posted by Richard White on Tue 15th Mar 2005 11:21 UTC
IconMy basement is like a mortuary with the remains of computers all lying in state, waiting and hoping for a new lease on life. But what is there to do with the K6s, the Celerons, and Pentiums of the past. It seems nothing short of a miracle would bring these ghosts back to life.

I thought of providing computers for, shall we say, the economically disadvantaged. These would be plain-Jane, vanilla boxes, simple to use and easy to maintain, with sufficient power for surfing, email reading, authoring documents and spreadsheets, and listening to the occasional tune. The expected thing to do would be to rebuild the old junkers and reload Windows 98 with some free software from the Internet. But where would I find quantities of old Windows disks and is it even legal to do so? (I wouldn't want my new-found philanthropic foundation based on pirated software.) Can you still update this legacy OS? I shudder at the thought of hunting down missing drivers no one keeps the disks. Some newer programs will only run on Win 2000+. And to top it off, Windows users must run a firewall, virus and spyware scanners just to survive on the internet. This is simply too much overhead for a box of this vintage and the reason why so many of them end their lives in my basement. Even the unwashed masses deserve better than Redmond's worst, and Linux can provide it. But how would a modern, light-weight desktop environment perform on such an ancient machine and, more importantly, would it be an acceptable alternative?

One evening I scoured through that pile of broken dreams for suitable candidate, one I felt would serve as a proper demonstator. I unearthed a hefty case, one from an era when steel was cheap and performance was measured in size, blew out the dust, and discovered an Asus P2B-F, a classic Intel 440BX motherboard still sporting a 400MHz slot 1 Celeron processor. Further scrounging produced an old CD-ROM, a floppy drive, and a 4.3GB hard drive. Perfect. I mated this combo with a good network card, a C-Media sound card, an ATI Rage IIC AGP video card, and a new 300w ATX power supply. TCI: $18.00.I installed a single 64MB stick of SD-RAM, which I feel would be average for a machine of this era.

After assembly, I booted the box, corrected settings in the BIOS, and tried some live-cd's. To my disappointment, nothing worked accept a copy of Slax-popcorn, which features Xfce 4.2. I liked it and it showed potential. But lacking a swap file, Slax ran slow ... really slow, like molasses in snow.

I then decided to go pure Debian, which began by booting a Sarge net-install disk and entering "linux26" at the first prompt. (If you haven't installed Debian lately, I think you'd be quite amazed at the progress of the new Debian-installer. One 100MB net-install CD burned from an ISO file and a broadband connection is all you need.)

I breezed through the install, bowing to the guided partitioner and Debian's logical defaults, and after approximately 20 minutes, I was in full command of a base system with 2.6.8 linux kernel. Discover detected all hardware and installed appropriate modules it's truly that good and a relief not to have to search for drivers. I refused all further help and was left at a command prompt to manually install packages.

However, for the latest version of Xfce, I would need to install binaries from an os-cillation repository. (One can also install Xfce on top of Redhat/Fedora, SUSE, Mandrake, Gentoo, and a slew of other distros. There is also a stand-alone installer that will, like Garnome, compile and install it on any distro, though this procedure may require some technical prowess.) One of the many reasons I use Debian is for easy package management, and I needed only add these lines to /etc/apt/source.list file in order to access the appropriate repository:

deb testing main
deb-src testing main

To avoid conflicts with Sarge's older version of Xfce, I had to pin APT by creating and adding these lines to /etc/apt/preferences file:

Package: *
Pin: origin
Pin-Priority: 999

At this point, I was free to install the full Xfce xfld-desktop with these simple commands:

apt-get update

apt-get install -t testing xfld-desktop

Once that was complete, I needed to install X-windows:

apt-get install x-windows-system

After answering all questions, I was left once more at the command prompt. I exited, logged in as user, and typed "startx".

In less than 10 seconds, Xfce loaded. Wow! I stared at the pretty desktop while the processor idled at a mere 2%. This wasn't the only time Xfce would impress me.

The first few minutes were eye-opening and filled with disbelief that a computer with such a meagre processor and minuscule amount of RAM could perform so well.

The first app I installed was Synaptic for graphical package management. New version .56 looks and works great.

Firefox was the star of the show. It did take 10 seconds to launch, but once open surfing was quite a pleasant experience. Pages opened quickly and looked fabulous, this of course on a broadband connection. I successfully installed Flash player and a few extensions, but, sadly, I could not easily find a media plug-in in Sarge so some embedded content remains inaccessible. Another troubling aspect of using Firefox on this platform is that when one encounters an unknown file type, you're given a choice to either download the content or open it with an elusive binary you must hunt for, which in Debian are mostly located in /usr/bin. It would be desirable to have a simple choice of applications like on the start menu.

I installed Thunderbird for email, which looked and worked equally well and featured an integrated RSS reader.

These two aforementioned programs alone put Xfce far ahead of Windows 98.

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Table of contents
  1. "Debian, Page 1/2"
  2. "Debian, Page 2/2"
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