Based on their initial impression, students were most taken with Ubuntu. This is no surprise - the Ubuntu project is large and relatively well-funded, and focuses on the experiences of of users, especially new users. The potential problem comes when we think about users with low-powered machines - smaller RAM and slower CPUs.
"Lean Linux," i.e. versions or "distros" of Linux designed for such machines, may not be the best solution for such users, because:
- Such distros are generally hard to use for regular people, especially if they have the slightest problem with hardware compatibility
- Even relatively light machines these days can run a fully-featured Linux distro - I've seen the standard Ubuntu running on OLPC's XO-1 (installed on a USB stick - this was in mid-2008, so it was probably version 8.04)
Given this, I think that for many of us it would be more helpful to have some instructions on how to speed up and "slim down" a fully-featured Linux distro. I.e. tweaking rather than replacing. This is probably more than enough to help it run smoothly on the kind of older machines that most people might be thinking of using.
So, for example, how to make Ubuntu lighter? I see there's a page on Ubuntu's community wiki, but it's more focused on very old systems, The basics I'd start with are: Turn off desktop effects (I do this anyway out of personal preference); and stop unneeded programs from autostarting (here's where we need a simple how to and a list of "what to turn off"). What have I missed? (Please comment.)
More advanced options might include installing a lightweight window manager such as Openbox, as long as there's no clash, and as long as the standard option is available at login. (Note that Openbox can be used as a replacement for Gnome, or can be used with Gnome - not sure whether the latter actually results in any performance improvements or reductions in RAM usage.) If a user is going to use bare Openbox, they'll need a nice clear intro - starting with "click the desktop to bring up the menu. Not for everyone, but the good thing is that you only have to restart to access the conventional, easier-to-use desktop.
Personally, I'm happy to keep using CrunchBang Statler - it's light, stable, and easy to use, in spite of its super-light Openbox setup. I love the welcome script that helps set things up, and the list of keyboard shortcuts right there on the desktop. But I haven't tried it out with real newbies - I'm sure they'd manage, with a few pointers, but they might prefer something more like Ubuntu. Once they get comfortable with Linux, if they feel themselves bumping against the limits of their RAM or just want a lighter-looking desktop, the might be ready to throw on a LiveCD of Crunchbang Statler and give it a try.