Saturday, 4 July 2020

Which linux should I run on an old netbook?

I was always a fan of the netbook concept – small format, low power and highly portable machines with a decent keyboard to type on.

In the days when I used to go to interstate meetings, I often used to take a netbook in preference to my bulky 15 inch Mac laptop, and travelling – for years we used a netbook in preference to a full size computer.

Good enough for online banking, travel journaling, uploading photos, emailing and the rest. It’s no surprise that I still take a 2011 vintage Macbook Air with me when I go travelling – robust, light, reliable, and so much less hassle to unpack, put through the scanner, repack.

However, the market disagreed with me as to the superiority of netbooks, and while the netbook had a final flourish as an ‘ultrabook’, by 2013 the concept of the netbook was pretty much dead. The iPad had eaten the netbook’s lunch and tipped the waiter on the way out.

The reasons as to exactly why this happened are complex, but a lot of blame lies with the consumer sentiment. The original Eee netbook was a linux based machine which was pretty efficient at extracting the maximum from a low powered machine with relatively little in the way of memory or storage.

Unfortunately, most people preferred Windows over Linux. Due to the extra costs incurred due to licensing windows, manufacturers tended to cut corners using lower cost processors and installing less memory in machines.

Some also tried to produce low cost models to compete with the iPad – unfortunately in trying to compete they often ended up with an underspecified device.

Microsoft didn’t help by offering a cut down (restricted capability) edition called Windows 7 starter to netbook manufacturers at a lower price.

Windows 7 starter was only 32 bit, and would only use a maximum of 2GB memory.

Even so, some machines came with only 1GB, and were pretty slow as a consequence. Upgraded to 2GB they were reasonable, but not fantastic.

Ultrabooks used to be a bit better specified with better processors and capable of running a 64bit operating system. However, while upgradeable, a lot shipped with only 2GB of memory.

Now none of this would matter, most netbooks have long ago been sent to the recycler, or shoved on the top shelf of the book case in the study and left to gather dust.

Except that now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all sorts of old machines have been pressed into service as second computers, computers for the kids, and so on.

And netbooks have, on the whole, been found wanting.

Most of the 32bit machines can accept a maximum of 2GB RAM – and remember that these are ten year old machines. Finding suitable (recycled) memory can be hard, assuming you have the technical skills to identify the right sort and install it. Equally so for the older 64 bit machines.

The obvious solution (to me at least) would be to install a version of Linux that works well on old machines with minimal memory and processor power.

Rather than anything exotic, I would go for an out of the box version that provides you with a set of standard tools that lets you do real work:

  • an office suite – usually Libre Office
  • an email client – which if you use Gmail, effectively means Thunderbird
  • a modern web browser compatible with online banking – usually Firefox
Having a modern web browser also means that you can use online services such a Google Docs, and services such as Evernote or OneNote that are not available on linux, but provide a web client.

Just to muddy things, there’s a problem – the two dominant desktop distributions of linux, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, have recently stopped distributing 32bit install sets meaning that you are either locked into an old version, or that you have to go elsewhere.

So where to go?

Just for fun I decided to look at some 32 bit only installs and see what they were like. My choice is completely arbitrary, I simply picked some that were mentioned online as suitable alternatives:

  • BunsenLabs linux – the ‘official’ successor to CrunchBang
  • CrunchBang plus plus – another Crunchbang successor
  • Lubuntu – the last major Ubuntu project to offer a 32 bit distro
  • Bodhi linux – wonderfully eccentric and non standard

BunsenLabs Linux

I actually use this on my old MSI netbook with 1GB of RAM. Installation was relatively straightforward, and running the ‘extras’ post installation script installs Libre Office 5 and a few other applications.

BunsenLabs linux running Libre Office (and the screenshot tool )

Strangely it doesn’t come with a mail client but this can be easily rectified – thunderbird installs and works well.

