"LXDE" is a really svelte and fast Linux GUI
I'm not claiming it's the smallest (it's not) or even the fastest or the best, but it is pretty good for my needs, on my 12 year old celeron computer in my back porch farm office/dog room/Ham radio shack. It only has 576 megs of ram. The computer is too old to spend money on buying more memory, so I wanted an operating system that would use a minimum of system resources. I chose PCLOS Linux, using the LXDE gui (graphical user interface), and it's made a big difference:
All about the PCLinuxOS LXDE 2010.07 desktop
Info: The “Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment” is an extremely fast-performing and energy-saving desktop environment. Maintained by an international community of developers, it comes with a beautiful interface, multi-language support, standard keyboard short cuts and additional features like tabbed file browsing. LXDE uses less CPU and less RAM than other environments. It is especially designed for cloud computers with low hardware specifications, such as, netbooks, mobile devices (e.g. MIDs) or older computers.
Kernel 220.127.116.11-bfs kernel for maximum desktop performance.
Full LXDE Desktop.
Nvidia and ATI fglrx driver support.
Multimedia playback support for many popular formats.
Wireless support for many network devices.
Printer support for many local and networked printer devices.
Addlocale allows you to convert PCLinuxOS into over 60 languages.
GetOpenOffice can install Open Office supporting over 100 languages.
MyLiveCD allows you to take a snapshot of your installation and burn it to a LiveCD/DVD.
Highlighted Applications: [...]
Follow the link for full system specs and download information.
The minimum RAM requirements for LXDE is 384 megs. I was using Linux Mint GNOME on the computer before this, and it's minimum RAM requirement was 512 MB. It worked ok, but was a bit slow and clunky; I had to wait a lot, and could not multi-task much. Thus, using the computer had a slight "painful" quality.
With this new install with LXDE, things are considerably faster, and I can multitask a bit more. It's a lot like having a "newer" machine.
Now I know there are other GUI's that are smaller and faster. I've tried many of them. But in general, I've found that they have a lot of ... "rough edges". That you end up sacrificing ease of use and a smooth interface with good utilities, for speed.
I wanted a GUI that was less demanding on system resources, without sacrificing much ease-of-use and serviceability. With LXDE on PCLOS, I feel I've found the right balance.
One problem I had with LXDE that was almost a show-stopper was, that it didn't automatically mount CD ROM's and USB memory sticks. But to fix that I did a Google search, and found that all I needed to do was add some software packages via the Synaptic package manager. The packages were:
"hal" and "dbus" were already installed, but Synaptic said updated versions were available, so I marked them for upgrade, and selected the rest for download. Synaptic took care of all the dependencies, the download and install went automatically and smoothly. I rebooted, and now I have the same functionality as the bigger GUI players like GNOME and KDE.
I'm very happy with it, and recommend LXDE for older machines. The version I had (2010) was a bit older than the one that's available for download now (2010.07). Perhaps the newer one already has these packages, I can't say. But if it doesn't, all the software is available for free in the repositories on-line. I also downloaded from there windows codecs, and my favorite card game, the Linux version of Pysol Fan Club Edition.
LXDE and PCLOS also recognized my Linksys wireless usb dongle, so the computer now does all that I need it to do. Hooray! Perhaps it can do the same for you. And if you need help with it, there is an on-line forum, and Google.
LXDE on PCLOS is a live CD, but you can also put the ISO image on a USB memory stick and boot if from there using a program like UNetbootin.
Spotlight on Linux: PCLinuxOS 2010