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Top 7 Linux Distros to Run in VirtualBox
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Top 7 Linux Distros to Run in VirtualBox

Do you want to switch to Linux but aren’t quite ready to leave behind your current operating system? Well, don’t worry because you don’t necessarily have to choose between one and the other. Thanks to virtualization apps like VirtualBox, you can easily create a separate environment on your machine dedicated exclusively to running Linux. VirtualBox isn’t the only application that can do this but it is better than most at creating virtual machines that support unmodified operating systems along with any software you may want to install on them.

Although most Linux distros work just fine with VirtualBox, there are a couple of very important things to keep in mind before you choose a distribution. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure that your system has enough resources to support both your current operating system and the virtual machine. If you’re running old hardware you’ll definitely want to look into some lightweight distros with modest system requirements. Make sure to install the virtual machine on a computer that has at least a dual-core processor because you’ll need to reserve one core for Linux. Or more, depending on the distribution.

Hardware requirements aside, some distros are simply better than others at acting as guest virtual machines. With that in mind, we decided to put together a list of the best Linux distros for VirtualBox that are known to offer good virtualization support. Most of the distros on this list won’t eat up a lot of your resources but a couple of them are fairly demanding, so make sure to pick those only if you have a powerful rig.

1. Lubuntu

  • Popular lightweight version of Ubuntu
  • Very good choice for Linux newcomers
  • The new LXQt desktop environment looks a lot like Windows

Lubuntu is an excellent choice for those who can’t or don’t want to allocate too many resources to a virtual machine. As you can probably guess based on its name, this is a lightweight version of Ubuntu and it also happens to be one of the best Linux distros for VirtualBox. In addition to running flawlessly on standard desktop computers, Lubuntu is a great distro to install on an old laptop and can even act as a good replacement for Chrome OS. Just like its bigger brother, Lubuntu was designed to be intuitive and easy to use, making a perfect option for newcomers.

Lubuntu Desktop Preview
Lubuntu 20 Desktop

Despite being a lightweight distro, Lubuntu looks and feels very much like a traditional operating system. The new LXQt desktop environment found in version 20.04 has a very slick look and is surprisingly reminiscent of Windows. Admittedly, the latest version of Lubuntu is not nearly as small as its predecessors precisely because the developers opted to go with a more modern desktop. The current version of Lubuntu still supports fairly old hardware but keep in mind that we’re talking about running it in VirtualBox. If resource consumption is your main concern, make sure to grab one of the older versions, which feature the lighter LXDE desktop.

Right out of the box Lubuntu comes with more than a dozen system tools and even more applications. One of the most useful tools is a Software Center, which acts like an app store that you can use to download thousands of other software packages. A few other applications that come pre-installed include the Mozilla Firefox browser, a BitTorrent client, multimedia player, instant messaging app, office tools, and a few others. There’s even a Solitaire-inspired game called Ace of Penguins.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Pentium 4 CPU or AMD equivalent
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 8GB of storage

Latest stable version: 20.04

2. Linux Lite

  • Designed to ease the transition from Windows to Linux
  • Comes bundled with many familiar applications
  • Puts a lot of emphasis on security

Linux Lite is another Ubuntu-based lightweight distro that you can try without having to worry about it eating too many of your resources. In fact, the hardware requirements for Linux Lite are a bit lower than those of Lubuntu. Admittedly, the customized Xfce desktop environment doesn’t look quite as modern as Lubuntu’s interface but that’s just a minor nitpick. If we’re talking functionality and ease of use, Linux Lite is definitely up there among the best Linux distros for VirtualBox.

Linux Lite Desktop Preview
Linux Lite 4 Desktop

Linux Lite was created for the express purpose of making the transition from Windows to Linux as smooth as possible. To that end, the distro comes bundled with a lot of apps that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft’s operating system in the past. A few notable examples include VLC Media Player, Dropbox, Teamviewer, Skype, Mozilla Firefox, and even Steam. Now, Linux has long been considered inferior to other operating systems when it comes to gaming but that’s slowly starting to change. There are quite a few other distros that support gaming these days and you can use VirtualBox to see how they compare to Windows and MacOS.

In addition to productivity and entertainment-oriented apps, Linux Lite also incorporates various tools aimed at increasing the security of your system. A prime example is the Tor Browser, which allows you to surf the web anonymously and can also act as a VPN, albeit not a very powerful one. Linux Lite also includes a highly customizable firewall and receives security updates on a regular basis. Another interesting thing to note about Linux Lite is that the distro comes pre-bundled with Virtualbox, which makes it easy to use as your host operating system, not just a guest virtual machine.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 1 GHz CPU or better
  • 768MB of RAM
  • 8 GB of storage

Latest stable version: 5.0

3. Manjaro

  • Suitable for Linux veterans and newcomers alike
  • One of the only user-friendly Arch-based distros around
  • The Architect version allows for Arch-like full customization

Manjaro is a very interesting Arch-based distro that manages to satisfy both the needs of developers and those of regular home users. This is one of the only Arch-based distros out there that can be considered user-friendly and is by far the most popular choice in that category. Similar to the previous two distros on this list, Manjaro is a complete operating system that can act as a replacement to Windows or MacOS without requiring any sort of tinkering. The fact that Manjaro can be used as is right off the bat makes it one of the best Linux distros for VirtualBox in our opinion.

