Minimal Linux distros for the Ubuntu refugee

Fed up with Ubuntu? Image from Wikipedia.

Fed up with Ubuntu?

Introduction

I’ve seen many people get frustrated with Ubuntu’s new direction in terms of its user experience, its recently worsening speediness, and its mixed-bag Unity interface. I’m one of them! When I first tried Ubuntu back in 2009 (version 8.04 LTS), it ran like a dream on my shoddy 1.6GHz, 1GB DDR2 RAM, Windows Vista laptop. I loved GNU/Linux’s ease of use, efficiency, and its immunity to common viruses, worms, and rootkits. With each release, Ubuntu seemed to get better and better, with a slicker interface, better driver support, bugfixes, and a more diverse package repository every time.

When version 10.04 LTS was released, that’s when the s*** hit the fan for me. I initially liked its “new-and-improved” GNOME theme and I was enthusiastic about the new Linux kernel release. Later on, problems began to cropped up. My wireless drivers became broken and unstable, the 2D/3D acceleration graphics drivers were worsening (Intel GMA 965 on-board chipset), the interface was getting increasingly sluggish, boot times were gradually lengthening, and despite my constant config file tweaking and fine tuning, my frail laptop eventually sank into a dependency hell. I tried out Kubuntu instead for a while, but I didn’t like KDE, so I wiped it soon after. I tried Xubuntu, and while it helped speed up my machine a little, I couldn’t seem to get used to Xfce and its little quirks either, so that distro was out the window as well.

Ubuntu version 10.10, however, was a far better performer on my laptop than 10.04, and with advanced command-line knowledge and some *NIX administration experience under my belt, I managed to keep Ubuntu chugging along for a long, long time on my weak laptop hardware. Those were reasonably happier days, and my programming experience flourished. By then, I now had a fully custom-built desktop with a Core 2 Duo, 2GB DDR2 RAM, which could run Ubuntu a lot better than my laptop, so I migrated my data there. Still, I longed for an alternative distro to Ubuntu that would run efficiently on my old laptop.

Much later, while online, I caught wind of the highly controversial user interface changes made in GNOME 3.0,  as well as the not-very-well-received Unity interface being dubbed “the GNOME 3.0 replacement”. Spurred by the bad experiences with 10.04 and the recent news about GNOME, I felt that there wasn’t much of a future left for me in Ubuntu. Determined, I began searching for viable alternatives. These were the noteworthy distros that I found:

  1. Linux Mint
  2. Debian
  3. Ubuntu Minimal Install
  4. Knoppix (haven’t tried it personally, so can’t review)
  5. Arch Linux

I haven’t used Knoppix, but I’ve been aware of it for a long time. It’s an extremely lightweight Debian-based Linux distribution, packed with hundreds of apps, which can be downloaded here. Try it out if you can! Anyway, the above entries are sorted with the most practical *buntu-alternatives at the top, and the least practical at the bottom. I will give a thorough review of each option in this list that I have personally installed and tested myself, along with the pros and cons of each, including hyperlinks to their respective project pages for download.

If Ubuntu runs fine on your computer, use Ubuntu! If it doesn’t work well for you, use an alternative. As they say, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”!

Linux Mint 11 "Katya" (GNOME)

Linux Mint 11 “Katya” (GNOME)

Linux Mint

The most viable lightweight alternative to Ubuntu that still retains the point-and-click, drag-and-drop mentality would have to be Linux Mint. It is almost identical to Ubuntu, from the initial setup dialog to installing programs and updates. Not very technical and performs admirably for a direct Ubuntu derivative. For your user environment, you can choose between GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE. Also available is a convenient Debian-based Linux Mint ISO for even better performance (see more about Debian in the next review below).

Mint Pros:

  1. Startup and overall performance is very good!
  2. Based on the latest version of Ubuntu (or Kubuntu), but is much lighter on resources.
  3. 100% binary compatible with *buntu & Debian packages, plus full support for PPA repositories! :D
  4. The easiest distro for a Ubuntu/GNOME user to adjust to, next to Debian.

Mint Cons:

  1. Installs non-free codecs and software (Flash & MP3) by default, which may be legally problematic in some countries.
  2. Like Ubuntu, the system chugs along fine for a while, but eventually suffers a severe performance hit (though it is much, much less drastic).

Get it from Linux Mint’s home page.

