Reviving your old PC with Linux, Part V: the Remixes

In part III of this series, I told you that lightweight Linux distributions can be classified as either “fully lightweight” or “remixes”; and in part IV, we took a look at several “fully lightweight” distributions. Naturally, in this article, we’re going to talk about remixes.

Unlike the last article, however, I’m not just going to go through a bunch of remix distros and blather on with my half-formed impressions of them; not only would that would be unbearably dull for both you and for me, but selecting a three or four remix distros from the zillion-and-a-half out there in the world is an impossible choice. Instead, we’re going to understand what really distinguishes one remix from another with the aim of helping you select one that fits your needs; after which I’ll go through a few example distributions and talk about what makes them different.

Remix or derivative?

I have a confession: up ’til now I’ve given you a slightly false dichotomy. Between the extremes of fully-lightweight and remix, there is a third option: the derivative distro. Fortunately, the distinction between remix and derivative isn’t terribly significant for our discussion, but I should define the distinction, if for no other reason than to give derivative distros there due:

  • Remix or Respin usually implies that all the packages installed in the default configuration are already found in the parent distribution. For instance, Lubuntu is a remix of Ubuntu, because you can find all its packages in the Ubuntu repositories.
  • Derivative usually implies that while the distro stays compatible with its parent, it contains a certain amount of original packaging and may have its own repositories to supplement the parent distro’s. For instance, while SimplyMEPIS is a derivative of (and compatible with) Debian, it has its own repositories containing a custom kernel and updated desktop software.

Either way, it doesn’t really change how we go about picking or distinguishing a lightweight distribution; but it is worth noting because of the degree of effort put into the derivative. For this article, I’ll generically say “Remix”, unless it actually matters.

Major factors in a Remix

When picking a remix distribution from all the options, there are three important considerations: First, what distribution is the remix based on; second, what desktop environment and software does it use; finally, what is its target audience or purpose?

Parent distro

Obviously, the distribution a remix is based on has a major influence on how the remix functions. Although on the surface the remix might look quite different from the parent, many fundamental components are typically retained, including:

  • The package management system and tools, which determines how easy it is to manage software & updates on the system.
  • The software repositories, which determines what software will be available for you to install.
  • The release cycle, meaning how often a new release comes out, and how older releases are managed, which impacts the freshness vs stability of software and the frequency of major updates.
  • The choice of low-level components and versions, including the kernel, core userspace, and software libraries, which determines compatibility with hardware and 3rd-party software.

Remixes exist of almost any distribution, but there are a few that are particularly popular with remixers:

  • Debian, which is known for its mature and powerful package management system, its vast package repositories, wide platform support, and commitment to software freedom (important to consider when you’re planning to modify and redistribute a distro). Debian’s stable branch is renown for being rock-solid, though it’s comparatively stale next to some other modern desktop distros.
  • Ubuntu is itself a derivative of Debian, but has nevertheless spawned a few spin-offs of its own in part because of its simplified support for non-free software drivers and its more cutting-edge software selection. It also helps that easy remixing tools like Remastersys and Ubuntu Customization Kit have made the creation of an Ubuntu respin relative child’s play.
  • Slackware, like Debian, is a conservative, release-when-ready distribution, but with a stronger focus on simplicity of design. This simplicity, combined with the fact that Slackware users tend to be (by necessity)a little more knowledgeable about the inner workings of their systems, lends itself to remixing or derivative distros.
  • Arch Linux is very similar to Slackware with its emphasis on design simplicity; unlike Slackware, it’s a rolling release distribution, which means new software versions are added to the repositories almost as soon as they are released by their authors. Arch also has its Arch User Repository (AUR), which gives access to thousands of community-contributed packages. Due to its simplicity, rich software availability, and the fact that it doesn’t configure any particular desktop environment by default, Arch is quickly becoming a popular choice for remixing.

