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Old 12-14-2006, 11:07 PM   #1
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seeking lightweight desktop environment for lower spec PCs

I'm trying to find a lightweight (ie faster) desktop environment for lower spec PCs (500Mhz Pentium/400MB or so of RAM) for a linux based environment.

It must be able to read/write MS Office file formats and connect to existing shared printers on a windows (workgroup) network.

A few weekends of downloading and installing various OS/Freeware distros (FreeSpire, DSL and UBUNTU) have all had partial success, but only with today's install of XANDROS Pro (trial) have I been able to browse to and setup a printer shared on a windows PC.

I had enough apt-get experience to be able to install OpenOffice2 from the command line (I couldn't see any way to do this from within Xandros - they seem to prefer I buy Star Office).

Anyway .. the resulting combination is actually my very first successful linux desktop installation that I could actually (in all good conscience) recommend to someone wanting a simple PC for internet access / word processing / printing.

The only remaining issue is sluggish performance (graphically) of the final installation. I assume the simple lack of CPU Speed is the main problem.

I've heard of "lightweight" desktops like "xfce" but I'm not clear on how to install this on Xandros ("apt-cache search xfce" gives no results) and (more importantly) how to switch desktop environment from KDE to xfce (or any other environment) without drama / breaking things.

My linux experience is all console-driven on webservers.. I've never worked within a GUI for linux...

I have no serious objection buying Xandros O/S if that's the only option - still way ahead of the redmond deal as a complete package....

Anyway... apologies for the long windedness.. can anyone suggest alternatives ?

Old 12-15-2006, 12:25 AM   #2
Registered: Sep 2003
Location: Spokane, aka Methlehem, aka SpokVegas
Distribution: Ubuntu Edgy Eft/ OSX Panther dual boot on PPC Mac Mini.
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Well, the lightest graphical distros I've tried are DSL and Puppy linux. I think what you might be looking for is xubuntu, which is ubuntu with XFCE preloaded. You might also try installing ubuntu and adding another desktop manager with synaptic, then at the login screen choose to start a new kind of session after a reboot. This is generally what has worked for me. But give xubuntu a try first. If you want to stick with Xandros, you should be able to open up whatever package manager they use, like synaptic, and choose xfce or fluxbox, which is what you experienced with DSL linux. By the way, Puppy linux uses blackbox. Hope that helps.
Old 12-15-2006, 12:40 AM   #3
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Registered: Oct 2003
Location: south africa
Distribution: ubuntu (Dapper Drake)
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light desktop -- not just a window manager


I have to agree with the recommendation above to get Xubuntu. If you already have Ubuntu available, then just install with that, fire up Synaptic, and go install XFCE. You will find that (K/X)Ubuntu is much nicer if you enable all the repositories -- by default, "multiverse" and "universe" aren't enabled. You can do this from Synaptic (some how, I can't remember exactly), or just edit your /etc/apt/sources.list, and add the words "multiverse" and "universe" (without quotes) to the end of a line that looks like:

deb edgy main

You can add to the deb-src lines as well, if you like.

GNOME on Ubuntu actually runs quite well. It's quite light, so you may find it easier to just stick with it, since it has great integration of all desktop apps and services. Setting up things like printers is quite easy -- certainly, I've found GNOME to be really friendly of late.

Whilst I do use Ubuntu at home, I have to use Fedora Core 6 at work. I've also used Suse (9.3 and 10.1), and I have spent years on a Debian desktop. I've messed with Red Hat (a long time ago), and Corel Linux (waste of time). I can honestly say that the easiest, prettiest, friendliest desktop distro has to be Ubuntu. If you want to go with the XFCE desktop -- then go ahead: it's also quite good. I can't at home, because my wife has to use the computer as well, and GNOME makes a hell of a lot more sense, especially for a person who has limited computer experience, and all of that with windows.

Your speed issues are more than likely to do with OpenOffice than with the desktop you are using. OpenOffice is a *great* piece of software, but does require some grunt to get working. You can speed up your OpenOffice experience, at the cost of overall load time, by using one of the pre-caching techniques, like the OpenOffice quickstarter applet, or similar. But you may also find that it's more efficient to use other office applications. For a lighter, easy-to-use "Word-like" application, try Abiword. For a lighter spreadsheet application, try Gnumeric. You can also make the machine go a lot better if you can find some more RAM for it. A 500mHz processor, is actually enough for a regular user (read: not a developer, not someone who has like 20 apps open at a time).

