A Slimline Debian Install: It's Easier Than You Might Think

There are some superb desktop Linux distributions that are designed to work with very old hardware. For example, Puppy Linux is a great choice to quickly turn an old PC into a secure, easy to use word processing, email and light web browsing workstation. Puppy can work minor miracles on very old hardware, and I carry a Puppy boot CD-ROM around with me as my emergency recovery system.

However, there are a lot of machines floating around that are a bit too good for something as limited as Puppy, yet not powerful enough to run one of the major distributions. I'm taking about machines with maybe 256MB-512MB of memory and a CPU around the 600MHz mark. My new thing in these situations is to deploy the latest Debian in a slimmed down form. The advantage is that you end up with a completely up to date Linux distribution and it's still standard Debian underneath it all. As it's a real Debian install, it gives you security along with something that can be upgraded with standard software. It's a great project if, for example, you've got a structurally sound old laptop that you fancy giving away to a relative.

It's pretty simple stuff really, all you need is an old machine and a working Internet connection. You can start with the Debian netinstall disk (for a PC, you need the i386 image at about 150megs). Once you've burned the ISO, boot from the disk and begin the install, proceeding as normal until you reach the package selection screen. Here, deselect "desktop workstation" and continue while the installer does its stuff.

Pay attention here, you need to tell it not to install the desktop environment.

After completion of the install and a reboot, you should have a complete Linux distribution with a command line, network support and some basic admin tools. For cowards like myself, the most important tool is Aptitude, a textmode package installer that looks like an old DOS utility (anyone who calls me Grandad for remembering DOS gets a slap). Hit Ctrl-T to bring down the menu and then use the cursors to navigate to the search option. You can then use the rather old-fashioned interface to search for packages and select them for installation. I'd recommend the XFCE desktop environment, the Firefox web browser (called Iceweasel in Debian-speak), the ALSA sound system, AbiWord processor and the XDM login manager. Select install, wait a while and reboot again. Voilà, a complete, customized, light-weight setup that should simply fly on older hardware.

A simple but functional desktop that consists of everything that most people need.


UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.


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LXDE configuration?

meanpt's picture

Hi. How do you configure the system to boot directly to the chosen desktop? I did install the LXDE packages but it doesn't run at all as it is. Tried starx but nothing happens.

login manager

Michael Reed's picture

Did you install a login manager? XDM is basic and GDM is more extensive but requires more resources. I'm afraid that I'm not very familiar with LXDE itself.

UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.


meanpt's picture

No I didn't install yet any of them. For now I'll try XFCE and see what happens. Many thanks.

I'm just lazy, and a n00b besides

vandamme's picture

...so I just put LinuxMint 8 LXDE on a 6 year old laptop with 256M, and it really flies.

Debian is the right choice

Anonymous's picture

Debian is non-commercial, and after I find that my normally used software has been bought up by an commerce tyranny, I feel lucky that there are still some open alternatives. Always be prepared, those big boys deliberately choose to attack careless group.

Why not use the installer?

BackedByAPenguin's picture

An honest question here:
Can anyone tell me why I would want to install it using the method from the article instead of booting off of the CD/DVD and when you get to the Debian Install menu select "Advanced Options" then "Alternative Desktop Environments" then "XFCE"?

What does the installer do that makes it a worse option compared to the articles method?

This is off of the Debian Lenny 5.0.3 DVD ISO I burned.

Just tried sidux XFCE

chemicalscum's picture

I just tried sidux XFCE (based in Debian Sid of course). It only took 144 Mb of memory on boot while XFCE on Ubuntu Hardy took 180 Mb and Gnome 235.

don't be afraid of apt-get

Slappy's picture

Dude, you can make the same installation from the DVD or CD. No need for the netinstall.
And apt-get is easy to use, just type "apt-cache search packagename". You will see a list of packages to install. Then just install them.

De-select All Tasks

emariz's picture

Actually, you don't need the Latpop and Standard System tasks either (and they always be available via Tasksel or Aptitude's interface). The Laptop task pulls Bluetooth-related packages and CUPS, and the Standard one pulls MTA clients. All core packages ('required' and 'important') are installed regardless of the tasks selected during installation.

Use Xfce or LXDE if you're low on resources, but if you only want control over your installation: disable the automatic installation of recommended packages and build a custom Gnome (starting with gnome-core). There's no need to sacrifice usability!

Some good stuff right there

TeDioUS's picture


My experience with super slim debian

Grant Wagner's picture

For quite a while, I was quite happy with using a base debian (not even "Standard System"), using slim login manager, fluxbox, conky for system info, rxvt-unicode, wicd (for laptop wireless), alsa mixer gui, and no file manager. It worked well on my classic Asus EEE701.

To be honest though, eventially I missed have a modern file manager, along with things like wine intigration and user space device mounting. Once I accepted nautilus, the step to full gnome was just to small to keep my menu in sync. Even on my current Atom based EEE 1000ha, which feels a little slower than the underclocked Celeron in the 701, it's still quite nice.

As a side note, I use a mix of Midori web browser, liferea rss feed reader and pidgin for "social networking", making the use of the resource intensive Iceweasel a very rare event. I have flash from youtube working nicely, although I prefer to play the files out of the /tmp directory directly using mplayer for a bit of a speed increase.


