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Over several years of using Linux distros (Debian happens to be my fave) and BSDs for my primary computing, I've picked up the odd piece of useful info.
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"What is a good distro for my old computer?" (1)

Posted 11-24-2009 at 11:35 PM by ofaring

Toshiba Satellite 2590CDT, ~1999, 400 MHz Celeron, 192 MB RAM.

Yeah, baby. I'm using the old girl right now with Kate (based on KDE 3.5.10, more on that later.)

It seems to be a common question. Truth is, most of them would work. You just have to learn some of their ins/outs and then set up according to your needs. Of course, there are some which are almost entirely inappropriate for this 400 MHz Celeron processor with 192 MB of RAM. Take source-based distros like Gentoo or Linux From Scratch (LFS). That is, unless you don't mind s--l--o--w--l--y compiling anything larger than, say, Fluxbox. In which case I have to assume that your old hardware is merely sentimental value and you aren't actually using it for day to day use. Another no-no is the, "We're Linux for Dummies," distros. Common examples are Mandriva and OpenSuse. To be sure, I have nothing against that distro genre. They have their place, and I've used a couple. But that was some years back, and even the Linux kernel has done its part in "Keeping up with the Joneses." I.E., you need to continually update your hardware to run or compile easily.

So, what is a good choice? Well, even the piggish Ubuntu can be tamed down if you setup without all the bells and whistles. But then, you would still have Ubuntu on your computer, and who needs that? (I know. Rabid opinion.) In my own experience, I ran Slackware for some time until Debian 4 "Etch", was released. (At that time I was primarily using full-blown desktops: KDE and GNOME.) When I installed Debian with its default desktop (GNOME), I was surprised at how fast it was in contrast to Slackware. Although I admire Slackware, that speed increase on this old lappy really stuck in my mind. I've used Debian since, and I love it.

So, this monstrosity of an article is about my experiences setting up Debian to run lean and vicious on an old-old laptop. But first, caveat emptor. You will never run the latest and greatest Flash-galore web sites, or that snappy new game. I can check Facebook and 95% of the websites out there without an issue, but that's with flash disabled and using the Opera web browser. Firefox (Iceweasel in Debian) is too much of a resource pig to work well with monster sites like Facebook, and Flash, well, Flash on Linux is not efficient. For an example of what I mean, ensure that you have Flash working and then check out the Tomb Raider "Anniversary" site. Ouch. That doesn't work anything like properly on old hardware. Worse yet, even simple scrolling Flash ads on websites will consume a ridiculous amount of the CPU's time.

Another consideration is music, video, and photo editing. Put simply, it's painful. But I still do it in a limited way. I encode my music CDs and store them for MP3 player use; the odd time I'll edit audio. I edit photos and even create some limited graphics. But video editing is brutal. For any serious usage, other than perhaps music encoding, you'll need more power, more memory.

And finally, as I mentioned, the Linux kernel doesn't always play nice. This particular laptop has a working ACPI implementation. It works beautifully with FreeBSD 6.x, Slackware < 13 (haven't tried 13), Debian 4 "Etch", and probably others. It does not work with FreeBSD 7.x (oh, the hard lockups) or Debian 5 "Lenny" (the CPU continually runs at 70C.). This is unfortunate, especially in the case of FreeBSD which should run with greater stability than that. In both cases, however, APM works. In Debian it suspends to RAM perfectly, something which wasn't always happening with ACPI.

But if you can live with these limitations, or if perhaps like myself you miss the honesty of the old days, or maybe you just don't have the money to upgrade, then read on. You can have a pretty killer machine on old hardware. While this will obviously be Debian-centric, nearly any distro can follow the same basic principles and run lean.


I'm going to assume an experience level higher than complete newbie, because anyone serious about pursuing real computing - and the Unix family is real computing - needs to get used to learning. So read. For Debian I recommend the Debian Reference Guide, the apt-get howto, and sometimes their wiki for starters. And for those troublesome software configuration issues or just for the sake of usually well-written, plain-interesting info, I also like the Arch Linux wiki.

More later...
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