Hope this helps.
Old 12-15-2006, 12:53 AM   #4
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thanks all .. will grab a xunbunto ISO and let you know how I go :^)

I did install kubuntu in prior tests but was unable to locate the shared printer on my XP Pro desktop... XANDROS browsed to it perfectly and had a (close enough) driver...

speed wise I was really referring to overall perception, not OO2 specifically.. just sluggish screen draws and feeling of "it's all a bit too much work" :^) Maybe there are tweaks to the choices xwindows is using but I don't know how to hack into that stuff....

more soon...
Old 12-15-2006, 01:08 AM   #5
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Registered: Oct 2003
Location: south africa
Distribution: ubuntu (Dapper Drake)
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Well, if speed seems sluggish overall, then you need to delve a little deeper. There are a multitude of avenues to pursue:

* Check that you have DMA enabled on your disks. You may have bios settings to check, and you will need hdparm (it's easy to use -- just check "hdparm --help")
* Make sure that you're using an appropriate video driver. Perhaps you're just using the vesa one, which works, but isn't optimal. Do you have a fancy-pants (read: nvidia/ati/matrox/reasonable intel) video card? Getting the right driver working in X will make a huge difference. With a debian-based distro, you can use dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg, and try different drivers.
* Are you getting a lot of disk crunching when you're waiting? Perhaps you're short on RAM? Try running "free" from the console to see the situation. If you're reaching into swap, you can expect to wait. I would suggest trying to find more RAM (though 400mb can be made to work ok, for sure!). You can try to disable unrequired services, such as apache, bind, etc. You can try a lighter desktop (like you requested). If you are willing to take something really light, and do all the work yourself, you could work with something like fluxbox -- be warned though, there are no nice integrations in fluxbox -- it's a (damn fast, incredibly pretty) window manager and NOTHING MORE.
Old 12-15-2006, 01:15 AM   #6
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Lightbulb Only icewm and good configuration!

Hi, there
I am sure each and every distro of linux (I mean the most friendly for you) will pass all of your requirements. The most important thing is to configure the environment you are going to work in with minimal efforts . To cut a long story short choose any distro you want and configure it with icewm . Regards,
Old 12-15-2006, 01:28 AM   #7
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Location: south africa
Distribution: ubuntu (Dapper Drake)
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Ah, yes, ICEWM! I've forgotten about that one... Ice is very nice -- very fast, very lean. But it will be missing the nice integration that you will get with one of the three major desktops (GNOME, KDE, XFCE). It's like an alternative to fluxbox/blackbox, if you want a more "windows-like" experience. I used it for some time. It's also quite pretty.

If you are using a display manager, you won't have the extended functionality of being able to shut down directly from the desktop unless you use the display manager that goes with your desktop (gdm with GNOME/XFCE, and kdm with KDE). Maybe you don't mind this -- but I find it annoying to have to log out and then shut down.

On the other hand, a place where you can save yourself some RAM is with the display manager. Perhaps you should forgo it -- simply have a good .xinitrc, and log in from the console prompt; either issue "startx" after logging in, or have "startx" in your .bashrc (or the startup script for whatever shell you use (I use zsh))
Old 12-15-2006, 07:10 AM   #8
Registered: May 2004
Location: Southeastern USA
Distribution: SuSe, MEPIS, Knoppix, DSL
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Does this OS need to run from a hard drive or can it run from a CD? ... and maybe I missed it ... but how much ram will be in these machines?

If it can run from a cd you should be able to try any number of live cds, seeing how you have tried ubuntu, check out SuSe. I personally like ubuntu, and edubuntu, but maybe it might be easier for first time users to pick up something like the KDE desktop of SuSe.
Old 12-15-2006, 07:12 AM   #9
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Try Slackware. I had it running on a Toshiba Satelite laptop with 500MB hard drive, Pentuim 100 MHZ, an 40MB of RAM. I had, MySQL, Mozilla Browser, and a PDF reader. It was slow, but it worked.
Old 12-15-2006, 07:20 AM   #10
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Location: Lansdale pa
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I have had allot of luck with DSL. Another option for installing Xubuntu is to do a clean server install and than install the xfce-desktop. That should give you a nice lightweight system to start. If you just want to read word docs you might want to give Abiword a look. It's much lighter than OO.

