Quick and dirty; light and fast

About three days ago, a reader asked me to just write a short Debian install guide for a PowerPC system with a very small hard drive.  A guide isn't even needed.  All you need to know are a couple basic steps and you'll have a nice lightweight Debian install, with a very small drive footprint.

The light and small footprint factors are very complimentary indeed.  The PowerPC systems with the smallest drives are generally the slowest ones.  Their small drive actually forces you to make the right OS choice if you want any semblance of performance.

While this type of install is most beneficial to the slowest of PowerPC hardware, it can also have a good benefit on productivity with the fastest of hardware.  I keep it light no matter what OS or hardware I use, and I see the benefits all round with everything I use.  If you have any G3 or a slower G4, then you should at least give this method a test drive on your machine.

Here are the very simple steps to getting an ultra-light Debian install.  One that is actually lighter than Puppy Linux, and just about any Linux with a GUI.  For PowerPC users, this is the absolute best method to get the most out of your hardware on Linux.  This is easily the best route to take for a slower machine you want to dedicate to internet use.

I am going to use Debian stable (Jessie) in this install.

Step 1:

Download the Netinstall ISO image

Step 2:

Burn the image to a CD and boot it by holding down C.  At the Yaboot prompt, press enter or return to start the install.

Step 3:

When shown the options of what to install, deselect everything (even the GUI) but utilities at the very bottom.  Laptop users will also see a preselected option called "Laptop"; you will obviously want this selected for best hardware support.

The reason I say to deselect the GUI, even though these options are extended in the Jessie installer, is that installing a GUI from the Debian installer adds a lot of extra software packages that you may not want.  Installing the GUI manually afterward gives you just the GUI itself, without all the extras like LibreOffice, Gimp etc.  Remember, this is supposed to be a light install. 

Step 4:

Once it reboots you need to login as root with root/root pass you chose at install.

Step 5:

Once you have logged in as root, simply type the following:

apt-get install lxde

It will default to getting it from the same mirror you chose for the Debian install.

When the LXDE install is done type:


 It will then boot to a GUI login screen for LXDE.  Login with your user account.

Step 6:

Install whatever else you desire once logged into LXDE with your user account.  When you install this way you get no extra apps at all; not even Iceweasel, which is Debian's fork of Firefox.  It's not exactly lightweight, but is needed for the times when you need a heavily standardized experience.  It just works when the lightweight browsers need config.

Fire up the "LXTerminal" and type su to give install privileges to your user account.  After you enter your root password type:

apt-get install iceweasel

Then simply keep using apt-get to install whatever else you desire.  Once the terminal is done an install you can simply tap the up arrow and get your last command.  Then you simply just replace the package name to keep installing everything else.  Jennifer didn't want office software or anything, just the OS and browser.

Other things I recommend installing for basic internet and system use:

  • sylpheed (lightweight email client)
  • luakit (lightweight webkit based browser)
  • xxxterm (lightweight webkit based browser) 
  • transmission (lightweight bit torrent client) 
  • pidgin (multi-protocol instant messenger)
  • netatalk (package for networking with Mac OS systems)
  • synaptic (gui for apt) (useful when you have a need but don't know package names)
  • hardinfo (system profiler-like app with benchmarks)
  • kupfer (very powerful but light app/document launcher)

If you also want some music on the system, I would try either 'rhythmbox' or 'audacious'.

Thats about it.  If you want LibreOffice, GIMP and all the other stuff that installs with the other Debian images then just use one of them.  The purpose of this install method is to stay light.  You could easily get by on 128 MB RAM with the install I just took a brisk pace through. 

You also get Openbox with LXDE, so you can still take advantage of all the configuration possibilities that Dan the PPC Luddite offers on his blog, along with Urukrama's guide

If you need any other details about the install then just ask in comments and I will add them.  I wrote this quickly without much time to spare.  Debian is very easy to install.  Just follow the onscreen instructions and you'll be fine.

Keep in mind that this install is designed around the idea of Debian being the only OS for a dedicated, lightweight and secure system.  I made this as simple and direct as possible.  Use your oldest/slowest PowerPC hardware first to see the true value of light.

When I do the exact above type of install, I am left with a Debian LXDE setup that only uses about 49-54 MB RAM after login.  You really can't beat that for a modern OS.  It would even be hard to beat that if you went back 5-10 years.


  1. Thanks a lot for the guide. i only have to say that if you are looking for a minimal web browser, could give a try to Midori, its really fast!
    For the mail client i am using Icedove, for the interface, easy configuration, and for the integration woth kupfer.

    1. Midori hasn't been updated on PowerPC for about 2 years. As for Icedove, I find Sylpheed lighter and more SSL capable.

    2. Sometimes i avoid to use iceweasel cause it hangs on my powerbook, paerhaps any RAM problem. so... is out there any option for web browsing?

      i have to suggest Shutter for that ones that use to capture screens or just want to share photos on the forums... very useful.