Debian

Debian 6 "Squeeze"

Debian 6 “Squeeze”

If you are coming Ubuntu arena, and you want something different that will give you a great performance boost but retains the awesome “aptitude” and “apt-get” package manager, then why not install pure Debian? Debian is the GNU/Linux distribution that Ubuntu itself is based upon, and has been around since 1993. It’s faster, more stable, it isn’t overly simplified like Ubuntu (don’t worry, you can install GNOME/KDE/Xfce/Fluxbox/etc. on top easily), and it’s simply less bloated. It is an extremely mature distribution with a simply enormous community of users and developers. When installing, you can pick which available GUI you want to use, or even not select one at all and use your computer through the command-line.

Debian Pros:

  1. Hugely faster startup and performance (by a lot!).
  2. Extremely stable and crashes less (has more stable drivers).
  3. Is almost entirely binary-compatible with Ubuntu .deb packages.
  4. A good, stable, no-frills distribution that is easy to adjust to, if coming from *buntu.

Debian Cons:

  1. Since it has more stable packages, you probably will have less than up-to-date software.
  2. Its root account is enabled by default. (You can disable it by logging into a normal user account and typing sudo passwd -l root)
  3. PPA repositories are a *buntu-only thing. :(

Get it from Debian’s home page.

Ubuntu Minimal Install

Ubuntu 10.10 Minimal

Ubuntu 10.10 Minimal

If you still feel at home in Ubuntu and you don’t want to switch to another distro, just stick with Ubuntu, but install a mini ISO instead! It gives you the bare minimum packages to get you started and when you log in, you are (like Debian/Arch) greeted with a command prompt. You can then install GNOME/KDE/Xfce/Fluxbox/etc. and customize your packages from the ground up. Note that while this still doesn’t completely solve the performance problems or any driver issues that you may have, it still can improve your desktop experience considerably! Like Arch Linux (see more on Arch in the next review below), don’t bother if you aren’t comfortable using the command-line.

Ubuntu Mini Pros:

  1. Decent startup times at initial install (still a little slow, when compared with other distros, and will only get slower as you add more drivers or daemons).
  2. Still uses “aptitude” and you still have the massive Ubuntu repos! :D

Ubuntu Mini Cons:

  1. Still vulnerable to the Ubuntu-characteristic “slowdown” that degrades its performance over time (though much less drastic).
  2. As with any Ubuntu install, it has lots of metapackages, forcing you to install bundles of independent software that you frankly don’t need and you end up using only that one, specific program that you wanted while the other crap sits there, taking up unneeded disk space…

Get it from Ubuntu’s Minimal ISO page.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux

Arch Linux

My second-favorite preference is Arch Linux, as it’s kind of like the blazing-fast Gentoo Linux without the learning curve. It’s much easier to use and set up, boots up in seconds, and has stunning documentation! When you install it and edit your config files, you are greeted by a command prompt. Then, you can use the package manager (appropriately named “pacman”) to update your repository listings and install packages, similar to aptitude in Ubuntu/Debian. Very fast, but don’t bother if you aren’t comfortable with a command-line.

If you need help learning how to use pacman, but you are familiar with aptitude, I provide a basic aptitude-to-pacman equivalents list below.

APTITUDE                 |   PACMAN
---------------------------------------------------------
aptitude                     pacman
aptitude search [target]     pacman -Ss [target]
apt-get autoremove           pacman -Ru
apt-get clean                pacman -Sc
apt-get install [package]    pacman -S [package]
apt-get remove [package]     pacman -R [package]
apt-get update               pacman -Sy
apt-get upgrade              pacman -Syu

Arch Pros:

  1. Blazing fast startup (better than most Debian installs)!
  2. Humongous repositories (“core” enabled by default, when you enable the “extra” and “community” repos, the package choice is massive)!
  3. The AUR gives access to bleeding-edge software packages at your fingertips with a simple yaourt command!
  4. Is a “rolling-release” distro; no need to upgrade to new releases every year. You can install Arch and keep it up-to-date forever.
  5. Easier than Gentoo and is approximately just as fast.
  6. Absolutely stunning documentation and wiki! Easy to understand and simple steps. It’s like you are reading a well-written, very easy to follow book on Linux at the library! It’s the friggin’ ultimate Linux bible!

