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I have a 700mhz celeron that I inherited and decided to try linux. I have been a mac guy and computer geek for years. I installed Mandrake 10 on it, but to be truthful, it runs like a dog. Is this the performance I can expect from most modern distros? Not a fault of Mandrake; I wouldn't expect OS X to run speedy on an early G3. I am currently downloading SuSe 9.1, and will give it a try.
I run a 300 Mhz Athlon, so the processor isn't great, but also isn't much of a problem. The distro also isn't "much" of a big deal. Obviously a larger, bulky distro will slow you down more than a lean and mean one. Play around with it for a bit of time. What can improve the apparent speed of your box is by having a very lean kernel. I wouldn't suggest making a new kernel as an activity for a newb. There is nothing "advanvced" about how to build the kernel, it just requires a decent amount of knowledge about what is on your system, both hardware and software wise. Until you know where everything is located in linux, it can be hard to make a new kernel. My first attempt was horrible, I couldn't even get close to booting.
Good luck with everything, and when the inevitible questions arise, post and you'll get plenty of help.
linux is fast, GUIs are sloooowwwwww. the key for your "new" computer will be to run a lightweight window manager instead of kde or gnome, e.g., fluxbox, blackbox, fvwm, xfce4, icewm, etc. maybe even windowmaker, but coming from OSX it might seem a little primitive-looking. it is fast, though.
then learn about services and turn off the ones you don't need (most of the default ones, probably). then recompile a custom kernel, buiding in everything you can as a module. make sure you have set up swap space 2x ram, and have turned on DMA for your hard drive/s. after all that, even w/700mhz celeron you will have a lightning-fast box.
I have mandrake 9.0 running on a celeron 666 quite succesfully. Its my wife machine she does all the dog and business work on and it runs well. I plan on upgrading to maybe mdk 9.2 or 10 sometime. Watch with mandrake as it will often install a lot of services and things you don't need and you can trim it so it runs okay on most machines if you have enough ram... The least ram on boxes I have here is 192meg I think and I have a P3-450 running mdk 9.1, a P3-550 and celeron 1000 running mdk 10 well - and then the celeron 666 with the mdk 9.0. The P3-700 runs mdk 10 very well, tho running a lean 126.96.36.199 kernel.
Ram is all 192 - 256 meg I think.
KDE runs on all of these quite well, the blackbox or windomaker are faster... I will switch to blackbox when I am gaming sometimes, tho quake 3 and original UT are okay with KDE running.
Although I don't like the celerons much, I would expect reasonable performance out of a celeron 700 with mandrake 10, so I think you have other isses either with the machine or the install... How much ram?
Also as said above, a custom kernel can be a big plus, and the box will run like a dog if you don't have DMA going (may not have recognized the chipset?)