Setting up a lightweight workstation

Linux is a good choice for turning old or underpowered hardware into useful workstations for common tasks like word processing and mail.

This is a supplement to my notes on installing a new distribution. Refer to them as well.

If the box uses shared memory (sets aside part of RAM for graphics), then minimize this setting so as to maximize RAM available to the system.

Most any modern distribution will do: the secret sauce is the wise selection of window manager and applications. Choose whatever distro you prefer and customize it as discussed below. Having said that, a specialty light distro will come out of the box with a window manager and applications pre-selected for lightweight use, depriving you of the fun (or the trouble, take your choice) of exploring software on your own. Well known specialty light distros include CrunchBang, Puppy, and TinyMe.

A desktop environment is simply a window manager plus extra features to improve usability or aesthetics, such as desktop icons, user menus administration, or automounting of removable media. For an easy to implement solution, choose a ready-made lightweight desktop environment. For best performance, choose a window manager and add only those features you require. Read more on desktop environments and window managers here.

Lightweight desktop environments include:

  • LXDE: Quite light. GTK. No trash bin by default but can be added.
  • Moblin: I haven’t tried it.
  • Razor-qt. As of this writing still in beta, but looks like a great idea worth watching.
  • Xfce: My favorite but not light enough for really old hardware. GTK.

Lightweight window managers include:

  • Fluxbox: My all time favorite. Many themes. Supported by menumaker.
  • IceWM: Windows-like. Out of the box it is unattractive but many themes are available.
  • Openbox: Used by LXDE and Crunchbang; recommended by users. Supported by menumaker.


  • Automatic recreation of menu upon installation of conforming software: Desktop environments that conforms to the standards, such as LXDE and Xfce, offer this via .desktop files. Alternatively, menumaker detects installed applications and creates menus for several window managers, including Fluxbox and Openbox. It is normally run manually, but perhaps it can be called automatically upon installing or removing an application.
  • Automount removable media: thunar, ivman
  • Desktop icons: idesk
  • Trash bin: thunar

Choose your desktop environment or window manager first. Then choose applications that use the same widget toolkit as your desktop environment (e.g. Xfce uses GTK). If your window manager is toolkit-agnostic, then select one toolkit and limit yourself to applications that use it. Mixing and matching toolkits will affect performance on older hardware.

Choose a lightweight toolkit with the applications you want. GTK is a popular choice, though I have my doubts about its future. Qt looks like the toolkit of tomorrow, but as of this writing there aren’t many lightweight applications using it.

TODO: List commonly installed services that should be considered for removal or configuration to minimize resource consumption.

When choosing an application for lightweight use, look for the following: low CPU and RAM consumption, uses your chosen widget toolkit, does not use heavy shared libraries like KDE. Lightweight desktop environments tend to have their own lightweight applications that use DE-specific shared libraries; these are often good choices.

The default applications of lightweight distributions and lightweight desktop environments are good candidates for consideration.

Remove any pre-installed applications that are heavy or use heavy shared libraries. Applications with names that begin with “K” or “G” are good candidates for removal.

After installing your applications, associate relevant file types with the light applications in your file manager. For example, if you have both Abiword and LibreOffice installed, relevant files should open by default in the lighter application.

  • Audio player: Alsaplayer, LXMusic (GTK), Xfmedia (GTK), Xmms2, Zinf. Not Audacious (CPU hungry on one system). Lightweight audio players lack advanced file search and support for a broad range of formats; organize your files and convert them to common formats. See also video players below.
  • Browser: Opera (static or linked Qt, full featured), Midori (GTK, basic).
  • Burner: Xfburn (GTK)
  • CD ripper: Grip (GTK).
  • Disk usage utility (non-KDE alternative to Filelight): ?
  • File manager: Thunar (GTK) Recommended but not tried: Xfe. Not PCManFM (trash bin not yet in stable version).
  • Image viewer: Gqview (GTK).
  • IM client: Pidgin (full featured, GTK), CenterIM (basic, ncurses).
  • Mail client: Claws Mail (GTK). Using a light email client is preferred over using heavy webmail interfaces like Hotmail (see notes).
  • PDF viewer: ePDFview (GTK).
  • Spreadsheet: Gunmeric (GTK).
  • System monitor: Glrellm, Conky. Many desktop environments come with their own monitors (e.g. xfce4-sensors-plugin).
  • Terminal: Terminal (GTK).
  • Text editor: Bluefish (full featured, GTK), Leafpad or Mousepad (basic, GTK).
  • Video player: Recommended but not yet tested: Gxine (GTK), Lumiere (GTK), Parole (GTK), Xmmsmplayer. Not Xfmedia (cannot resize video). Some video players strive to elegantly handle audio files as well; such an application might obviate the need for a separate audio player.
  • Word processor: Abiword (GTK, full featured), Ted (GTK, basic).

If you prefer to use LibreOffice rather than Abiword + Gnumeric, then you might find this advice speeds it up on slower hardware.

List of lightweight desktop distributions
List of lightweight DE/WMs and applications
Top 7 Xfce Applications


About Warren Post

So far: Customer support guy, jungle guide, IT consultant, beach bum, entrepreneur, teacher, diplomat, over-enthusiastic cyclist. Tomorrow: who knows?
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2 Responses to Setting up a lightweight workstation

  1. Pingback: Performance tuning on Windows | A maze of twisty little passages

  2. Pingback: Fenix configuration notes | A maze of twisty little passages

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