Manjaro 20 Lysia
Manjaro 20 Lysia Desktop

Having said all that, it’s important to remember that Manjaro is still an Arch distro at its core, and therefore benefits from its predecessor’s inherent flexibility. Regular Arch Linux ships with only a kernel and a package manager, giving you complete freedom to customize everything else however you see fit. While most newcomers probably won’t want to use Manjaro without a graphical interface, the distro can provide the same experience you would expect from Arch Linux. This is thanks to Manjaro Architect, a stripped-down variant of the operating system that lets you customize kernels, software packages, drivers, shells, and more.

If OS customization isn’t high on your to-do list, you can of course simply grab one of the many complete versions of Manjaro instead. Xfce, Gnome 3, and KDE Plasma are the official variants but there are plenty of community-made ones as well that come with desktop environments like Budgie, Cinnamon, MATE, or LXDE. And if you’re looking for a version of the operating system designed specifically for programmers and developers, you may want to look into Manjaro WebDad edition. WebDad is a brand new version of Manjaro that launched in June 2020 and is based on Just Another Desktop Environment.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 1 GHz CPU or better
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 30GB of storage

Latest stable version: 20.0.3

4. Linux Mint

  • Extremely user-friendly compared to most Linux distros
  • Excellent support for virtualization and cross-platform apps
  • Long-term support for up to 5 years just like Ubuntu

Linux Mint is often considered the best distro for beginners and rightfully so in our opinion. Back in 2006, the developers of Mint set out to create a modern and easy to use operating system and based their initial version on Kubuntu. Starting with version 2.0 Linux Mint began using Ubuntu as its base, a trend that continues to this day. However, a Debian-based variant of the operating system has also been developed in the meantime, just in case “Ubuntu was ever to disappear.”

Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon
Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon Desktop

Linux Mint comes bundled with a mix of open-source and proprietary software, the latter of which is optional and consists mainly of browser plugins and codecs. Aside from that, you can expect to find a wide variety of popular applications like LibreOffice, VLC Media Player, Firefox, Thunderbird, Transmission, and more. Linux Mint has very good support for Wine, which allows it to run a lot of programs designed for Windows. When it comes to virtualization support, Linux Mint works flawlessly not just with VirtualBox but also VMware Workstation, KVM, and other similar tools.

If you want to use Linux Mint as a virtual machine, your best bet is to go for the Xfce version since that one takes up the least amount of resources. But if you have resources to spare, we recommend grabbing the Cinnamon version because that’s arguably the best-looking one. There’s also a third main variant that uses the MATE desktop environment along with a handful of other releases based on older versions of Ubuntu. The developers of Linux Mint include 5 years of guaranteed support with all versions. That means you can save up on resources by getting an older version without having to worry about missing out on important updates.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 32-bit or 64-bit CPU
  • 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended)
  • 15GB of storage (20GB recommended)

Latest stable version: 20

5. OpenSUSE

  • Friendly to novices who are looking for a complete OS
  • Tumbleweed version was designed specifically for power users
  • Comes with an impressive array of development tools

OpenSUSE is a popular distro for VirtualBox that strikes a good balance between ease of use and versatility, making it suitable for users of all skill levels. While the modern version of the distro saw its first release in 2005, OpenSUSE is a continuation of a project (SUSE Linux) that started all the way back in the early 90s. The initial goal of the project was to help create open-source tools for developers and system administrators and that still continues to be the case to this day. However, the distro branched out in time, creating an additional variant that focuses on being friendly to newcomers.

OpenSUSE Leap 15.1
OpenSUSE Leap 15 Desktop

The user-friendly version of the distro goes by the name of OpenSUSE Leap and will provide you with a complete and stable operating system that functions just like Windows or MacOS. Leap is the non-commercial version of SUSE Linux Enterprise, a different distro designed for networks and mainframes. Using OpenSUSE in a virtual machine has a lot of benefits if you need a separate operating system for work-related purposes. There are plenty of useful tools included right off the bat, many of which are aimed at developers. A few examples include openQA, Kiwi, Portus, and Open Build Service (OBS).

