The Best Linux Setup For Older Computers

The key to maximizing Linux on an old computer? The right desktop environment

The Perfect Linux Desktop
The Perfect Linux Desktop

Older hardware may not work well for Windows 10. Although any standard computer made after roughly 2012 will run Windows 10, you'll get the best performance on old computers by installing Linux with low-weight desktop environments.

Why Hardware Matters

Older hardware is marked by three major limitations: Processor architecture, memory and free disk space.

Of these three attributes, architecture matters most. Most modern operating systems default to a 64-bit processor. Much older computers only offer a 32-bit processor, which therefore requires a 32-bit operating system.

Interestingly, Windows 10's minimum system requirements cover machines that are source from a decade ago:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster processor or SoC
  • 1 gigabyte (GB) for 32-bit or 2 GB for 64-bit
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB for 32-bit OS 20 GB for 64-bit OS
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 800x600

However, although computers with 4 GB of RAM and 30 GB of disk space can, in theory, support any modern operating system, the newest OSes work best with 8 GB of RAM and 100 GB or more of open disk space. Older computers at the lower end of the tier work well with specific Linux configurations.

Picking a Low-Resource Linux Distribution

For the most part, your selection of a Linux distribution for an older computer should focus on the desktop environment. A DE is the graphical user interface for the operating system. Linux distributions—and there are hundreds of them—generally don't affect quality-of-experience under the hood. However, different DEs require different resource levels, so a high-end DE like KDE will lag painfully whereas the same distribution, on the same computer, with a low-end DE will fly.

Low-Resource DE
  • LXDE

  • XFCE

  • LXQT

High-Resource DE
  • KDE

  • Budgie

You've got three good options:

  • XFCE is a venerable, lightweight DE with a clean overall look, good customization options, and a suite of DE-specific utilities. It sources to the early 1990s; although it's reasonably intuitive, it doesn't map cleanly to the metaphors of Windows or Mac.
  • LXQT is also lightweight. It's similar, visually, to the motifs of Windows XP, so it's a good candidate for someone who may struggle with new approaches to desktop computing.
  • If LXQT looks like Windows XP, LXDE looks like Windows Vista. It's a bit more visually appealing, with more glassy design elements by default.

A mid-tier DE, like Cinnamon or MATE or Deepin, may work well enough, although depending on your hardware, you may see some performance hit.

Always avoid high-resource DEs for older hardware.

Software Selection

Distributions offer large catalogs of software, but beware—installing certain apps can create a disproportionally large system drag. If you install LXDE as your DE, but then install a desktop app that's part of the KDE suite, your computer will download and install a significant part of KDE, which will activate and run to support that app.

Your software catalog will usually tell you what dependencies an application requires. Keep an eye on them. An app that depends on a different DE's infrastructure may well install properly and run properly on your computer—but at a price in overall system resource consumption.

Consider the Shell

The fastest Linux environment is the one without a DE. Linux works great from the command line, and many different apps, including the Lynx web browser, work from a shell.