Tiny Core Linux 15 stuffs modern computing in a nutshell

Updated with kernel 6.6, latest GCC and glibc, still under 25 MB

Tiny Core Linux shows that a fully functional, GUI-driven Linux distro can be smaller than Windows 95 and still be modern and useful.

Version 15 is out, in both x86-32 and x86-64 editions. It's based on kernel 6.6.8, glibc 2.38, and includes GCC version 13.2. It comes in three variants: Core is text-only, although you can install a choice of GUIs if you wish; TinyCore has a graphical desktop; and CorePlus includes dozens of optional extra apps.

The first thing that struck us was the download sizes of these editions. In a world where a lightweight distro takes 2-3 GB, these are the most remarkable part. The command-line-only Core is 17.8 MB. The GUI-based TinyCore is 24 MB, and the full-fat CorePlus edition, with almost all optional extras included in the ISO, is still just 265 MB.

(It bears saying that while for now we're only looking at the x86 versions, there are also Core ports for some Arm devices, including Raspberry Pi versions – but these have their own release schedules.)

TinyCore 15 showing a few addons (Htop and Neofetch) and still using unbelievably little disk or memory space

TinyCore 15 showing a few add-ons (Htop and Neofetch) and still using unbelievably little disk or memory space

This is a usable graphical OS that can run on a modern multicore PC, connect to Ethernet or Wi-Fi, go online and fetch additional apps – and it's 24 MB in size. It takes less disk space than Windows 95. It's difficult to believe, especially in 2024, but it's real and it works.

Tiny Core Linux (we'll call it TCL for short) is not a conventional desktop Linux, but it's also not some text-only single-function thing intended to run on a router or something. Although it's been cut down to an almost unbelievably small size, it's a general-purpose OS and you can use it for a wide variety of functions.

We tried the CorePlus edition. At a quarter of a gig, why not? VirtualBox didn't recognize the distro inside the ISO and assigned it 2 GB of RAM and 20 GB of disk. It booted in a few seconds, and left us at a desktop – there's no login screen – with 52 MB of RAM in use. Once installed, it takes 24.4 MB of disk. For comparison, we updated the installation of Reg FOSS desk lightweight favorite, the Raspberry Pi Desktop, on our old ThinkPad X200. This takes some 265 MB of RAM at idle – impressively low these days – and under 8 GB of disk space. That's about five times the memory, and over 300 times as much disk, as TCL.

Enough about the size. It's very, very small. It's also very, very fast. In a VM, it boots in seconds, but we also tried it on some of the oldest, slowest PCs in the FOSS desk test fleet: a 2007 ThinkPad X61 Tablet with a Core 2 Duo, and a 2009 Sony Vaio P sub-netbook with a dual-core Atom Z530 Silverthorne. Both are dual-core boxes with a nowadays-feeble 2 GB of RAM. It struggled with the unusual 1,600 x 768 screen resolution of the Vaio P, but both worked fine, complete with Wi-Fi connectivity. TCL took a minute to boot from Ventoy, but once open, it flew along. Apps snap open too quickly to see, drag smoothly, and there's no trace of lag anywhere.

TCL is extremely minimalist in design. The whole OS is kept inside a couple of compressed files. When it boots, it uncompresses these into RAM and then runs from there, barely touching the hard disk. This is, of course, one reason for its speed. The only installation option is "Frugal mode," which writes those compressed files to a hard disk partition.

Despite this, it has its own package management system. Applications are downloaded as compressed .tcz files, which are loop-mounted without modifying the root file system, and the binaries symlinked into the /usr folder. Even the 24 MB edition can go online, over Wi-Fi with an extension, search for the fastest online repository, show a list of available applications, and download and install them for you. We found it easy to add tools such as neofetch and htop in seconds, and even a more substantial app such as the Seamonkey internet suite only took a few minutes. Aside from grumbling about SSL certificates, it worked fine.

TCL is different. It doesn't work quite like any other distro, although we're distantly reminded of Canonical's Snap system. But then this isn't like any other distro. For instance, we were impressed by Alpine Linux, but while TCL is under a sixth of the size, it's easier to get running than it is to install complete with a graphical desktop. To help you get started, there's an FAQ page with info on the various boot options, how to set up persistence and so on. There's also a 163-page manual entitled Into the Core, which you can download for free, or buy a physical copy to help the project out.

The Tiny Core project was founded by Robert Shingledecker, previously the maintainer of Damn Small Linux (DSL), which recently sprang back to life after a dozen years. The modern DSL is a much more traditional distro than either its own 50 MB 2012 ancestor or TCL. It has a conventional package manager and so on. If you have the room for a gigabyte-scale distro, it's a solid choice. TCL, on the other hand, is a far more radical OS, and it's half the size of the original DSL.

There are penalties, such as generic graphics drivers, no easy way to update the installed system, and a mode of operation and use that's quite unlike any other FOSS Unix we've seen – but it's well worth a look. It could be handy if you need a small simple system to act as a temporary file server, or to automate some gadget, or as a web front end for something. It's built from modern and fairly standard components – for example, unlike Alpine or Void, it doesn't use an exotic replacement libc. It comes with tools to assist in customizing it to fit your own needs and to make your own ISO or installed image for specific tasks.

It's also a contender if you just want to start to explore Linux and want to do that with a very small, simple system rather than a multi-gigabyte Swiss army chainsaw of a distro. This vulture plans to spend a little time investigating whether it can turn some geriatric laptops into useful tools once again. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like