  2. Nice, i will try it!

  3. It's much faster than Tiger on my b&w g3 450Mhz with 768MB :)
    Now i'm trying to get 3D acceleration for Radeon 7000 PCI but no luck at this moment.

    1. Part 4 of the Luddite's install guide covers acceleration:

    2. Thx for the link. Now I got 3d to work :)
      Glxgears shows now 60fps instead 24fps. Maybe is not so impressive but is much more than before.

    3. One more step forward:
      I have got now a bit over 300 fps in vblank_mode=off :)

  4. Thanks so much for the guide! There is one part that has me stumped though.

    What do I do after installing lxde in text mode to boot to lxde?

    Thanks again!


    1. All you have to do after the LXDE install is type "reboot". I just added that to step 5.

      After it reboots you will then see the GUI login for LXDE.

  5. Thanks for the custom install guide, Zen. Here's another challenge for you. I am currently running OS X Tiger headless on a PM G4 Digital Audio to provide file and internet sharing to my older PowerBooks with Wi-Fi cards that can't deal with the WPA2 security on my Airport Extreme. Can I use Debian to do the same thing?

    1. Try these steps Tom:

      Install vncserver (as root):

      apt-get install vncserver

      Choose your desired window size and color depth, then, as an ordinary user, open a terminal and type:

      vncserver -geometry 1024x768 -depth 24

      This will prompt you to create a password:

      You will require a password to access your desktops.


      The server will start and tell you where to access it:

      New 'X' desktop is foobar:1

      Starting applications specified in /etc/X11/Xsession
      Log file is /home/jorey/.vnc/foobar:1.log

      Open the VNC viewer on your remote machine, enter the hostname:screen and password (use a hostname or IP that your client machine understands), and your Linux desktop will open in a window! Network speed and processor power will affect performance, but it's amazing how many apps will run fine under VNC. You might not be able to play Frozen Bubble, but you can use productivity applications without any trouble.

      To kill the server enter a command similar to this, using the appropriate settings:

      vncserver -kill :1

    2. Axe the "vncserver" install. I just realized it isn't around anymore.

      Instead use "vino" or "x11vnc"

    3. Also, it's better to attempt something from scratch and then ask for help if you run into snags. You will take a lot more from it that way.

      I am always so busy that I am often lacking in time to provide a complete solution. If I or anyone else figure it all out for you then you won't truly comprehend how you got to the successful result. With my often rushed and short free time, if I try to provide the whole bit it's easy to leave things out or rely on older methods.

      As for wifi and such... I never ever use it. Don't even own an airport card or an apple portable. Dan the Luddite and his guide can help you with wifi. I only trust and use wires. I recommend the same esp. on a desktop. The "inconvenience" of a wire is WELL worth the extra security it gives.

    4. First of all, thanks for the response. I realized that I didn't actually need to turn my Debian machine into a VNC server. I haven't installed a GUI on it and guess I can do whatever I need to do on the command line. I have set up an SSH tunnel between that machine and my Mac and that works just fine.

      I remember years ago that I got internet sharing working on a Debian machine with 2 ethernet ports. The challenge will be to get it working with an Airport card. My PowerBook 1400 has an Orinoco Wi-Fi card that actually is faster than 10Base-T ethernet. This is all for fun so I'll just play around with it to see if I can get it working.

  6. I installed the same Debian Wheezy on my Powerbook 12" 1.5 Ghz/Geforce FX Go5200 but I have a problem with font rendering. In all web browsers and also on the logoff screen, some texts are hidden. If I scroll or select it, the text becomes visible. Do you have an idea ? That appears in both LXDE and Openbox. Thanks :)

  7. Thank you for writing this up. How might this compare with Lubuntu? I should mention my point, I do really like the look of the Lubuntu GUI a little more than LXDE's. This is the only thing holding me back. Any comments on how I can go ahead with the Debian install but opt for a more attractive (my personal opinion) GUI?

    1. You choose a Linux distro based on how pretty the default UI looks? Oh my...

      You can make LXDE look however the hell you want. Take some time and play around with it.

      You know it's Linux right? It's not Mac OS or Windows, so you can literally change anything you want. With Linux, YOU have the control, not billion dollar corporations.

      Ubuntu, and all its flavours, are really just kinda pretend Linux, and I found that out first hand.

      Ubuntu/Lubuntu are Debian code plus a bunch of Canonical garbage. Why in the hell would you want to run garbage on your hardware?

  8. ... it would be interesting to see, in upComming months, how are we goin to do with Debian GNU/LinuxPPC64 endianLittle & endianBig AltiVec(tor) unit, on our new OSHW power8 baby, we just build in Milano... \o/ :) <(") half of 126oo € targeted reached in earlyDonation campain...
    ... we recently lost 32-bit "powerpc" from Debian release tough... :/
    ... AmigaOne-s x1ooo & quad x5ooo are 2-3ooo €u, this baby is targeted @ only 6oo-8oo € priceRange

    drgspot at net,hr