Arch Cons:

  1. Much more technical and “hackery” than Debian or Ubuntu. (well, duh!) You may need to edit some config files if your hardware is non-standard.
  2. Very different directory structure than Debian-based distros!
  3. Like Debian, its root account is also enabled by default, but can be disabled the same way.
  4. A little picky about wireless drivers (on my machine).
  5. Getting used to pacman (which may be a bit of a hassle for some Ubuntu-only users). :(

Get it from Arch’s home page.

Conclusion

After all of my experiences with GNU/Linux, I must say that I still love Ubuntu, as it was my first Linux distribution. It is what first exposed me to the Free and Open Source software movements, as well as *NIX and systems programming in general. However, I feel that I have sort of outgrown it, like how a little boy outgrows a faithful bike that he loved. I now use Linux Mint on my desktop computer, dualbooting with Windows 7, and I have Arch and Debian installations in Oracle VirtualBox. All the while, my aging laptop still runs Ubuntu 10.10 faithfully. In the end, I hope this will help you choose a good Ubuntu alternative distro.

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9 thoughts on “Minimal Linux distros for the Ubuntu refugee

  1. Nice review. For anybody who is not sure, I recommend Arch simply because of how much they will learn about running Linux. It is a fun distro and I have yet to find an app that I cannot install on it.

    For those who are new or experienced with Linux, but are trying Arch for the first time, I do recommend you have access to the internet on another machine to look at the wonderful Arch Wiki – This will help guide you through the installation.

    I have used Linux since before Ubuntu even existed (I started with Redhat 9.0 back when Redhat was free without having to compile it). Mandrake (now Mandriva), SuSE, Ubuntu, Gentoo, CentOS (my Redhat replacement), and Arch are my all time favorites (minus the Mandriva part – I liked it when it was Mandrake).

    If you are trying to learn Linux and have “too” much time on your hands, give Arch a try. If you do have too much time on your hands, then try Gentoo.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Kris! I completely agree with your opinion on Arch: I simply love it, and I believe that anyone else with enough time on their hands will love it too. :)

  2. I’ve just swapped to Linux Mint myself. It’s not that I didn’t like Ubuntu – I really did. I even liked the new Unity desktop, even if many people didn’t. But when I upgraded to 11.10 and it completely broke I decided that rather than just reinstall 11.04 I may as well try something else.

    So I’ve gone with Linux Mint for now – I’m mostly happy with it because it’s very similar to Ubuntu and (unlike Canonical :P) the developer said I can use screen captures of it commercially for my tutorial videos. Having seen your post, Debian will be my next port of call if I decide to swap again.

    The Arch installation put me off because I don’t really have to time to read through more documentation right now, but I endeavour to return to it one day!

    Xander

    • I loved Ubuntu, and still do (at least, the server edition, older versions, or the mini ISO). However, GNOME 3 is simply a disaster, IMO. I feel that while simplicity is nice, it suffers by being too simple. What, no more minimize button or taskbar? Blasphemy against the standard UI guidelines! :( On the Unity side of things, I can honestly say that it isn’t bad at all! Much time has passed since its initial release, and many are slowly becoming accustomed to it and embracing it, so that is the least of our worries.

      Also, it’s wonderful to hear of another Mint user! It reminds me that I’m not the only one. :D I currently use Linux Mint the most (dualbooted with Windows 7), but I have a VirtualBox copy of Debian (and the latest version of BackTrack, which has made a recent migration to Ubuntu).

      • I dual boot Windows 7 as well. Until a few more games make it to Linux, I have no choice ;) For that matter MS Office and (maybe) Visual Studio still far outstrip the competition from the open source community. Well, definitely Office, though frankly I’m starting to prefer Code::Blocks + GCC to Visual C++.

  3. Hello all I am a novice on this field, been learning computers for last eight years, after reading your article I must say you have done a great jobm very good write up. My experience is somewhat different with Ubuntu 11.4 , I have been using it on my old desktop for last six month , surpringly it works very well

  4. Hey all -

    Try out Lubuntu! I’ve seen it idle @ <63MB RAM. It's great on a 512MB RAM, Intel Pentium-M/Centrino-based HP 510 laptop (circa 2007) junker that _still_ works a treat!

    Its interface is stricking like Windows XP, thought it's running LXDE… much lighter than XFCE, IMO.

  5. I tried to install Arch twice, but it did not work for me. Therefore I would not recommend Arch for Ubuntu users.

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