Emmabuntüs » Feren OS » Q4OS » SparkyLinux » Void Linux
This document is the transcription of the article written by Shashank Sharma and published in LinuxFormat issue#263 of June 2020.
Many thanks to the LinuxFormat team, which gave us their authorization to reproduce their article on our Emmabuntüs site.
By day Shashank is a New Delhi trial lawyer,
but by night he’s an open source vigilante!
32-bit Linux distros
The number of distributions targeting 32-bit machines is rapidly shrinking.
If you need one, Shashank Sharma has some interesting recommendations.
HOW WE TESTED…
All distributions were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM, and we’ve selected the latest stable releases for all the distros. The recommended RAM for these is much less, and they claim to be able to run on even much older hardware, so we expect them to be fairly responsive.
We’re also going to rate the distributions on the installation process. A complicated process will automatically alienate new users, unless there’s plenty of documentation to guide users along, which is another key test. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are shipped with the distribution.
Apart from these, the distribution also needs to be easy to use to be able to help you put the aging machines back into use. We also want the distribution to be customisable, to enable you to make changes and mould it to your taste.
Like Void, Q4OS also has a text-based installer, but its on par in terms of friendliness with the graphical installer featured in the other distributions.
Unlike muscle cars of the 1970s, which still remain popular and are quite the collector’s items, old computers from even a decade ago aren’t all that desirable. Part of the reason for this is the lack of computing power, which restricts what these machines can be used for. Another reason is the cost of providing support for them. This is why popular distributions such as Ubuntu no longer produce official install media for 32-bit systems and are looking to entirely drop support for 32-bit packages in the future.
Despite the seemingly bleak outlook, there’s still hope for aging machines in the form of the distributions featured here. Our list is by no means exhaustive, and there are several other distributions that are determined to help you keep your 32-bit machines working in the coming years. You’ll find a mention of some of these in our Also Consider section at the end of this roundup.
With the exception of high-performance gaming and other, similarly resource-intensive work, there’s little that these machines can’t do, thanks to the vast repositories of open source software. If nothing else, these machines can be the perfect test bed for new Linux users to learn the internals, without fear of breaking anything.
Well begun is half done, right?
Determined users will find a way to install the distribution even if the process is cumbersome, but that’s bound to dissuade newcomers. Thankfully, many Linux distributions, including the ones featured in this Roundup, provide live-installable media. This gives you the option to test-drive the distribution before committing it to the hard disk.
Emmabuntüs is the heaviest of the lot, with an ISO image of over 3GB. You’ll not be able to proceed with the installation if the intended target partition is less than 15GB in size. This is quite large as most other Linux distributions, including the others featured in this installable will sit comfortably within 8GB of space. The installation itself is fairly straightforward, and the graphical installer will guide you along the few necessary steps, such as specifying your keyboard/locale, confirming the timezone, etc. However, the most important step in any distributions’ installation is partitioning.
While all distributions make installation straightforward and simple, with the option to automatically carve space for installation in the target partition/disk, Void Linux is the one exception. It features an ncurses-based text-only installer. Although this isn’t a problem in itself, the distribution also requires users to go through every step manually, including partitioning. If you intend to install the distribution to a disk all by itself, you’re also expected to format it to either a DOS format, or GPT, etc., without any clear instructions on which format is recommended for what hardware type. The lack of detailed instructions on this front is bound to hurt adoption rates for Void Linux.
Q4OS on the other hand will work with a 300MHz machine with only 128MB RAM if you opt for the lightweight Trinity desktop. While the project produces live-installble CD images featuring KDE Plasma and Trinity desktop, these are aimed at 64-bit machines. For 32-bit machines, the project offers an install-only image. You must choose the desktop environment you wish to install post-installation. Depending on your internet connection and system setup, the process can take anywhere from 10-20 minutes or more.
Its ncurses-based installer, meanwhile, is far more capable and not as difficult to work with as Void’s. You’ll be able to install additional desktop environment post installation using the desktop profiler tool.
How well do they perform on under‐powered machines?
Despite being aimed at older machines, with fewer CPU and RAM resources than modern counterparts, many of the distributions have curious software selection. Several ship with LibreOffice, when perhaps the choice of AbiWord and others would have made more sense in terms of memory footprint.
Emmabuntüs provides the same core set of applications across its 64-bit and 32-bit editions. This includes an assortment of applications for everyday use as well as for hobbyists. While the selection isn’t necessarily sensitive to low-resource systems, the distribution aims to make up for it by its choice of desktop environment. The Xfce desktop environment is far more lightweight than peers such as KDE and Gnome.