The interface uses OpenBox which is fairly austere, but is efficient and does the job:

Bunsen Labs default desktop

Where can I get it:

Crunchbang plus plus

I didn’t test this on a real machine, instead I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

From my install notes:
- debian derived like the original crunchbang and bunsenlabs linux
- uses old text installer as in debian and early versions of ubuntu
- reasonably fast to build
- runs an update script on install to update software and install extras
- install script prompts for printer support, java runtime and libre office install
- if you do not install libre office left with abiword and gnumeric for office apps
- also prompted if you want to install extra development tools
- very similar to bunsenlabs and the original crunchbang, but perhaps not so polished
- does not install an email client by default
- startup and shutdown are old-school verbose, which may appeal to some

What does it look like?

Crunchbang default desktop

Extras install script

and running abiword ...


The only reasonably mainstream ubuntu project to support 32bit. Actually that’s a bit of a lie. The official Lubuntu site distributes a 64-bit only version.

However there’s also an unoffical site, that continues to distribute Lubuntu 19.10, the last 32 bit version. This was the version I installed and tested.

Again I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

As with all things ubuntu, one boots the live cd image and then clicks on install:

The installer is nicely graphical and after a reboot one ends up with a very clean looking desktop

All the standard applications, including libre office, come pre installed:

Where can I get it:

Bodhi Linux

I last looked at Bodhi Linux back in 2015, when I used a pre rolled images from
This time however I built it from scratch using my test machine, using virtualbox.

This was the smallest cd image to download and the quickest to install:

bodhi default desktop

The reason why the small image and quick install was that no applications are installed by default leaving you to install applications on a case by case basis. For fun I installed abiword to test the install process:

and once installed:

all pretty standard, but means that installation of applications could be a pretty tedious exercise. Fine for building a lighweight system, but not ideal for where one wants to just install a system once and get on with what you’re doing.

Where can I get it:

But I’ve got a 64-bit machine ...

As I’ve said above, there are also some ultrabooks out there, some with only 2GB RAM and Windows 7, and a fee others, which have been upgraded to 4GB RAM, as seen in this screen grab from eBay:

Given that you might want to upgrade them to linux, especially if you have a Windows 7 machine – which distro should you choose?

Basically, you can choose anything, you could even deploy the 64bit version of one of the 32 bit distros mentioned above, or you could try something more mainstream, but with a lighter weight window manager.

If you want something well supported, your choices come down to the Linux Mint XFCE version – Ulyana – or Xubuntu.

Technically, there’s not a great deal to choose between them – both are built on an Ubuntu 20.04 core and use XFCE as a window manager.

I use Xubuntu on a lot of my linux devices, and can report that its fully featured, easy to install and robust.

I’d never played with Linux Mint before now, so I built a version on my (Xubuntu) test machine using virtualbox.

Everything just worked, and the installation process was very ubuntu like. Without having done any extensive usability testing, I came away with the feeling that perhaps Mint was slightly more user friendly, but as always your mileage may vary.

Xubuntu …

Mint …

and what it looks like in VirtualBox …


If you’re looking for a second machine, try and pick up a 64bit device, even if it’s short on memory – at the very least you should be able to run something like Xubuntu or Ulyana, which will both give you a good user experience and ensure that you can get stuff done without worrying overmuch over support.

Some packages, eg Notable, don’t provide a 32 bit version. Using a mainstream distribution should ensure that everything stays working and up to date.

If you’ve no alternative than to use a 32 bit machine, it’s a bit more tricky. Of the distributions reviewed above Lubuntu 19.10 is undoubtedly the best in terms of support but personally I would go for one of BunsenLabs or Crunchbang Plus Plus due to their low resource use overhead. Be aware though that some of their software repositories may not be as up to date as Lubuntu’s. Also as 19.10 is the end of life 32bit version of Lubuntu, it may not be an ideal choice if you wish to use the machine for more than a few months.

As for Bodhi Linux, my view is that it’s definitely one for the enthusiast, and really only a tenable choice if you want to teach yourself about Linux internals rather than simply trying to get stuff done ...

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