Linux Boards

Top 5 lightweight linux distros for your single board computer

5 min read
Top 5 lightweight linux distros for your single board computer
Top 5 lightweight linux distros for your single board computer

Single-board computers (SBCs) like Raspberry Pi and Odroid have become a staple for hobbyists, educators, and makers around the world. These compact, powerful devices offer endless possibilities for DIY projects, retro gaming, media centers, and even robotics. However, their limited resources – particularly RAM and processing power – can be easily overwhelmed by traditional operating systems.

This is where lightweight Linux distros come in. These streamlined operating systems are specifically designed to run smoothly on hardware with minimal specs. By stripping down unnecessary features and focusing on core functionality, lightweight Linux distros ensure a snappy and responsive user experience on your SBC.

But with a vast array of lightweight Linux options available, choosing the right one for your project can be daunting. This post dives deep into the top 5 lightweight Linux distros for SBCs, exploring their strengths, ideal use cases, and factors to consider when making your selection.

Top 5 lightweight Linux distros for single-board computers

1. Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian)

Raspberry Pi OS
Raspberry Pi OS

Raspberry Pi OS website

Perfect for: Beginners, those transitioning from Windows/macOS, and users seeking a familiar and user-friendly interface.

As the official operating system for the Raspberry Pi series, Raspberry Pi OS is optimized for performance and compatibility with Raspberry Pi hardware. With its lightweight LXDE desktop environment and extensive software repository, Raspberry Pi OS provides a user-friendly experience for beginners and advanced users alike. Whether you’re using a Raspberry Pi 4, Raspberry Pi Zero, or any other model, Raspberry Pi OS is a solid choice for your SBC project.

2. Arch Linux ARM

Arch Linux ARM
Arch Linux ARM

Arch Linux ARM website

Perfect for: Advanced users, enthusiasts seeking complete and granular control over their system, and those comfortable with the command line.

Arch Linux is a legend in the Linux world, known for its rolling release model, extensive customization options, and focus on user control. While not the most beginner-friendly choice, Arch Linux for ARM architectures empowers you to build a tailored system for your SBC. The rolling release model ensures you always have access to the latest software updates, while the granular control allows you to fine-tune every aspect of your system, from kernel versions to desktop environments.

This level of control makes Arch Linux ideal for experienced users who want to maximize the potential of their SBC.

3. Void Linux ARM

Void Linux ARM
Void Linux ARM

Void Linux website

Perfect for: Reviving older SBCs, portable use on USB drives, and users on extremely low-resource systems with a minimal footprint.

Void Linux is a lightweight, rolling-release Linux distribution optimized for performance and simplicity. It supports the aarch64 architecture, making it an excellent choice for single board computers with ARM processors. Void Linux features the musl libc and runit init system, offering a minimalistic environment with fast boot times and efficient resource usage. With its package manager, XBPS, Void Linux provides access to a wide range of software packages and libraries tailored to the needs of SBC users.

Whether you’re running a Raspberry Pi, Odroid, or another aarch64-based SBC, Void Linux offers a stable and customizable platform for your projects.

4. Armbian


Armbian website

Perfect for: Broad SBC compatibility, out-of-the-box driver support, and users seeking a beginner-friendly experience.

Armbian is a Debian-based distro specifically designed for ARM-based SBCs like Raspberry Pi, Odroid, and many more. This focus on SBC hardware translates to excellent compatibility, with out-of-the-box driver support for various SBC components. Out-of-the-box driver support eliminates the hassle of hunting for and installing drivers, while the user-friendly interface makes it easy to get started with your SBC project.

5. DietPi


DietPi website

Perfect for: Minimalists, users seeking a clean and efficient experience, and those who appreciate lightweight but customizable distros.

DietPi is a highly optimized Linux distribution designed to maximize performance while minimizing resource usage. With its minimalistic design and lightweight components, DietPi is perfect for single board computers with limited hardware resources. Whether you’re using a Raspberry Pi, Odroid, or NanoPi, DietPi offers a vast selection of pre-configured software packages, making it easy to set up your SBC for various tasks, including media streaming, gaming, and network services.

Choosing the right lightweight distro for your SBC project

With a multitude of excellent lightweight Linux distros available, selecting the perfect one for your SBC project depends on several crucial factors:

Hardware specifications

  • RAM: This is a critical consideration. Distros like DietPi have slightly higher minimum RAM requirements (around 512MB) compared to Armbian (which can run on as low as 256MB). Choose a distro that aligns with your SBC’s RAM capacity.

  • Processor: While most lightweight distros are optimized for modest processors, some, like Arch Linux ARM, might benefit from a more powerful SBC CPU for a smoother experience.

  • Storage: If you plan on installing a wide range of applications, consider the storage capacity of your SBC. Distros with modular installation options can help conserve storage space.

Ease of use

  • Beginner-friendly: If you’re new to Linux, Raspberry Pi OS or Armbian offer user-friendly interfaces and familiar desktop environments.

  • Intermediate users: Those with some Linux experience might find Void Linux or DietPi a good balance between minimalism and customization.

  • Advanced users: Arch Linux ARM provides ultimate control but demands a steeper learning curve and comfort with the command line.

Desired features

  • Desktop environment: Explore the desktop environments offered by each distro. LXQt provides a familiar experience, while XFCE or MATE prioritizes minimalism. Research which desktop environment best suits your workflow.

  • Software availability: Make sure the distro has access to the software applications you need for your project. Most lightweight distros offer repositories with a good selection of software, but some might be more limited.

  • Customization options: Consider how much control you want over your system. While Arch Linux offers extensive customization, Raspberry Pi OS Armbian provide a more out-of-the-box experience.

Choosing the right lightweight distro for your SBC project
Choosing the right lightweight distro for your SBC project

Lightweight Linux distros breathe new life into SBCs, enabling you to embark on exciting projects. By carefully considering your project’s needs and your experience level with Linux, you can select the perfect distro to unleash the full potential of your single-board computer. So, explore these fantastic options, get started with your SBC project, and join the ever-growing maker community.