Desktop Environment and software

As I mentioned in a previous article, many remix distros are little more than the parent distro with a lighter desktop environment. Since the desktop environment determines the look & feel of the system, it’s often the most defining factor for a given remix. I’ll give a basic rundown of the most common lightweight desktop environments:

  • XFCE: XFCE is a mature desktop environment that started around the same time as KDE and a bit before GNOME, back in 1996. It’s simple but fairly complete, built on the XFCE libraries which are themselves based on GTK (the same graphics library that GNOME is built from).
  • LXDE: LXDE is a much younger project than XFCE, aimed at building a fast, light, yet complete desktop environment using loosely-integrated components. It’s also based on GTK, but does not have its own set of intermediate libraries like XFCE. LXDE is generally faster but less complete compared to XFCE.
  • Enlightenment: Enlightenment, sometimes called e17, is built on a unique set of development libraries. It’s noted for being light, fast, and flexible while still providing the sort of “eye candy” that modern desktop environments are expected to have. Enlightenment spent a long time in alpha, and is not as common as other environments as a result.
  • Custom/Minimal: In the quest for ultra-lightness, some distros skip the desktop environment and just cobble together a window manager with enough extra tools (panels, docks, file browser, etc) to turn it into a rudimentary desktop environment. Openbox, IceWM, Fluxbox, and FVWM are common window-manager choices here, with rox-filer or pcmanfm often handling the file browsing and desktop icon

A lighter desktop goes a long way towards tightening up a distribution, but of course applications are also and important factor. Depending on how “light” the distribution is aimed to be, the applications selected are likely to be trimmed down too. Some common substitutions include:

  • AbiWord and Gnumeric for office productivity instead of or LibreOffice.
  • Midori or Chromium for web browsing instead of Firefox web browser
  • Sylpheed for email instead of Thunderbird, KMail or Evolution
  • Mplayer or Xine for media playback instead of Amarok, Banshee, Rhythmbox, etc

Target Audience / Purpose

Making a Linux remix is kind of a “build a better mousetrap” pursuit; generally, the author of a respin has the idea of targeting a special purpose or demographic. Remixes might target “average users”, advanced users, developers, kids, gamers, netbooks, servers, “cloud” computing, or certain age, cultural, religious, or linguistic groups. More subtly, each remix reflects a different workflow or usage philosophy.

Of course, some remixes exist mainly to highlight a certain piece of software (e.g., a particular desktop environment) and make it readily available to end users.

In any case, the goals of a distribution will dictate the software installed and how it’s configured. In this series, of course, we’ve been concerned with those aimed at older computers, but that’s certainly not the only factor that informs the design of these distributions.

A shortish list of lightweight Remix distros

This article wouldn’t be complete without at least pointing you to some good lightweight remix distros to try. Most of these will be suitable for setting up a Distinguished or Middle-aged computer for light to moderate desktop usage.

This is by no means even close to a complete list; the “lightweight remix” is a popular target for hobbyists looking to make their mark on the Free software world, and new entrants come and go every year. I’ve focused mainly on distributions that I’m familiar with, that have stood the test of time, and that cater to general-purpose desktop computing (rather than some special demographic, netbook usage, etc).

The *buntus

Ubuntu is, without a doubt, one of the most popular Linux distributions of all time; it’s also one of the heavier distributions in its default configuration, and the combination of these two facts has spawned a number of remix distros aimed at providing a lighter Ubuntu experience. The good thing about all these distros is that they’re 100% compatible with Ubuntu and use many of the same system configuration tools, so it’s fairly easy for Ubuntu users to switch to them. Although many have come and gone over the years, the current crop aimed at older hardware includes:

  • Xubuntu, based around the XFCE desktop environment, is one of the more venerable derivatives of Ubuntu and is “officially recognized” by Canonical.
  • Lubuntu, based around the LXDE desktop environment, looks to be the eventual “official” LXDE respin of Ubuntu.
  • Bodhi Linux is a fairly new, independent remix featuring the Enlightenment 17 (e17) desktop environment.

