Linux on a 486
It is five years since this page was updated and many of the links
below are outdated and dead. My current recommendations are
if you have a box with 8 MB (or 3 MB if you doesn't use X-windows), and
Damn Small Linux if you have 16 MB or more.
Another possibility is Puppy Linux
(I have not tested this one). If you want to try some of the distros below,
I suggest that you start with Pygmy and then Grey Cat.
This started out of curiosity, to see if it is possible to use an old
486 as an X-terminal. This is indeed possible, and as I found out, it is
possible to run a lightweight Linux desktop. The PC in question is a no-name 66
MHz 486 with 32 MB memory, a vl-bus Tseng ET4000-W32 display card and two hard
disks (250 and 420 MB). I have looked at a few lightweight distributions and
applications using this PC:
This was my first attempt. Monkey resides on a fat/dos file
system and is extracted from 5 diskettes. It comes with kernel 2.0.30, a basic
SVGA X server and takes around 30 MB of your disk. The X setup requires some
tweaking, in particular you should check that the "HorizSync" keyword in the
/etc/XF86Config file corresponds to your monitor. Also dhcpcd is missing, and
there seems to be a bug in ftp. Overall, this is a small and nice
distribution. You can find some info about Monkey
here and how-to install
You can download Monkey
Dragon Linux 0.8
Next attempt was Dragon Linux
version 0.8 which also installs on a fat/dos file system. It comes as a zip
archive which is installed from Windows. It is based on Slackware 4.0 and comes
with KDE, which was ditched in favour of IceWM KDE will bring any 486 to
its knees. This worked ok for some time until the boot process stopped midway
(probably because of my fiddling) after which it was deleted. You may download
here (45 MB), and you can find some additional user experience
Grey Cat Linux 3.0
Grey Cat comes with X, IceWM, Netscape and a few simple,
lightweight X applications. It weighs in as a 12 MB download and may be
installed from diskettes. Uncompressing takes 15-20 minutes and it occupies
around 63 MB on your dos/win disk (including a 32 MB swap file). Grey Cat is
based on Slackware 3.5 you should be able to extend it by downloading
and installing precompiled Slackware packages. Booting is pretty fast,
X-windows works ok with 16 MB memory, and may in a pinch be used with only 8 MB
(it will be slow, and avoid using Netscape). You can download Grey Cat
Another alternative is Pygmy Linux which comes without X, but it
comes with instructions on how to
install X and also how to move it to a Linux partition. It is based on
Slackware 7.1 you should be able to extend Pygmy by downloading and
installing precompiled Slackware packages. You can download Pygmy
I may add that Pygmy was installed in another 486 which was used for remote
on/off-switching for some Electrohome projectors. It had run without problems for
4-5 years when it was retired in march 2008.
I tried Vector linux 2.0 (X 3.3.6 version), but it was
terribly slow - even in console modus. Maybe it is optimised for pentiums or
maybe I did not set it up correctly. And with v1.8 there was some corruption
problem with a downloaded file. On the other hand, v2.0 works very well on my
P2-266, and since it doesn't come with KDE, it should be well suited for slower
Peanut Linux 8.4
This is a step up the ladder as it was installed on a linux partition (you
may also install it on a fat/dos file system). Installation is not as simple as
with the fat/dos based version as you have to set up a linux partition. Though,
if you follow the installation instructions, it shouldn't be too difficult.
Peanut comes with KDE as standard, which again was ditched in favour of IceWM.
IceWM can be optimised by removing unnecessary entries in the menu-file, and by
selecting a light theme (e.g. "nice"). This halved the time for starting X to
around 15 seconds. It also seems more responsive, e.g. the "confirm logout"
window pops up (almost) instantaneously, whereas for the default Infadel2
theme, it took 4 seconds. The default theme also produced some colour problems.
I also deleted all KDE related files in /opt/kde2 which halved the disk
requirements to around 110 MB. It is no speed daemon, of course (it takes e.g.
around 45 seconds to load Netscape 4.77), but it still hums along with a
respectable speed. There is a noticeable slowdown with 16 MB memory.
- Netscape 4.77 came with Peanut. On a 486 it is horribly slow and it
is also prone to crashes (once it took X with it). Avoid.
