Low-Spec Hardware? Try these Desktop Environments

Popular Linux distributions for beginners typically default to one of two desktop environments, KDE or GNOME. Both of these environments provide users with an intuitive and attractive desktop, as well as offering all the applications users love, ranging from multimedia software, games, administration programs, network tools, educational applications, utilities, artwork, web development tools and more. However, these two desktops focus more on providing users with a modern computing environment with all the bells and whistles, rather than minimising the amount of system resources they use.

For users and developers who wish to run an attractive Linux desktop on older hardware, netbooks, or mobile internet devices, neither KDE or GNOME may be a viable option, as they run too slowly on low spec machines. Fortunately, Linux offers users plenty of choice, and we do love change.

I have selected my pick of desktop environments that are excellent candidates for older hardware. They typically run well on low-spec machines, even a system with a Pentium II 266MHz CPU, a processor that is now 16 years old. All of the desktops are released under freely distributable licenses. If your Linux box feels sluggish in general use, try one of the desktops featured below. It may just save you from discarding a perfectly good machine.


LXDE in action

LXDE (an acronym for Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) is an open source project with an objective of providing a desktop environment which is lightweight, fast, and easy to use. It is not designed to be powerful and bloated, but to be usable and slim, and minimise the burden on system resources. Different from the majority of desktop environments, it offers desktop independence; it does not tightly integrate every component so that they can be used with different systems.

This means that users do not need to install the whole desktop, but they can select the parts that they like for their own customized desktop.

LXDE is designed to work well with computers on the low end of the performance spectrum such as netbooks and other small computers. LXDE is energy efficient and fast compared to other desktops, particularly on hardware with low specifications including Pentium IIs. LXDE is the default desktop environment of Knoppix, Lubuntu and Raspbian, among others. After X11 and LXDE are started, the total memory usage is a mere 45MB.

Highlights of LXDE include a fast file manager and image viewer (PCManFM and GPicView respectively), a feature-rich panel (LXPanel), session manager, and one of my old favorite window managers which has been adapted (Openbox).

Features include:

  • Lightweight, runs with reasonable memory usage
  • Good-looking, GTK+ 2 internationalized, and customizable user interface
  • Easy-to-use, the user interface is simple, but usable enough
  • Desktop independent (every component can be used without LXDE)
  • Standard compliant, follows the specs on freedesktop.org
  • Suitable for old machines
  • Website: lxde.org
  • Developer: The LXDE Team
  • License: GNU GPL, GNU LGPL
  • Version Number: 0.99.0



XFCE in action

Xfce is an open source desktop environment which also aims to be fast and lightweight, yet at the same time being attractive and easy to use. Its configuration is entirely mouse-driven and the configuration files are hidden from the desktop user. It is based on the GTK+ 2 toolkit (like GNOME).

Xfce is mainly used for its ability to run a modern desktop environment on relatively modest hardware.

The Xfce project contains several separated projects for each part of the desktop. The core components include a window manager, session manager, panel, printing helper, desktop manager, and a settings manager.

Included in the Xfce project are also various desktop applications such as a text editor (called Mousepad), a terminal emulator, a modern file manager (called Thunar), a frontend CD/DVD burning application (Xfburn), a simple calendar application, a media player based on the xine engine, an image viewer (called Ristretto), an archive manager (Xarchiver), and more. Similar to LXDE, the various components are packaged separately and you can pick among the available packages to create the best personal working environment.

Features include:

  • Lightweight desktop environment
  • Basic and lightweight applications
    • xfwm4 integrates its own compositing manager which takes advantage of X.org’s server extensions. xfwm4 adheres strongly to the standards defined on freedesktop.org. xfwm4 offers multihead support, for both xinerama and real multiscreen modes, useful when you have more than one monitor connected to your computer
    • Xfce panel is part of the Xfce Desktop Environment and features program launchers, panel menus, a clock, a desktop switcher and more
    • Orage – a calendar that integrates well into the Xfce desktop which sports alarms and uses the iCalendar format
    • Thunar – a file manager designed for speed and a low memory footprint, which resembles Nautilus. It is fast and responsive with a good start up time and folder load time. It has advanced features such as a bulk file renaming capability
    • Text editor
    • Settings manager to customize your desktop environment
    • Session manager – save the current session, autostart applications, shutdown, reboot, suspend or hibernate your computer
  • Kiosk mode to restrict the configuration
  • Configuration is entirely mouse-driven
  • Translated in more than 40 languages
  • Freedesktop specifications compliance
    • Extended Window Manager hints
    • Desktop Menus
    • Icon themes
    • XDG Base directory
    • XSETTINGS protocol
    • Drag-and-Drop protocol
  • Website: www.xfce.org
  • Developer: Olivier Fourdan (Project Leader), and many other core developers
  • License: GNU GPL and LGPL
  • Version Number: 4.12


LXQt in action

LXQt is billed as an advanced, easy-to-use, and fast desktop environment based on Qt technologies. It is the product of the merge between the LXDE-Qt and the Razor-qt projects. The idea of pooling resources between the two projects is to give users an impressive experience, yet retaining a lot of the development effort of the two projects.

LXQt offers users a fast and stable desktop environment. It is getting close to be ready for use in production desktop machines, though there’s still some work to do. Whilst this desktop environment is not yet available to install from the Ubuntu Software Center, it can be easily installed by typing the following commands in a terminal:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:lubuntu-dev/lubuntu-daily
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gilir/q-project
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install lxqt-metapackage lxqt-panel openbox

Whilst LXQt is not quite as memory efficient as LXDE or Xfce, the difference is not significant.

Features include:

  • Modular architecture, allowing users and maintainers to easily swap out components of the desktop for third party apps
  • PCManFM-Qt, the Qt port of LXDE’s desktop and file manager
  • Efficient program launcher
  • Good power management tools
  • Ongoing support for the Wayland display protocol
  • Experimental Raspberry Pi support
  • Additional packages including the LXQt image viewer, a lightweight Qt terminal emulator, Qt port of ObConf, compatible Qt theme
  • Full Qt5 support
  • Translated into many languages including Russian, Danish, Greek, Basque, Chinese, Romanian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Ukrainian, and Esperanto
  • Website: lxqt.org
  • Developer: LXQt Team and contributors
  • License: GNU GPL 2.0+ and GNU LGPL 2.1+
  • Version Number: 0.9.0


No Desktop Environment

No Desktop Environment

The ultimate way to run a lightweight desktop is not to use a desktop environment at all. That way you can keep processor and memory usage as low as possible. Now, I’m not advocating users run Linux without a graphical environment at all. I do love console based software, and it’s perfectly possible to surf the web, use email, play music, and view PDFs from a console. But there are some types of software that really necessitate, or benefit greatly from, a graphical user interface.

The solution could simply be to run X with only a window manager. It’s simple to configure a Linux distribution to start without a desktop environment.

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