Help please: Which Linux distro is best for mom and dad?

-Akshay Ranganath

My Problem

Well, as usual, my desktop running Windows XP got infected by virus and died yesterday (Apparantly, AVG did not help). I was about to re-install XP on it when it dawned on me that ever since I’d installed XP, I was having trouble with the machine.

You see, my machine is an old Pentium, 555 Mhz with 192MB RAM. It takes eons to run XP and crashes with Windows defender, anti-virus, auto-updaters and a host of other software that my parents never knew existed. Everytime I am not at home or at onsite, the machine would end up getting infected. My parents who were trying to dip their feet quite hesitantly into the shores of internet would be then frightened. They’d believe that it was them to blame for the crash.. and totally give up using the computer. Hence, the thought, why not install Linux on the desktop and help them?

My problem though is that I am not sure which distribution to use. Before embarking on that let me give you the skill level of my parents

Parents skill level

Basically, both mom and dad have almost never used computers. The only keyboard they were happy to use was the remote for TV – that too to change channel and reduce volume. Now-a-days though, Mom has learnt to send SMS. Dad manages to read the missed call on the Call registry of mobile. Apart from this, the skill level on computers includes ability to switch on, switch off the computer, type on notepad and sometimes managing to send an email (if the email URL is bookmarked). With the childrental (as in parental) guidance, they can chat.

Requirements from OS

Knowing the fear of computers that parents have, important things for the OS are:

  • should be easy to use with a UI similar to XP – at least, the menu should be on left-bottom with On/Off feature being easily identifiable
  • a browser (guess Firefox is the best – i could always use an IE skin to make it look similar to what they know)
  • small program for creating documents (well, this is more of an overkill, but it is definitely something they could learn)
  • a chat program to integrate with GTalk – if I am not in India, I could (just about could) make them use the chat software to talk to them

That’s about the requirements from the OS. With this in mind, I want your help in identifying a good disto to use.

Potential options

Ubuntu: I have used Ubuntu but, felt that it needs a bit more of CPU and RAM to work properly. Also, the GNOME interface is a very HUGE learning curve for parents. So it is a definite no-no!

Fedora: Again, it is quite resource intensive and would probably not work on my desktop. Although, I’ve not used it a lot, from the look and feel, I could configure KDE – again, will it work on my machine?

Help from Internet: I did read this article but, the guy’s parents seem to be quite familiar with computers and manged to migrate to a (unnamed) Linux system. Not sure if it’d work in my case!

I also took the Linux Distribution Chooser but – the quiz seems to believe that the person installing the OS is the end-user. Since this is not the case, the results were not all that helpful.

I also read the article Choosing Desktop Linux Distro but, I’d like a second opinion…

Help Please!

And so, I am writing this blog – could you the readers of the blog help me out with this dilemma – what distro would work for my situation? Please let me know which of the one would serve the purpose. Thanks!


I’d originally put this post on our internal corporate blog. From some really helpful FLOSS enthusiasts, I got the following comments:

..try out Zenwalk Linux distro ( ). It is pretty light-weight and doesn’t need a high configuration at all..

PCLinuxOS ( download it..its worth it) or Dream Linux ( should be available with jan LFY issue) ..A new kid is alinux( peanut linux formerly). screenshots at

Did you give Xubuntu a shot? I haven’t … but it is supposed to be pretty low on resource requirement, atleast lower than Ubuntu

“Linux Mint 4 ” Is the OS which works Out of the box with Gui Better than Xp and Vista,It will have all Proprietary Codecs Installed and Most common Drivers Installed By Default. It’s Built with Ubuntu as a base and Some Good Packages Like Mint-Install , Mint-Update which make Automatic updating simpler than Xp / Vista.

I heard of Something Called Puppy Linux For Low end Desktops , try to google for it for its features, and Also Vector Linux Specially made for low end pentium processors and ram

Well, in the lowest memory max usability area, Damn Small Linux is the best. Its all of 50 MB but contains browser, text editors, music players, etc.


i suggest PClinuxOS. simple, does the job and fits well. Even vectorlinux is a better choice for your parents. there are others like linuxMCE, MEPIS if you want to try. If you want to have large application base, go with traditional (G)ubuntu or CentOS.

Thanks for the great suggestions guys! Looking at the help, I had tried PuppyLinux (review follows). Xubuntu would not boot – and when it did (just 2 times), it did not detect my mouse – so I could do nothing much. I keep getting the error – “Unable to load system description tables” and then some out of memory error. After the second error, the comuter just hangs and does not boot at all.

