Usage DF Output

Usage Stats Summary

CPURAMHard Disk
1%655 MB (16%)7.2 GB (39%)


Conclusion

After installing each of these distros on a virtual machine and getting to know more about them (especially at an idle state), the following comparison is being made. The difference of CPU usage at an idle state amongst the distros is negligible. When we start to look at RAM utilization and hard disk space, the clear stand-out is Lubuntu. The LXQt desktop really puts the Qt framework in a whole new light (pun alert) of being lean and efficient, especially in terms of memory usage at idle.

Usage Stats Summary

DistroCPURAMHard Disk
Linux Lite3%573 MB (14%)7.3 GB (41%)
Lubuntu1%392 MB (10%)5.2 GB (28%)
Ubuntu MATE2%815 MB (21%)7.8 GB (44%)
Xubuntu2%573 MB (14%)7.0 GB (39%)
Zorin OS Lite1%655MB (16%)7.2 GB (39%)

Champion

DistroCPURAMHard Disk
Lubuntu1%392 MB (10%)5.2 GB (28%)

Author’s Note

An Arch installation with LXQt is even more leaner than Lubuntu. However, Arch was not considered for this analysis since it does not come with a collection of curated applications. After performing this analysis, I do plan on removing the Cinnamon desktop environment from a laptop that I have running Arch and installing LXQt instead. I have already nuked and paved to LXQt on an Arch VM that I heavily use. I know that once you install Arch, there isn’t a need to do it again on the same machine, but this use case is very, very tempting.

What are your thoughts/experiences on these or other lightweight Linux distros?  Let me know in the comments section below.

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