PC Resurrection with Debian

My 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 http://www.os-works.com/debian testing main
deb-src http://www.os-works.com/debian 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 www.os-works.com
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.

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

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For sound, I had to activate ALSA by installing alsa-base and alsa-utils, and running the command “alsaconf” as root user. A few clicks later, the C-media card showed up in the Xfce sound mixer. Media playback is handled by Xfmedia, a no-nonsense yet capable player that’s so dead simple to use, it’s brilliant. Out of the box it supported at least CD, mp3 and XviD. CD play consumed a minuscule 2% of the processor while XviD gobbled near 80% but remained fluid. I tried Realplayer, but for what it offers I feel it’s not really worth the bother. Quicktime and Windows media support come by installing w32codecs for Xine. However, this is a legal grey area. (Add the line below to /etc/apt/sources file if you wish.)

deb ftp://ftp.nerim.net/debian-marillat/ testing main

Xfce file manager (xffm) is a love it or hate it kind of app. I found it very approachable and easy to navigate. But it gets a little unruly with larger folders and, again, file association can be a head shaker for new users — you must know the exact name or location of program you wish to invoke. The intergrated SMB browser is slick and all I had to do was install smb-client to make it work. Fstab menu is meaningless to a new user until one expands and discovers drives located there. I suppose Nautilus would be a more friendly file browser, but I found the more I used xffm the more I liked it due to its veiled functionality.

For office work, I installed Abiword and Gnumeric for documents and spreadsheets respectively. Both apps worked surprisingly well on this machine and featured MS compatibility. However, complex content really got the hard drive churning. And I installed ImageMagick, a fantastic little photo viewer/editor that worked great.

Here is a brief summary of things I added to flesh out the operating system above what was provided by Xfce and Debian. The list in no way represents a complete or the best selection of apps, but all worked well on this test machine:

Synaptic for package management; Gaim for messaging; Abiword and Gnumeric of office work; ImageMagick for photos; Thunderbird for email; smb-client for networking, alsa-base/utils for sound, file-roller for compression/archiving; gtkdiskfree to monitor disk space; Flash and Realplayer for internet media; gpdf for PDF files; Firestarter firewall utility; gtkam for cameras; cupssys and gnome-cups-manager for printing; gnome-games and Frozen Bubble for nonsensical amusement.

Now for the bad points …

Sometimes the lack of physical memory reared its ugly head — opening more than one app at a time sent the hard drive thrashing. This is to be expected with only 64MB. I doubled up to 128MB and the OS came alive. I could open three or four apps without a hint of strain. If you intend to do lots of office work or graphics, more memory seems to be the ticket as the machine never once felt like a 400MHz castaway.

I couldn’t easily allow users to halt or reboot the machine especially with the default XDM login manager. Installing GDM gave more control to the user and allowed a nifty timed login.

The Xfce menu is a lifeline for a ex-Windows user, but some apps I installed via Synaptic did not find there way there. This isn’t by any means a problem limited to Xfce. But the menu editor is crude and unintuitive. Frankly, I hadn’t the patience to learn it.

While completely free, as in beer, the downloads for Xfld advanced desktop and Debian are rather huge and time consuming; no problem for broadband but mostly prohibitive for dial-up users. And sometimes you just want to pop in a CD and have a complete, functional desktop without all the fuss. In other words, I would like to see Ubuntu release an Xfce version on a pressed CD. Xubuntu, anyone?

The total install with all the fluff I added consumed 2.5GB of hard drive space. Bear this in mind if you have limited space.

Xfce needs more intergrated apps, like CD burning, if it wants to be a full fledged environment. And that shouldn’t automatically spell bloat. I feel I had to add too much bulk to get features I would consider necessary for a modern graphical operating system.

Printer set-up is less-than complete, graphically, as I had to install extras to work CUPS itself — definitely not as polished as other desktops.

The lack of desktop icons is jarring but not debilitating. I could access the Xfce menu anywhere with a right click. Actually, there are a lot of thoughtful touches throughout the UI for you to discover.


Xfce is here in a big way. With the added memory, the computer was very pleasant to use, and I would be happy with it as a spare for the rec room or what not. It has a great look and feel with speed belying the hardware beneath. I found myself intensely liking the environment the more I used it. It’s clean without appearing austere and configurable without suffering feature creep. Some features and usability issues need to be worked on in the way they’ve designed the entire desktop, simple and intuitive, but it does offer a decent base for a roll-your-own desktop. It too appears as stable as other popular desktops, and I hope they continue development with an eye for the many computers that might labour under full Gnome or KDE desktops.

So does Xfce 4.2 it pass the test? Absolutely. I think my clients will be pleased.

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

About the author
Admittedly, I am a computer addict and have been for several years. Linux merely fuels this vice. When I’m not working, eating or sleeping, I can be found building or repairing computers for friends and family. I like rhubarb and green tea, and have several aunts still alive. I’ve been known to reside on Canada’s east coast.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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