I tried various distributions including Debian, thinking it would be more lightweight. Well, it might have been but it was quite tedious to setup and I had to work around that the bootloader sets a resolution that the 800x480 WVGA screen doesn't support by specifying a screen mode at the GRUB prompt. Not so user friendly.
I settled on putting on Ubuntu Server 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) LTS as that is fairly minimal, but then had to get the desktop running, along with wireless. That was a bit of fun and games - not to get things basically running but sort out things like an X logon environment, support wireless, etc.
Package I ended up installing included:
- xfce4 - lightweight minimal X deskop and window manager
- putty - as a serial terminal
- traceroute - amazing you get mtr but not traceroute by default
- xfce4-terminal - a Terminal program for xfce4
- lxdm - X Display Manager (to give a logon box): problems with this (below)
- acpi - query the battery status and to make the power button turn the computer off
- camorama - to support the built-in webcam (pointless, but there you go)
- wicd - lightweight wireless connection manager (much like the GNOME Network Manager but without all the heavyweight GUI junk that goes with it); it sits nicely in the icon bar at the top of the xfce4 display - I was manually editing wpa-supplicant.conf, but this is much easier and will automatically connect to available wireless networks, plus brings up the ethernet interface with DHCP but not holding up the boot sequence (unlike editing /etc/network/interfaces manually)
- xfec4-clipman - multiple clipboard manager for X: it has the handy option to synchronise the X clipboard and the selection to allow pasting between PuTTY and a Terminal; sits in the icon bar at the top
- leafpad - for jotting notes
- xfonts-terminus + console-terminus - I spent a lot of time searching for a font that would look OK and not antialias horribly on the tiny screen and this ended up being the best I found: this one doesn't need antialiasing
- apt-file - to find out what package installed a particular file
I also had a spare 1GB SODIMM to swap for the supplied 512MB one, so doubling the memory. This enabled me to disable swap on the SSD and get more caching, which will probably prolong its life. The system uses under 250MB to boot and get X running, so there's plenty of free RAM.
The end result of all this is an install of 1.9GB on the internal SSD, which leaves plenty of space.