Short Review of PuppyLinux

PuppyLinux seems to be a really light-weight and useful distribution for really old machines. The total download size was just about 98 MB. At about 1/7th of a CD’s limit, this was impressive. I did not actually install t – but, I did try from the LiveCD boot. Here’s my opinion on the distro:

Pros of PuppyLinux
1. Amazingly small size
2. Comes nicely with a pre-packaged browser and email client by SeaMonkey. Never knew that it was a derivative of Mozilla – so, it was quite impressive.
3. Default install comes with AbiWord, an excel-type program, calculator, themes, wallpapers..
4. Four different games!!! (How on earth did these guys fit all of this in???)
5. Two different X managers – Xorg and Xvesa. Xvesa works like a breeze and makes your old machine feel like it is the top-of-line latest one!

1. UI is not exactly elegant. At times, feels more like UI for kids…Especially, the icon of a small pup for the ‘Start’ button
2. Mouse detection seemed to work only during even numbered booting – on 1st, 3rd and 5th time, it failed to detect
3. Distro says it has ability to save session information to make LiveCD boot faster – but, the save feature failed on all times.
4. Not sure of the continued support for project – it looks more like an effort by one person. (my gut feel, not verified thoroughly)

My Verdict
I’d recommend it for some really old system which desperately needs very small and robust OS. For my needs though, it would not exactly suit mainly because of the non-elegant look-and feel.

Author: akshayrangananth

CDN Specialist, Web performance evangelist, and SEO tinkerer.

11 thoughts on “Help please: Which Linux distro is best for mom and dad?”

  1. I’d second xubuntu. Less top heavy than ubuntu but more polished than puppy. I’d use puppy only if the system was ancient.

    There’s also an xfce based version of PClinux (more info available here: ). I thought it looked great but lacked some of the small details that a most tested distro provides.

    But hey, downalod and burn them all. Take the live CDs out for a test drive and see which works best on their system.

    Good luck.

  2. puppy: you have to burn the cd as multisession for it to write back.

    Absolute: nice.
    both use jwm as the window manager.

  3. I would also suggest looking at Xubuntu,

    another option, that I have not tried in some time is Beatrix.

    The original distro is discontinued but a variant has carried on

    now based more squarely on Ubuntu but more focused on being light weight and paired down to the basic user.


  4. For a new person, I would suggest MEPIS, it is user friendly . However, since your system has only 192 MB of RAM, I would rather go for Antix, a lightweight derivative of MEPIS.
    Vector Linux is also recommended by some people for older computers.
    I would not go for Ubuntu straight away, I have seen people struggling to come to terms with the changed UI. If you have to go with Ubuntu, add a few desktop icons.

  5. @ the beack geek & warner: Thanks for seconding Xubuntu. I did try the install but had an issue – it seems the install needs at least 192 MB – all for itself. Since my machine has the RAM shared with video card, it is not getting the total and hence fails to boot up! Trying to see how to get around this issue – but not much help….

    @anoynous: Thanks for suggesting Absolute linux. The distro looks interesting. I’ll definitely take a look and see if it solves my issue.

  6. @ Thanks Nilotpal. I too felt the same after I saw the screen shots of Xubuntu. The first thing that stands out is that the menus are at the top than at the bottom – for experienced users, its not a big deal… but for mom and dad – it could be a big culture shock!

    I also found this link worst distributions of Linux. Seems to have an interesting discussion…

  7. Xubuntu is good for use on a thin-client computer. A thin-client doesn’t have alot of RAM or Hard Drive space. And the location of the menus can be changed around. Applications can be moved to the bottom of the screen. Right-click that bar and select Properties. By default, Xubuntu comes with Abiword. I don’t know if that is compatible with MS Word.

    I use the web a lot and recommend if they don’t plan to be only on that computer, to get Gmail account so that they can use Google Docs, Spreadsheets, or Presentations. Or if they already have an email account, go for

  8. For either Xubuntu or Ubuntu I just switch the bar locations. I get rid of Gnome “menu bar” and replace it with a “main menu” button.

    Basically set up the desktop like Windows for new converts, it is trivially easy to do so (I did this for my parents just as _you_ would do for yours).

    Either Gnome or XFCE or KDE desktop can be configured to be essentially the same in layout and function as a Win desktop with a simple hand full of clicks.

    If you want steps for this just holler.


  9. For installing Xubuntu on RAM-challenged machines use the Alternate Install CD. It only requires you to have 64 MB RAM. Worked fine for me.

  10. Try Zenwalk 5.0! Hands down. I am running it on my Dell Inspiron 600m laptop without any problem. I have Iceweasel(Firefox) browser,Gimp, Abiword and Geany for development/programming. It is very easy to install and is rock solid.

    I ran Xubuntu but it got fat(updates) and believes me, Zenwalk runs circles around Xubuntu.

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