The other main variant of OpenSUSE is called Tumbleweed and this one is targeted at power users who want to always stay up to date with the latest software packages and innovations coming to Linux. Because this is a rolling release version of the distro you can expect OpenSUSE Tumbleweed to receive new patches and features more frequently than Leap. Distros that follow a rolling release schedule are typically less stable, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue if you’re running OpenSUSE in VirtualBox because the VM won’t affect your primary operating system.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Pentium 4 1.6 GHz or AMD equivalent CPU
  • 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended)
  • 3GB of storage (5GB recommended)

Latest stable version: 15.2

6. Ubuntu

  • One of the best places to start if you’re new to Linux
  • Very intuitive package manager and app marketplace
  • Server variant comes with pretty good support for older hardware

Ubuntu took the number one spot on our list of best overall Linux distros available right now so it might seem strange to see it so low on this list. While we certainly love Ubuntu, it won’t be the best Linux distro for VirtualBox for everybody due to its relatively high system requirements. Ubuntu is a very modern distro that works best when used as the primary operating system. But if you’re packing a powerful rig and aren’t worried about resources, Ubuntu is arguably the best distro to run in a virtual machine if you’re curious to see what Linux is all about.

Ubuntu 20.04 LTS
Ubuntu 20.04 LTS Desktop

There are a few different versions of Ubuntu you can grab from the official website but we recommend starting with the Desktop edition if you’re looking for a traditional user experience. Ubuntu Desktop comes equipped with everything you would expect from a beginner-friendly operating system, including plenty of tools and pre-installed apps. Canonical, the developers of Ubuntu, also created an app marketplace known as Snapcraft in order to make things even easier for newcomers looking to install additional software. These applications can then be easily installed using the Snap package manager.

A less resource-intensive alternative to the standard desktop version of the operating system is Ubuntu Server. Unlike the desktop edition, Ubuntu Server doesn’t include a graphical interface, which makes it less suitable for newcomers but a much better choice for modest hardware. Ubuntu Server was designed for large networks, however, you can just as easily use it to run a Plex Media Server on your home computer. Regardless of which version of Ubuntu you end up choosing, one of the distro’s biggest advantages is its excellent support for virtual machines, both when used as a host and guest operating system.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 2 GHz dual-core CPU or better
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 25GB of storage (only 2GB for Ubuntu Server)

Latest stable version: 20.04 LTS

7. Slackware

  • The oldest Linux distro that’s still maintained
  • Focuses primarily on stability and simplicity
  • Extremely low hardware requirements

If you’re a Linux veteran who wants to take a trip down memory lane we wholeheartedly recommend checking out Slackware. This isn’t necessarily a conventional Linux distro for VirtualBox but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting. Slackware has been around since 1993 and is the older distribution that continues to be maintained to this day, albeit new updates are not very frequent. While Slackware remains a popular distro with server administrators even in 2020, you probably won’t want to use it as your main operating system. However, you should definitively try it out with VirtualBox if you want to experience an important part of Linux history.

Slackware 14.2
Slackware 14.2 Desktop

Nostalgia value aside, Slackware is a viable operating system for users who value stability and simplicity above all else. The distro underwent very few visual changes over the years and sports a look that could be considered outdated by today’s standards, though we prefer to think of it as retro. But if you’re not into the old school aesthetic you don’t have to stick with it because Slackware supports a number of modern desktop environments like Xfce and KDE. Experienced Linux users tend to simply use the terminal instead, but installing a desktop environment or a window manager is certainly not a bad idea if you just want to see what the distro is all about.

The main reason why you would want to use Slackware over other distros as your virtual machine is to conserve resources. Slackware comes from a time when computers had much lower specs and its current hardware requirements still reflect that. Because the distro hasn’t changed significantly over the years it can still comfortably run on pretty much any old desktop computer or laptop. And unlike all the other distros on this list, Slackware doesn’t require you to dedicate an entire CPU core since it takes up very little processing power in its base form.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 486 processor
  • 64MB RAM (1GB+ suggested)
  • About 5GB+ of hard disk space for a full install

Latest stable version: 14.2

Final Thoughts

VirtualBox is a fun way of playing around with various Linux distros or even trying out Linux for the very first time. The software was designed in such a way that any virtual machine you create will exist in a separate environment from your main OS. That means you don’t have to worry about testing scripts and terminal commands or experimenting with the distro running in VirtualBox because it won’t affect anything outside it.

As mentioned at the start of this article, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is whether your computer can handle a distro running on top of your existing operating system. If you’re currently using an older version of Windows or MacOS that shouldn’t be much of an issue, however, modern versions are known to be quite resource-intensive, especially Windows 10. That may leave few resources for the virtual machine, depending on your system.

Luckily, there are quite a few lightweight distros out there that only require a small fraction of your computer’s resources. We already mentioned a couple in this article but there are many others that are even smaller, including TinyCore, Bodhi Linux, Porteus, and Damn Small Linux.

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