Q4OS and Feren OS both take between 15-20 seconds to launch any application, whether its LibreOffice or a web browser. Thankfully, there’s no sluggishness while working with any of the applications. While Q4OS defaults to the Trinity desktop environment, a fork of KDE, Feren OS ships with Cinnamon.
SparkyLinux produces two images featuring LXQt and Xfce. We tried the LXQt variant and found it to be the fastest of the lot in application launch times. The performance was also quite smooth throughout. If you’re willing to sacrifice some eye candy for performance, SparkyLinux just might be right fit for you.
Like Emmabuntüs, Void Linux too ships with XFCE, but the two distros are very distinct. Not only does Void Linux lack the eye candy of Emmabuntüs, it also offers a minimal number of applications. There’s no office applications on offer, for instance.
Will you enjoy working with them?
As always we’re testing the distributions across many different categories to determine the winner. But even top scores in all the tests isn’t going to be enough if putting it to work leaves the user battered, bruised, and looking for an alternative.
For a normal distribution, the number of applications it bundles has a direct influence on its usability. But a distribution meant for older hardware is more than the sum of its applications.
This is why the user experience, which is a culmination of all the different factors, such as performance and eye candy, is so important. We want an easy-to-use distribution that’s completely usable out of the box. The distro will get bonus points if there isn’t too steep a learning curve.
Emmabuntüs’s welcome screen proudly identifies the distribution as aimed to refurbish old computers and help you familiarise with Linux. To that end, the welcome screen provides quick links to Tutorials, Tools, Settings Manager, etc.
Its Xfce desktop has traditionally been thought of as plain or vanilla, but Emmabuntüs’s choice of Cairo dock makes the desktop pop. The vast selection of applications ensures that the distribution will appeal to a vast section of users. It’s also incredibly easy to customise the distribution to your liking, whether it’s changing the desktop elements such as the dock or installing additional software.
The dock features many different applications, as well as categories of applications such as Maintenance that house different applications. The entire experience is quite polished, but only if you can scrounge at least 4GB of RAM.
We like working with Feren OS. It presents a bright and cheerful desktop. Unlike the other distributions, however, its greatest drawback is that the project will cease to support 32-bit machines beyond 2023. But that’s still a few years away.
The project advises at least 2GB RAM, but if our tests are any indication 4GB is preferable for optimum performance. The distribution will appeal to experienced users as well as novices, who will appreciate the welcome screen with its ability to install packages, such as restricted codecs, and recommend additional useful software.
The distribution also supports installing Snap packages and will let you enable desktop effects and configure hot corners. The partial rolling-release nature of the distribution can also serve as a soft introduction, to enable you to move to true rolling-release distributions down the road.
Q4OS also boasts of a featureful welcome screen. Unfortunately, a key feature of the welcome screen, the ability to configure autologin, doesn’t work. This means that every time you boot into the distribution, you have to provide your login credentials and then launch the GUI with startx .
This was the only flaw we encountered in our tests. For the most part, the distribution performs exactly as expected. Its compliment of custom tools, such as the Desktop Profiler, make installing additional desktop environments like Xfce, Mate, etc. a walk in the park.
The default launcher is also quite an eyesore, making you navigate through a maze of menus and sub-menus. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to switch to a different layout by clicking Switch To Kickoff Start Menu on the welcome screen. You get the option of three menu types, and can choose the menu structure.
Based on Debian, the project produces two primary variants. The stable edition is based on the Stable branch of Debian and offers two downloadable images favouring Xfce and LXQt. But if you want the latest software, even if at the cost of stability, the semi-rolling edition of SparkyLinux is based on the Testing branch of Debian.
SparkyLinux and Emmabuntüs are both based on Debian, but that’s the extent of their similarity. The software selection on Emmabuntüs, and its focus on eye candy clearly reveals its intention to attract new users. SparkyLinux, on the other hand, readily admits to being aimed at experienced users. Its best feature is the myriad custom tools, although many aren’t installed by default, which can help you control other utilities and applications. The applications menu on is vanilla and quirky. For instance, you’ll find Synaptic Package Manager under Preferences.
Despite its minimalist nature, Void Linux was only marginally faster in app launches during our tests than other distributions. Its minimalist nature also means that the distribution isn’t quite ready for use out of the box. The one obvious advantage of this approach is the amount of control you have in populating the distribution exactly to your liking. With you in the driver’s seat, there’s no risk of there being useless software or other bloat to burden your system unnecessarily.
The lack of a graphical software management utility isn’t a problem in itself, but the default terminal behaviour disappoints. This is because it utilises Dash as the default shell, which lacks some of the most useful features of Bash, such as tab completion. We recommend switching to Bash before running any commands on the terminal. You can do so by running
chsh -s /bin/bash <username>
Documentation and support
When you can’t find north on a compass, its time to hit the manual.