- Netscape 3.04 (tested with Grey Cat 3.0). Feels faster than 4.77, but
lacks functionality not a very good choice (and if you absolutely have
to use 3.04, switch off Java support to avoid irritating error messages).
- BrowseX 2.0.1: Initially I had some
problem getting this browser to run, it seemed to hang; a workaround is to kill
the process, create a file named browsex.cnf in the .brx directory which should
include "dns:type internal". It is far faster than Netscape 4.77. It supports
frames, but not perfectly. BrowseX can be downloaded
here (3.9 MB).
- Dillo 0.6.5 is a fast and
very lightweight browser (only a 230 KB binary!); it is 3-4 times faster than
BrowseX. It does not support frames directly, rendering is not 100%, and it
cannot handle java or ftp downloads. Another "feature" is that it doesn't
handle those irritating pop-up ad-windows. A compiled version can be found
here. Read a
review of Dillo here.
- AbiWord 0.7.11 was installed
from a Peanut package (3.8 MB download). This probably is a nice word
processor, but on a 486 it may be too slow: When marking text, the marked area
lags behind cursor movement, changing the font of that marked area freezes the
mouse for a couple of seconds, and a fast typist will probably outpace screen
- Siag Office 3.4.7 was also installed
from a Peanut package (2.1 MB download). It consists of a word processor,
spreadsheet, editor and a file manager. I haven't tested this in depth, but it
is faster than AbiWord.
- Ted is a word processor which
in many ways it seems similar to Siag office, both in capabilities and in use
of system resources (3.2 MB download).
- Compared to xterm, rvxt uses about
1/3 less of the system resources.
- File manager: EmelFM and
xfiler (part of siag office) - EmelFM is more
functional, looks better, feels faster and uses about the same amount of
memory. Or you could use good, old character based
are other (not tested) alternatives.
- I have looked briefly at two ftp clients;
gftp (0.5 MB download) and
iglooFTP (comes with Peanut, 1.3
MB). Both are similar and simple to use, but gftp is far faster at startup. Or
you could use good, old command line ftp (ncftp in the case of Peanut).
- xpdf works, but is slow
(3.9 MB download).
- I do not read my e-mail on this PC, but I have heard people mention
sylpheed as a fast and lightweight
If you only have 8 MB memory and want X, you may
try Grey Cat 3.0. But you really need more memory, at least 16 MB, for X to
fly. Currently I am using Peanut and it works pretty well after configuring it
for lightweight use. As for the applications:
- On the browser side, I mostly use Dillo as BrowseX is too slow.
- For file managers, I use Midnight Commander in a rxvt window.
- The command line ftp has been used more than the X programs.
- I have hardly used any of the office applications, but Siag comes as
a whole suite, seems to work fine and isn't hard on the system resources.
- A Modern,
Low Resources Linux Distribution and All the Real Reasons Why We Need It
- Building The
Lo-Fat Linux Desktop,
rocks on low spec Pentiums
- Linux for old
- 486 Linux Box
- Linux on my
- Linux on
- RedHat Linux 6.0 on a
Compaq Contura Aero
Linux on a Compaq Contura Aero 4/33C Laptop
- 486 as
- A server on a
with Micro-Distributions --or-- Linux in Your Pocket
- Running Linux In A
and the Canon Innova Book 150C
- How to
create a Linux-based network of computers for peanuts
- Choosing a
Distro - A Newbies Guide
- Linuxdot has some
informative reviews of the "mediumweight" distributions Vector, Peanut and
- evil3D has reviewed
Vector 1.8 and 2.0.
- Linux on a
lovely 486 Linux box
- Linux on a 486
with 32mb (discussion forum)
- You Want to
Install Linux on WHAT?!?
- Low End BSD
Inside: The 'little' Linuxes
- Five Free
- Getting Small with Linux:
- Linux for the Timid:
with Linux: The Ultimate (but Small) Linux Box!
minimalist file managers
- Minimalist window managers,
Frühling (in German)
- Pust nyt liv i
din gamle 486'er med Debian (in Danish)
Computing has a story on a 486 Linux pc, but unfortunately, it's only the
My name is Knut Backe and you may contact me via e-mail;
firstname.lastname@example.org. Last updated 11
November 2002. Some updates 13/5-08.