James B's picture

Good info. Another option is Crunchbang, moved over to Debian testing from Ubuntu, lightweight with either openbox or xfce, and has extras for cards that need non-free stuff, most stuff just work-out-of-the-box.

Possible to make faster

Ove's picture

It's always nice to read about Debian. It's rock solid and works really well. I have done some installs on older hardware as well with good results. Also tried Puppy and Damnsmalllinux, which serve their purpose.

So if you uncheck everything but the 'Standard system', will you end up with the most minimal setup that is required for Debian to work at all, or is that also something extra? Can you uncheck the 'Standard system' as well?

For window managers, xfce is quite heavyweight in the lightweight category. Actually it's listed under desktops, not window managers at http://xwinman.org/
Those who want even more power in the graphical environment should try fvwm, fluxbox, icewm, or wmii for the very adventurous. I suppose it's all about the targeted user of the machine.

The one thing that I have not found a really good alternative for is the web browser. The desktop is sure fast but you want to go online. I have tried iceape (Mozilla), which is probably the best alternative to firefox, since it's its granddaddy, right? But it's not a whole lot lighter. Is there something that does the javascript stuff and most normal rendering correctly, that is also very lightweight? I guess I haven't tried Opera in a while.


Anonymous's picture

Xfce is not only a window manager! And no, Xfce is not heavyweight! My Debian sid + all the Xfce desktop environment use 45 MB at startup...

reply to ove

vinayakdk's picture

i completely agree with ove regarding xfce issue
and also opera seems to be good option for firefox, i have tried it with my mandriva2010.

This is exactly like I do!

Pierre Lemay's picture

But I use LXDE instead on XFCE and qingy instead on XDM. Abiword, gnumeric, mplayer, chromium, foxitreader, exaile and this pentium III laptop feels "snappy". Other apps work well but are not quick to launch, i.e. OpenOffice, firefox... sorry.. Iceweasel.

@ Ken Firestone

djohnston's picture


Try Smart Boot Manager. It is a boot floppy that should allow you to chainload boot the CD by first booting from the floppy drive.


Smart boot manager

Ken Firestone's picture

I tried it on the problem machine, a Thinkpad 240, it doesn't work.

try these!

Ananymous's picture

Gunji: http://gujin.sourceforge.net/
Plop: http://www.plop.at/en/bootmanager.html

A guide to putting Grub, Lilo, Smart Boot Manager, and Gunji onto floppies:


1369ic's picture

I just installed AntiX 8.5, which just came out, and I think it may be a very nice answer for this situation. It's based on Mepis, but with IceWM and Fluxbox as the window managers and a nice set of lightweight programs. Mepis, and therefore AntiX, have gone back to the Debian Testing branch after using Ubuntu for a bit. I was using Fluxbox on Slackware 13 with a fine-tuned kernel before I installed AntiX, and the systems are identical speed-wise (that's just desktop use; I didn't do any testing). So you get the speed, but you also get the Mepis tools in addition to the apt suite. It's a very nice setup.

I'll probably end up back on Slackware because I'm more familiar with it and I like having a full desktop environment like KDE for occasional use, but if I were selling the idea to a Linux newbie looking to put an old machine to good use, I'd probably recommend AntiX.

Debian Xfce

Hezy's picture

Alternatively, you can just use the official Debian Xfce CD. It contains more software, but my past experience is that it is light enough and works fast on a machine with 512 MB memory.

Ken: google "debian boot floopy", I'm sure you'll find an answer.

Doing this on really old hardware (won't boot from CD)

Ken Firestone's picture

Any hints on how to do this on a machine that won't boot off a CD? I have an older laptop that does not have an internal cd, and will not boot off of anything but a floppy or it's HD. Any suggestions?

very nice

Actionscript 3.0's picture

i love linux , but i useing windows :S

I used Smart Boot manager

TeDioUS's picture

I used Smart Boot manager when I had to do this. (External CD-ROM, dunno.. it was so old it just didn't want to boot from CD) it did boot. And DeLi-Linux was then working on my Intel Overdrive. Might want to re-look into it. It really helped me. Cheers

Try PLoP Boot Manager

Adrian's picture

I've had a lot of success with PLoP Boot Manager on PCs where the BIOS has poor boot support. Can boot from USB devices including flash disks, hard disks and external CD/DVD drives.


mwallette's picture

I had to do that a couple of years ago. I went the hard route, though, and removed the hard drive, inserted the hard drive in a USB external drive, connected the drive to another machine that *would* boot from a CD-ROM and installed the Knoppix HD install (essentially Debian, with some custom scripts) on the hard drive, then put the hard drive back in the laptop. It worked, and I've had a fairly decent Linux machine since.

Doing this on really old hardware (won't boot from CD)

Jerry McBride's picture

What I did for a client and his old Think Pad... I popped the hdd out, put it into my desktop... installed a custom copy of Gentoo on it, used LILO to install the boot manager to the laptop hdd and... put it back into the Think Pad... It't booted up and has been a wonderful tool for my client.

Have a look at: http://tldp.org/HOWTO/Hard-Disk-Upgrade/index.html. This makes a great starting point.

---- Jerry McBride

try fvwm-crystal with fvwm,

alindsharma's picture

try fvwm-crystal with fvwm, rox-filer. This works like a charm.