The Mint family

Linux Mint began as a respin of Ubuntu with some of the more tedious aspects of system configuration (like installing proprietary drivers and codecs) already taken care of. It has since grown into a family of Ubuntu and Debian-based distros aimed at being attractive and novice-friendly. On top of taking care of the nasty business of codecs and drivers, Mint has its own set of package management and system configuration tools that are designed to be simpler and friendlier than Ubuntu’s or Debian’s. For those seeking a lightweight experience, two flavors of Mint are relevant:

  • Linux Mint LXDE edition, an Ubuntu-based Mint featuring the LXDE desktop
  • Linux Mint Debian XFCE edition, a Debian-based version featuring (can you guess?) XFCE. Since it’s based on Debian Testing, the packages are newer and it’s a semi-rolling release.


Crunchbang is based on Debian Stable, and comes in either an XFCE version or the more minimal OpenBox version. Its aim is to offer “a great blend of speed, style and substance”, and seems to be geared towards developers and power-users who want a zippy, no-nonsense, keyboard-centric (but still stylish) interface.

Being based on Debian stable, it offers freedom from constant update-related system upheaval at the expense of slightly older packages.


Archbang is basically another take on the Crunchbang (OpenBox) idea, but using Arch Linux rather than Debian as a base. The change of base distro gives archbang users access to bleeding-edge packages almost as soon as they’re released. It’s live-CD-based install also provides the novice with a somewhat more user-friendly method of experiencing Arch Linux.

Like Crunchbang, its desktop is minimalist and keyboard-centric; it’s also been configured with a selection of shortcut keys for common tasks, and even features its own custom web browser (Jumanji) optimized for keyboard use. While it’s probably not the distro you want to install for the guest room or kids’ computer, it’s a compelling option for turning your old machine into a coding or writing workhorse.

Vector Linux

Vector is a fairly venerable distribution based on Slackware. It comes in many versions, some free and some commercial; but for reviving your old PC the “light” version might be the ticket. Vector light’s desktop is based on the IceWM window manager and PCManFM file browser, configured into a Windows-esque environment that strikes a reasonable compromise of lightweight and friendly. Being based on Slackware, it has a fairly “scripty” feel to it, and the packages make even Debian stable look cutting edge. Nevertheless, it’s fast and mature with a pretty good community behind it.

Vector’s text-mode installation is going to be an intimidating experience for newcomers, but offers experienced users a decent selection of configuration options. Once installed, though, it features a friendly graphical control panel for most system administration tasks.


Zenwalk is another derivative of Slackware; it comes in several versions, including a minimal OpenBox version, but the standard version uses the XFCE desktop. Zenwalk has a more active release schedule than Vector, and thus generally newer software; it also has a community software repository (ZUR), which gives it an edge on package selection. Like Vector, it also has its own set of graphical system administration tools, and is overall designed to be simple and straightforward to manage and use.


Antix is a lightweight respin of MEPIS, which is itself a derivative of Debian. Antix is compatible with Debian stable, so it has a pretty wide range of software readily available to it. Its default desktop is based on IceWM and ROX-filer, but it includes a small selection of alternative window managers for those looking to try some different environments. Antix aims at creating an attractive and full-featured desktop for regular user, but with lightweight software. It comes in a few versions, including a stripped-down “base” version, a no-GUI “core” version.

So many distros, so little time

I’ve only really scratched the surface of the distros that are out there waiting to be discovered, and new ones pop up every few weeks; but you should now have a good grasp of what makes one different from another, and how to find out if a given distribution is right for your needs.

Now, knowing that it’s so easy to create a remix distro, the more adventurous among you might be thinking “Why bother with them? Why not just spin up my own remix exactly suited to my needs?” In the next article, we’ll do just that!

Stay tuned!

7 Thoughts on “Reviving your old PC with Linux, Part V: the Remixes

  1. Arkanabar says:

    Would you put a link to this into your previous article?

    1. Alan says:


      I suppose I should get around to writing that “next article” one of these days as well…

      1. spindash says:

        Don’t worry… for now, you gave us a lot of information to play!
        Thanks man!

      2. Jimpaq Presario 6000 says:

        136 days and counting.

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