A lean distro for 32-bit processors

Shedding Weight

© Lead Image © Kirsty Pargeter, Fotolia.com

© Lead Image © Kirsty Pargeter, Fotolia.com

Article from Issue 234/2020

For older computers with 32-bit processors, BunsenLabs Helium offers a lean alternative to popular Linux distributions. Our lab investigates how well the system performs on antiquated hardware.

With many Linux variants only being released as 64-bit versions, choosing a new distribution for 32-bit systems has become increasingly difficult. BunsenLabs Helium [1], a Debian derivative, offers a distribution with a lightweight, customizable Openbox desktop. Designed to use resources as efficiently as possible, BunsenLabs Helium even runs on older machines.

In addition to an image for 64-bit systems, BunsenLabs also provides two images of the current version of Helium for 32-bit systems: One for 32-bit systems with a PAE extension (enabling the use of more than 4GB of RAM) and one for systems without the extension. The image without PAE support weighs in at 680MB [2]. Regardless of your system, the developers recommend a minimum of 1GB RAM and 10GB free space on the hard disk.

All three hybrid images (64-bit, 32-bit with PAE support, and 32-bit without PAE support) are available on the project's website [1]. The images (each about 1.1GB in size) boot into an unimpressive GRUB boot manager, which supports Live operation as well as direct installation. A graphical installation tool is also available.

The Live version boots very quickly into an Openbox window manager. The developers have updated the appearance with modifications, making it practical for everyday use. In addition, a welcome screen (Figure 1) appears on startup with some simple instructions to get you started.

Figure 1: Although visually appealing, the BunsenLabs Helium startup screen takes a little getting used to in terms of its operating concept.

At the top of the desktop, tint2 is integrated as a taskbar. It accommodates two virtual desktops: a system tray on the right, and some application starters on the left. In the upper right corner, a Conky system monitor displays various PC components' parameters. Below that, the developers have included a list of important keyboard shortcuts for working with the desktop.

A start button and start menu are missing, as are any icons on the desktop. Instead, you can right-click anywhere on the desktop to open the main menu.


Even the Live version shows the system's frugality in terms of resources and how fast it still runs. In idle mode, BunsenLabs Helium uses only 200MB RAM.

In the menus, you will find some important standard applications preinstalled, including LibreOffice Writer and the Firefox browser (not exactly a lightweight option). Additionally, VLC, the universal media player, is already integrated into the Live system.

You can install further LibreOffice components directly off the Internet by selecting the corresponding menu entries, as well as the alternative browser, Chromium. Additional office applications come from the Gnome repository, including Gnumeric and the Evince PDF viewer. FileZilla lets you transfer data via FTP if required and supports transmission via various peer-to-peer services.

Somewhat out of the ordinary, you can establish a VNC connection to a remote computer to control other computers with the BunsenLabs Helium system.

Finally, since Debian offers one of the largest software collections in the Linux world, you can also use the preinstalled Synaptic front end to add more applications.


In contrast to installing software, the configuration seems less intuitive. BunsenLabs Helium partially uses Openbox's sparse dialogs in addition to applications like Conky and tint2 to customize functions and menus.

Although there are very detailed options available for configuring Openbox, using them requires editing files in a text editor. The graphical settings menus (like the ones in Gnome, KDE, Mate, Xfce, or LXDE) are missing here in places. However, the Settings menu offers some graphical tools for customizing the desktop, as well as a more detailed dialog for modifying the look and feel (Figure 2).

Figure 2: BunsenLabs Helium provides a GUI for customizing its appearance. For many other modifications, you will need to use a text editor.


In the Live system, there is no starter for the setup. To install on a hard disk, you need to reboot and select the option in the GRUB boot manager. The familiar Debian options are available. If you choose the conventional route, you can install the system on a PC in just a few steps using an ncurses wizard. If you choose the graphical route, the corresponding Debian wizard helps you.

BunsenLabs Helium already integrates numerous proprietary firmware blobs that are missing from it's basis Debian. This lets you reliably integrate hardware components that only cooperate with the operating system if these blobs are in place.

During testing in my lab, an annoying breakdown occurred. On my system, the graphical wizard failed to initialize the WLAN card, even though I agreed to the proprietary license and entered the WPA2 key correctly. Consequently, the setup was trapped in an infinite loop whenever it tried to open a connection; in the end, only a reboot helped. However, it turned out that the GRUB boot manager launched from the removable disk was damaged, forcing me to transfer the operating system to a USB stick instead.

When I retried this with the much faster ncurses wizard, the Intel 2200BG WLAN card was detected but, again, not initialized. This time, it was at least possible to carry out the following installation steps in the fallback menu and continue to set up the system.

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