With the exception of Feren OS and Void Linux, all the distributions also have fairly active forum boards. Forum boards are excellent resources because there’s a good chance any queries you may have already been answered.
You’ll find detailed tutorials on installing Emmabuntüs, as well as instructions on what to do post-installation such as configuring wireless, installing additional software, etc. These tutorials are also available as downloadable PDF files in English and French.
The Feren OS documentation is quite thorough and covers the entire spectrum of its usage, from procuring the ISO image, installation and using the distribution. A healthy dose of screenshots are sprinkled throughout to assist users.
Q4OS provides a bare bones-introduction to the distribution’s myriad components and crucial aspects, such as software management. The FAQ covers useful questions, but you’ll find a number of user-contributed tips & tutorials on the forum boards.
SparkyLinux’s wiki has detailed pages introducing the different editions available for download. You’ll also find information on installing the distribution, managing software and applications, and many different Sparky Tools.
Despite covering all the basics, the official Void Linux docs leave a lot to be desired. The documentation is to the point and terse, and bound to confuse Linux beginners. The project used to have a wiki, and although it’s still accessible it’s no longer being maintained. It’s apparent that the official docs are a work in progress, and we hope that padding is added to many of the pages. Also, instead of official forum boards, you can post queries and seek help from the sub-reddit, which has an active community.
What makes them special?
Feren OS features a couple of home-grown utilities. The Transfer Tool can be used to back up data from crucial directories such as Home, Pictures, Documents, Downloads, etc. You can similarly restore data using the tool with a single click. The other native tool is the Web Browser Manager, which can install additional web browsers with a single click.
Emmabuntüs’s welcome screen is quite capable. It identifies a number of useful tools across different genres, such as Maintenance, Printing, etc. While it offers DejaDup as the default backup utility, you can also install Systemback, which performs much the same functionality with a click from the welcome screen.
SparkyLinux ships with APTus, a custom graphical software management tool to help you install software and perform system upgrades. The project has also created various other graphical tools and utilities, many as frontends for controlling command- line apps. These aren’t part of the default installation, but you can get them from the software repositories. Popular ones of these include Sparky-Backup-Sys, which can be used to create a live image of your current Sparky installation, including all additional installed packages.
Q4OS’s welcome screen provides the option to install multimedia codecs. The Desktop Profiler tool can be used to choose the desktop environment and default application set you want. There are only three options for now. You can choose between the full featured desktop, basic desktop or the ultimately minimal desktop. The welcome screen can similarly be used to enable desktop effects and change the kickoff menu style, which we recommend you put to use if you decide to try this distro.
What do they offer out of the box?
Owing to its large ISO image, it’s no surprise that Emmabuntüs is chock-full of applications. In addition to a number of useful educational apps and games aimed at children, there’s the usual crop of multimedia and internet applications. Unlike the other distributions, Emmabuntüs also features a vast number of applications aimed at hobbyists, such as LibreOffice Draw, Pinta image editor, Audacity audio editor, Kdenlive video editor, Inkscape, Scribus and more. You’ll also find that the distribution supports HP and Brother print devices out of the box.
Apart from desktop applications for everyday use, Feren OS also features Timeshift system restore tool and Gufw firewall utility to help safeguard your data and system. For email, the distribution offers Geary, with Vivaldi as the default browser.
Q4OS offers a sprinkle of KDE applications in addition to its core offerings. For instance, you’ll find Konqueror browser in addition to Chromium, Okular document viewer in addition to qpdfview, etc. Then there’s the usual selection of everyday use applications such as LibreOffice, VLC media player, etc. Although it’s nowhere near as rich in its offerings as Emmabuntüs, the distribution still manages to pack in a few games to keep you entertained. It also have no backup utility available out of the box.
SparkyLinux too offers LibreOffice and also ships with Bleachbit file cleaner, Timeshift and firewall configuration utility. You’ll also find Thunderbird, Firefox and a handful of other applications, but not much more.
Unlike the others, Void Linux has only sparse offerings in the shape of Firefox, Ristretto image viewer and Parole media player. Also available on Void Linux is a bulk rename utility as well as Thunar file manager.
Can you flesh them out easily?
Emmabuntüs offers to install non-free software such as Adobe Flash Player for Firefox, multimedia codecs, Teamviwer, and Callibri and Ariel Microsoft fonts. Unmark the Show This Window At Next Startup checkbox on the bottom left of the window if you don’t want to run into it at each reboot.
