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wattOS R8 review – Debian greenie

The green distro makes a switch from Ubuntu to Debian. Does it make the lightweight distro better or will we be returning to wattOS 7.5?

Lightweight Linux distributions are inherently energy saving. By definition you’re using a fewer resources to run your system, which in turn requires less power and electrical draw. Throw in some power-efficient hardware and idle power draw will be minimal. These lightweight systems – while naturally energy-conserving – don’t normally include any specific optimisations for power saving. This is where wattOS comes in.

While also lightweight, wattOS strives to strike a balance between conservative code and usability. The net result is a little less wattage while idle and a longer-lasting laptop battery when disconnected. It’s the usability part that is very important to wattOS: something like Puppy Linux or Tiny Core may likely be less resource-intensive while idle, however you need to make some level of sacrifice regarding the desktop and available software to use these distros.

To further its goal, the newest version of wattOS has switched to the current stable branch of Debian 7.0, Wheezy. Before version eight the distro was running on Ubuntu, stripping away many of the core components. With Debian the team can actually build it up more than strip it down, making for a better product overall.

A screenshot of wattOS R8 with the browser, battery settings and program menu open
On the surface not much has changed since the switch to Debian, however Iceweasel is the most noticeable

Debian differences

wattOS still comes in three main flavours: LXDE, MATE and the ultra-slim Microwatt spin that has switched from PekWM to Openbox. Openbox is about as light as PekWM but a little more popular and better supported, which results in a better overall experience while still providing maximum power benefits.

The LXDE version remains the flagship version of wattOS, sitting in between MATE and Microwatt as a perfect balance in terms of required resources and usability. The switch to Debian hasn’t reduced the size of the images unfortunately – this was a concern we had with the last round of wattOS releases and the ISOs for R8 are even larger than the ones found in R 7.5. This is a minor issue, but one that can be important for lightweight distros.

Installing from these images is not as easy as some of the more major distros. While setting up your user account, timezone and other little things are simple and yet you are required to manually partition your hard drive. No big deal for a lot of Linux users but there’s no real description or instructions on how the hard drive should be laid out. This can very easily confuse newer users or those used to the ease of Fedora, Ubuntu and other modern browsers; it’s an unnecessary barrier for entry in a landscape where excellent and easy-to-use installers are the norm.

Lightweight software

The main difference you’ll notice software-wise with the switch is the use of Iceweasel over Firefox; this is the standard Debian alternative to the quintessential open source browser. The main difference is that, while based on Firefox, it doesn’t receive the same level of constant updates and retains an older aesthetic to the overall design. While Midori may be a more traditional choice for a lightweight distro, Iceweasel is much less resource-intensive than the full version of Firefox.

It’s flanked by a small selection of other light apps such as Audacious for music, VLC for video and a basic PDF reader. The entire system takes up less than three gigabytes all together, however you have full access to the rest of the standard Debian packages via the Synaptic Package Manager.

All of this allows the distro to boot very fast, even on older hardware. Within seconds we were at the login screen on a more modern system; loading apps and general browsing was fast and smooth and the memory footprint stayed fairly low relative to other distros. Most importantly, we found no decrease in battery life over our course of testing the distro. Without more thorough testing we’d suggest it was a touch better than with Ubuntu, however it will entirely depend on your workload as well as the load on the system.

The MATE desktop has been around since last year and has made its way to this major new update
The MATE desktop has been around since last year and has made its way to this major new update

Green fingers

The latest version of wattOS has managed to keep to the high standards of the previous few versions even with this major shift to Debian. It’s not without its gripes though: the installer should be better and the ISO could probably go on a diet to lose a few megabytes.

These issues aside, the presentation, speed and day-to-day product of wattOS is a solid and lightweight distro that truly cares about power usage and the user. If you’re looking for a new distro to power an older laptop – or even any laptop in general – this is an excellent option.



Some minor issues aside, wattOS does what it sets out to do perfectly. It’s stable, fast and generally very easy to use, which is in no small way thanks to the new Debian base. Get it for your laptop now.