My 2 cents.
Old 12-15-2006, 07:20 AM   #11
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Try Slackware. I had it running on a Toshiba Satelite laptop with 500MB hard drive, Pentuim 100 MHZ, an 40MB of RAM. I had, MySQL, Mozilla Browser, and a PDF reader. It was slow, but it worked.
Works yes, but Slackware is pretty awful if you wish to install something that's not in the setup cd (compare to apt, and you'll notice the dependency hell-ish situation in Slack, if you don't magically happen to have everything needed already).

In addition: if you're ok with the fact that you don't have a panel nor a Start/K/Gnome/similar button, but instead a desktop right-click menu, try WindowMaker too. It's great if you're ok with it's layout, it's powerful, it's very fast..and the best? It works. Actually working with printers, shares, office programs etc. isn't up to the distribution nor your desktop environment, so I'd suggest you pick up a distribution of your own choice, install a preferred desktop thingie on it (like wmaker or icewm or xfce or whatever you like), hopefully a light one, and then make sure you have office programs (if OpenOffice feels slow, try AbiWord for word processing or Gnumeric for spreadsheets, they can read MS Office files too and might work a bit faster than the whole and start enjoying. No need to spend your life in search of the Best Distribution, just pick up a distribution you'd like to make Best.

Everything is configurable, if you just stick with what we call 'open source'. And sometimes beyond that too.
Old 12-15-2006, 08:12 AM   #12
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Registered: Jan 2005
Location: Virginia, USA
Distribution: Fedora, Ubuntu, Chubby Puppy Linux
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Hi, I have an old Dell Inspiron 7000 laptop (PII 450 with 96 MB RAM, a DVD ROM/CDRW, ATI video w/hardware decoder builtin for DVDs), and Chubby Puppy Linux works best on it, even from the LiveCD. That's my distro of choice for my old Dell Inspiron 7000 laptop.

Xubuntu will also boot on it from the LiveCD but very slowly, but it boot eventually. Might work better if installed but no disk space on it for another OS install.

Yes, many distros would likely work with ICEWM. My Jim used it on his old a computer running Redhat 7 and Redhat 8 at one point running ICEWM with only 64MB RAM on that PIII 400/450mhz.

AbiWord might be a better choice than OO? Takes much less time to load on a slow computer for word processing documents.

My vote overall would go to Chubby Puppy Linux though.
Old 12-15-2006, 08:25 AM   #13
Registered: Jan 2004
Location: Manitoba, Canada
Distribution: Debian
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The lightest of light "distros" is LTSP. If your lightweight machines are networked and you can put one decent Linux box on that network, you can either have the lightweights make an X connection to the fast machine and login by XDMCP to the fast machine or you can install LTSP on the fast machine and have the lightweight machines boot as well as make an X connection to the fast machine. The old machines have always been able to show the pictures and receive the clicks. They can do that until their fans stop. If the machine is very old it may have a 10 mbits/s ethernet card. For a few dollars, you can swap in a 100 mbits/s card to make sure things will not be jerky. A decent machine needs perhaps 256 MB RAM for the OS and about 50 MB per client machine. This system relies on the fact that CPU power is just needed in short bursts, so 30 to 60 users can run on the same machine if of current technology choked with RAM. It may help to use multiple hard drives to permit faster access to files. I like to use RAID 1 for this purpose. I also like to use one of the gigabit/s to 100 mbits/s switches to eliminate bottlenecks on the network. This helps when you have more than 10 clients and they all boot at once. After booting over the network, the clients demand very little from the network unless video is involved. This system is not great if everyone wants video or dancing graphics. Normal browsing/applications works very well.
Old 12-15-2006, 08:55 AM   #14
Registered: Aug 2006
Location: Pretoria, South Africa
Distribution: Linux Mint 13 Cinnamon
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Just my 2c...

I use Gentoo, if your linux experience is limited, though, don't use it because you may struggle to install it and it seems like you don't want that... But I use fluxbox and find it good, largely because it is quite popular on gentoo and there is a lot of support for doing things with it.

As far as connecting to the Windows Printer goes, that's an issue with properly configured CUPS and samba, I think... I've never tried to do it. If Xandros handles it fine then stick with Xandros because you might find it a pain to do by yourself. Simply get fluxbox, xfce, windowmaker, icewm or whatever installed and you can choose it from the 'session' menu in the login screen if it's GDM or KDM (not sure about xdm but I'm pretty sure xandros doesn't use that...)

There, I've said it...
Old 12-15-2006, 09:31 AM   #15
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Registered: Apr 2005
Location: Cuba
Distribution: Debian
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xubuntu is your choice.


livecd, lxde, zenwalk

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