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I have a new laptop. It is an Intel Core i5, 1TB HDD, 8GB RAM. I will use it for some programming and modeling in Python and 3D CAD/CAM.
I want the PC to be as fast as possible and I don’t care much about looks. I will also use it to browse the web. So I have been advised to “install a lightweight linux distro and it will fly on your new computer, because the OS is designed for old machines”.
But, is that reasoning correct?
I know lightweight distros are usually used for old hardware. But, the fact that a distro is less resources-hungry, does it necessarily and automatically mean that it will run faster in a machine with higher specs?
Being ignorant in hardware and OSs, I presume the answer might not be always a clear “yes”. I fear a lightweight distro, because it is prepared for low power/low specs, might not use the full potential of my hardware. Does it make sense? I mean, if lightweight distros would use the full potential of new hardware and make computers fast as hell, why would anyone want to use any heavyweight distro?
So before installing the lightweight distro I thought I ask you guys for opinions.
The difference between light-weight and heavy-weight is defined by the kind and number of tools that are installed by default. The tools are started at boot and define the user exeperience. It’s mainly a personal choice. I’ve been using heavy-weight distributions for years and never had any complaints about performance. Performance is always a interpretation-thing.
Any light-weight installation can be converted into a heavy-weight installation by installing extra tools. Any heavy-weight installation can be converted into a leight-weight installation by remove unnecessary tools.
I fear a lightweight distro, because it is prepared for low power/low specs, might not use the full potential of my hardware.
That’s not correct. All distros are capable of making use of available resources (assuming drivers for your hardware are available).
I mean, if lightweight distros would use the full potential of new hardware and make computers fast as hell, why would anyone want to use any heavyweight distro?
“Heavy” software isn’t heavy for the sake of it. It’s heavy because features it implements require more resources. You can use a lightweight alternative at the cost of missing out.
For example XFCE is a very light desktop environment and runs great even on very limited hardware, but it looks dated and isn’t really that user-friendly (unless you consider what Windows 98 was like the peak of user-friendliness). On the other side of the spectrum are Gnome and KDE. Gnome’s UI is kind of unusual and appears to be optimized for touchscreens at first sight, but once you get use to it you can be very productive. Large UI elements are easy to click, rich animations naturally guide your eyes towards areas that are of interest in the context of action that you’re performing. KDE is also heavy, but it’s known for its extreme customizability.
A lot of software has lightweight alternatives, but they achieve that lightweightness by lacking some features of their heavier counterparts. Sometimes they are sufficient for your needs, but if they’re not, you’ll be wasting time on workarounds or installing heavier alternatives anyway.
My rule of thumb based on personal experience is: if your hardware is capable of running a regular (ie. “heavy”) distro, go for it. You won’t notice the performance difference, but you’ll be more productive. If the performance is insufficient, consider lighter alternatives, but keep in mind that the more steps you have to do manually to get them working as intended, the harder to maintain the distro will be. All moving parts are potential points of failure.
There may be so-called “light-weight” distros, which come with a light-weight default package selection out of the box when installed. However, you can remove lots of unnecessary packages in a normal distros and replace your desktop environment with a less resource-hungry one. So you may be able to make any distro “light-weight” by aggressive package management. For instance, Ubuntu Server is basically the same thing as regular Ubuntu, except by default, there are no desktop environments installed, amongst other things. You can install all of the packages of regular Ubuntu if you want them. Or turn Ubuntu into Ubuntu server by uninstalling the desktop environment and other packages. In other words, the only significant difference is what is installed by default.
It is also worth noting that often distros are somewhat characterised by their package managers. The Arch Linux package manager, pacman, appears significantly faster when installing packages than apt from Ubuntu. If your PC has limited I/O performance, I would recommend Arch. For instance, I used Arch on a Raspberry Pi which boots off a micro SD card (SD cards are not really designed for random I/O workloads), and the difference is night and day when installing packages, when compared with Ubuntu.
To explicitly answer the question:
I will also use it to browse the web. So I have been adviced to “install a lightweight linux distro and it will fly on your new computer, because the OS is designed for old machines”.
But, is that reasoning correct?
There may be some distros which come out of the box configured to be light-weight, so the reasoning may be correct. However, as I said, you can make a normal distro lighter with package management.
Even the oldest Intel Core i5 is not incredibly old, and 8GB RAM is not incredibly small. You did not mention graphics hardware. But I do not think your computer is that old that where will be that much difference between distros. Your biggest limitation is the mechanical hard disk, so a fast package manager may be desirable. Although a warning, as fantastic as Arch Linux is, I would not recommend it if you have little Linux experience. Occasionally things break because of the continuous release model, and you need to know how to fix problems or know how to identify the problem package and downgrade them.