Feren OS ships with Store, a graphical software management application. Apart from a quick rundown on features, it also displays screenshots, ratings, and user-contributed reviews for many applications. You also have the option of using the traditional Synaptic Package Manager. Although not available out of the box, you can also install Flatpak and Snap package support with a single click from the welcome screen. You can install other browsers such as Firefox using the Web Browser Manager tool. Many browsers however, such as Google Chrome, Opera and Brave are not available for 32-bit installations. For fans of gaming, the Recommendations section of the welcome screen provides the option to install Steam, Lutris, PlayOnLinux & Wine with a single click. You can similarly install WPS Office, or SoftMaker Office if the default LibreOffice doesn’t suit your fancy.
The Software Centre tool on Q4OS is oddly misnamed, since it can only be used to install a handful of applications. For all other purposes, you must use Synaptic Package Manager.
Sparky Linux’s APTus utility is a graphical app installer. It provides access to all the apps in the Sparky repository across categories such as Audio, Web, IM, etc.
Unlike the other distributions, Void Linux has created a package management system from scratch called X Binary Package System (xbps). To install packages you must use the xbps-install utility. xbps-remove can similarly be used to remove packages, and xbps-query to look up applications in the repository. The man page for each has instructions on how to use them. If you wish to install non-free packages, you’ll have to enable the appropriate repository with the xps-install void-repo-nonfree command.
Although a death knell hasn’t yet been sounded on distributions aimed at 32-bit machines, the day isn’t all that far off. If you look at the announcements from distributions that have already abandoned producing a 32-bit variant, or others like Ubuntu that plan to stop incoming releases, you’ll realise the amount of work and time it takes to support these aging machines. The demand for these comes down further with each passing year.
Of our selection, Feren OS too doesn’t plan on providing a 32-bit release from 2023, when support for the current release comes to an end. With the rapidly decreasing prices of hardware, and the increasing resource requirements for most applications, there may come a time when 32-bit machines can best be used as either paperweights or to play a hand of Solitaire. But until that time, distributions such as the ones featured in this Roundup will help you put the machines to use any way you want.
Void Linux comes in last because of its minimalist nature. Although this isn’t a problem in itself, the distribution requires too much work before it can be used for anything except browsing the internet.
Feren OS is considerably better in this department, and its rolling nature means that you won’t have to worry about reinstalling it to get updates. The project is still quite young and was started by a young developer. It had stiff competition with SparkyLinux and Q4OS to decide the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishers. But the Feren OS project was started by a young developer and as there’s no information available about the development team behind it if there is one, so we have decided to push it past the podium.
With the Trinity desktop environment, and various other custom tools such as the Desktop Profiler, Q4OS is one of the most polished distributions we’ve come across. It’s a delight to work with, and the KDE fork provides a lot of options to users to configure the environment to their liking.
But Emmabuntüs wins this Roundup for a number of reasons. It has the largest compliment of applications available out of the box, which means that if your old machine has enough RAM, you can use it for just about everything from accessing the internet, to creating wondrous music, and more. LXF
Web: http://emmabuntus.org Licence: GPL & others
Version: DE 3
It has all the apps, now it needs to work on its speed.
Web: https://q4os.org Licence: GPL & othersv
Some eye candy and better documentation would win it the first position.
Web: https://sparkylinux.org Licence: GPL & others
it should consider offering its custom tools out of the box.
Web: https://ferenos.weebly.com Licence: GPL & others
Won’t be supported beyond 2023. Lack of transparency on the developer too.
Web: https://voidlinux.org Licence: GPL & others
The rolling-release distribution has potential. The installer needs an overhaul.
While the number of projects that have dropped support for 32-bit hardware is increasing every day, there are a few distros that continue to spend resources to produce images that can boot on 32-bit machines. There’s the popular Debian-based distro MX Linux that has an image with a 32-bit PAE kernel.
Then there’s the systemd-free antiX that’s designed to be fast and lightweight. It has a 32-bit image that it claims you can even use on the prehistoric Pentium 3 with just 256 MB of RAM. If you are still clinging on to such dated machines, you can also try Puppy Linux. All its official distros have 32-bit images. If you want to try something different, there’s Android-x86 that enables you to run the mobile OS on your computer. Not only is the distro light on resources, the project also produces a 32-bit image. Besides these some mainstream distributions like Linux Mint, Debian, OpenSUSE Tumbleweed also continues to put out ISO you can boot on 32-bit PCs.
This Roundup article was originally published in LinuxFormat issue#263 of June 2020.
Note from the Emmabutüs Collective :
In this paper, the author Shashank Sharma instists saying that these distriubutions will run overly slow if the amount of RAM of the target machine is below 4 GB. As far as our own experience is concerned, we obverved that Emmabuntüs performs very decently on machines equipped with only 2 GB of RAM.