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A success story featuring throwback hardware, XFCE, and Fedora 17.
The Dimension XPS T800r is a reliable but old (2000) system, which in my case is maxed out at 768MB RAM, with an updated graphics card installed. The 50GB HDD is partitioned; half of it runs Windows 2000 Professional SP4. On the Linux side I have tried several distros over the years, including several versions of Fedora and CentOS, Puppy, Crunch Bang, Xubuntu, and Lubuntu.
The reason I experiment with these distros on such old equipment is that we have several of these old Dells around, and we use them as time clock computers in a warehouse environment. They are used as thin clients, just booting up and connecting automatically via RDP session to a Windows Server. In that service, my standard installation is CentOS 5 with Gnome and rdesktop, customized to come up without logging in and to run the RDP client automatically. But I also take the opportunity to evaluate and to use one of the vintage machines in a dual-boot environment for some of my productivity work, notably cross browser testing of web sites.
On the Linux side of my dual-boot computer, I have been using Fedora 14 since early 2011, preferring Gnome 2 and not wanting to change to another desktop environment. Every so often I get inspired to try updated distros on the old hardware, and this time after a few misfires, I have created a nice workstation. My criteria are ease of installation, ease of use, my hardware gets detected automatically, GUI tools for managing installed software, easy to create desktop launcher icons, and performance similar to that of W2k. The XFCE spin of Fedora 17 is a breath of fresh air.
The installation went smoothly, and on old hardware that's saying something these days. Boot the installation CD, wait a while, click "install to HD," wait a few more minutes, a few clicks along the way for customization, and shortly the system is ready for customization. My monitor, keyboard, mouse, KVM, sound card, and other embedded hardware just come up and work. Installed RDesktop, Lynx browser, Flash player, Flash plugin, Opera browser. Disabled firewall and SELinux as they are not appropriate to my environment and I don't want them taking up resources. I miss the old days when I could pick and choose software during installation rather than removing it later.
I am impressed that being accustomed to Windows and Gnome 2, I can easily customize XFCE and manage the installation in a similar fashion, and with snappy performance. For example, I can configure one panel rather than two, and locate it at the bottom of my screen. Firefox is slow but Opera saves the day. Even on this computer, it renders sites very well, including those requiring flash and Java, and transitions between pages quickly. And I can configure launcher icons on my desktop to start the Lynx browser, or one of those RDP sessions to my server. Speaking of, working on this computer with two RDP sessions running, a Lynx browser window, and Opera with multiple tabs open, is no doubt taxing to the old computer but you'd never know it. I can easily right-click a title bar and move some of these windows to another workspace, alt-tab between them quickly and easily, and in an RDP session to our enterprise system, I can click buttons and see very little latency in the screen transitions. In other words, this combination of XFCE and Fedora seems to be running efficiently.
If you find yourself with an older unit and you like to experiment, I recommend the XFCE spin of Fedora 17.
Other installations I have tried recently:
Crunch Bang: Not bad for efficiency but the interface is too different for me to adjust
Puppy: It worked well but was a little awkward to customize
LXDE under Ubuntu and Fedora 16: Interface a little awkward, also some browser crashes
XFCE under Fedora 16: Would not boot after installation
Thanks for the feedback. Yes, my review of F17 and XFCE was appropriate to the context of a limited (old) hardware environment, but not specifically to the amount of RAM the OP described. Mea culpa on that.
I did not file bugs on LXDE because I was pretty sure it was the flash player or browser that crashed, not LXDE itself. While LXDE is intended for minimal hardware use, the software I was using it with, including Fedora, are not. I know what I'm getting into trying to build a workstation on such old hardware and did not consider it a software bug. Instead, I moved on to trying something else.
F16 and XFCE might have had a slight performance edge, but I'll never know since it wouldn't boot after installation. Also, Fedora is revved so often that I preferred to try 17 instead. And it is performing well.