Small footprint distro generic question

A number of Linux distros have small footprints that make them especially suited to applications like running them from a USB stick. What accounts for the difference in size compared to the "full" sized distros? What is missing? Is it just that full-sized ones have bloat from being bundled with every conceivable driver and utility and tons of themes and skins, and with the small footprint ones you need to find and add the specific ones you need? Are they missing specific functionality, like the difference in Windows between the Home Premium version and the higher editions? If you want to use Linux as a Windows replacement OS, are there limitations with the small footprint versions that would require a full-sized distro?

I've tried to do a little research on my own to answer this question. Perhaps some of you who are more familiar can confirm or expand.

It looks like there are two levels of small footprint implementations. There appear to be "micro" implementations that sound like a Windows clean boot--bare bones OS that can be used for things like operating a Raspberry Pi or simple tablet, or booting off a flash drive to do maintenance and repair. These don't appear to have much in the way of a software library. They remind me of the Sinclair computer. Some people managed to hang a lot of peripherals off them and actually do something, but they were never intended to be a serious office machine.

The other are "lightweight" packages that look like something someone might use as an XP replacement on an older computer with limited hardware resources. It looks like these contain all of the necessary pieces to be a full-fledged OS, particularly if your needs are basic. If I understand what I'm reading, they save weight in a couple of ways. The "full-sized" implementations come with a hefty software bundle so they are ready to replace Windows for the typical applications most people run--full-featured replacements for MS Office, Outlook, Photoshop, etc. The lightweight ones come with lightweight software and less of it, sort of the equivalent of Microsoft Works instead of Office. The other difference I'm seeing is a bare-bones user interface--a very simple desktop.

Does that accurately sum it up? Many of the reviews I read recommend Puppy Linux as the best replacement for XP on an old machine. Any differing thoughts or recommendations?

I know this is an old post, but I have not been here long enough to have put in my two cents. The thing with Linux/GNU is that it is not originally intended to be a Windows replacement. It was intended to be much more and better, a Unix alternative. The pro and con about this system is that there are so many different ways it can be put together. Every single different way changes the size and hardware needs associated with it. There is never an easy A, B or C answer with Linux/GNU...its more like an essay answer. Most answers will almost always come back to "it depends on what flavor you are running".

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