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when you recompile your own custom kernel, you can re-set the processor type to your particular box, and you can also set(usually) the mobo type as well as the chipset it uses. This should give a little extra zip to your system.
I think you don't really get what i386 means...
It just a name for a processor, if you downloaded RH9(i386) then that means you have red hat for a Intel 386 or later, e.g. Penthium, PII,...
i586 means software for Penthium or higher, e.g. all sorts of AMD processors, PII,...
The i386 ver means all software was compiled for the 386 processor. Getting one compiled for i586 (pentium) would be a little faster . Take a look at Arch Linux, which has everything compiled for i686, or Gentoo, which lets you compile for any architecture you want.
When you recompile your kernel, you can optimize it for any architecture. You can optimize it for a P4. It doesn't have to match the rest of the software (though of course it can't exceed the capabilities of your cpu).)
You get to choose the type of CPU/architecture you have during kernel configuration. Gerenally speaking the less cpu features you use to compile a package the more stable it is, at the expense of some performance. I doubt Redhat used it because they want to support 386 user base. By the way by performance I don't mean how fast it loads.
If you want all your software packages optimized for your machine, go Gentoo :-)
You can optimize your kernel for a pentium 4, not just i686. So it's not a maybe, if you have a P4, you optimize for it. Why go down to i686 (Pentium Pro). This part of kernel recompilation is easy, just choose your processor from the list. See this howto: http://www.linuxquestions.org/questi...hreadid=127095
I'd follow the advise also Of just switching to a distro that already supports you machine arch. especially since RH is on life support. Since I dumped RH, MDK is my main distro which most is i586, I have been playing with Fedora which I noticed while running up2date alot of packages including kernel were arch'd as athlon which is good for me but they'd prob have the have pentium too
Frankly, if your this new... stick with your 2.4.x kernel that came with your distro and recompile that one. Actually, I think you shouldn't be compiling kernels at this time, look out for another distro that (like mandrake -- www.mandrake-linux.com) that is compiled for i586.
In fact, if you're a noob, you'd best start with mandrake anyway...