Linux Systems on Obsolete Computers

Linux [1] has a great reputation as a system that can give new life to obsolete computers: it is a well-earned reputation, but one that leads to some misconceptions that could prove detrimental for its wider diffusion.

[1]or, more precisely, GNU/Linux systems; similar considerations are i also true for other free unixoid systems, such as various members of the BSD family, altought they seem not to be "trendy" enough to be abused to the same extent.

The typical problem that I'm addressing here can be syntetized with the often-heard sentence: "I have an old computer around, doing nothing, let's try linux on it". Not that there is anything wrong with putting linux on old computers: if you know what you're doing and what to expect that's perfectly fine.

Maybe you're an old unix guru looking for a box for your pet text editor, or someone who already knows linux and wants to put together his own web server; in this and similar cases fine, go on, you have good chances for success and a good experience.

When I speak of obsolete computers, I don't mean those that can't run the latest version of Windows: most computers from the mid to late XP era are perfectly suitable for common destkop linux distributions. For common uses such as web browsing, e-mail, some writing with a word processor and card solitaires, and an average user, I would draw the line at about 512MB of RAM and a 600MhZ processor, with at least 5GB of HD space (althought this can be reduced to a couple Gigs with the help of an experienced user).

The problem

The problem with lesser computers is not in a lack of configurability: there are many specialized tasks that require little resources, such as personal web/mail/file servers and so on; what is missing here is the ability to give a good impression to new users and show them that linux is a good all-purpose system, not something that is good only for old stuff, or as a second – cheap – choice.

Such an obsolete computer will probably have some installation of windows 98 or ME, probably well compromised with viruses, spyware, general registry-rot and stuff. Someone with some knowdlege in the area will probably see the alternative as a stable system, that can be configured to be quite secure and then mantained for years without big problems, instead of an instable virus-catcher that will probably last less than half an year and then require another format to perform well, and will have no doubt, even if the price is a slighty rawer, but lightweigth, user interface.

The common user, instead, does not know nor care about the inner workings of the computer: he has been told that viruses, crashes etc. are the norm and seems to accept them, but he is also used to a certain kind of interfaces, and will be quite stubborn in refusing to learn new approaches, such as those offered by the various alternative windows managers under X (as opposed to the resource intensive KDE and GNOME, or even the mid-weight alternative XFCE). Such kind of user could be probably be interested in one of the shiner configurations of modern DEs (with their themes, cool effects and the promise from the expert friend that the computer will work better than before), but those require a modern computer: on an older one they will probably be too slow to be really usable. Some users may be fine with the other lightweight destkop environment, LXDE, but it may backfire with some other because of its looks ("See, linux looks like windows 98, I told you windows is better"), expecially if that is the only linux machine they see..

Another kind of user that could receive a delusion from linux on an old machine is the benchmark maniac: while it is possible, with some knowdlege and patience, to optimize a linux installation and have it work as fast as possible, it is not an easy task, possibly requiring some compilation of software and such. Most probably a clean installation of windows 9x will be still faster than the average easy distro: such comparison is not fair, both because of the age of the contenders (windows 98 is an outdated and unsupported system, the linux distro a modern one) and their style (9x being still close to its origins as a 32bit GUI over DOS, against a full featured operating system like the linux distro), and a comparison with a system like windows xp or even seven could be more appropiate, but not everyone will consider this, and the impression can be bad.

Possible Solutions

For most reasons that lead to the above situation, there are some alternative solutions.

If you just want to give a try at linux, but don't feel confortable enough to touch the existing configuration of your current computer, a good choice would be to use a live distro such as the live CD of Ubuntu: it can give a good idea of what a linux system can be, with no need to perform an installation; the main drawback is that they need to load the entire system on RAM (or read parts of it from a slow CDROM) and thus they are slow and a little resource intensive (512MB of RAM are a minimum here, and 1GB would greatly help).

If you're looking into linux to get better performances from an old computer, another option would be to bypass the problem and buy a new, low end one. Some stores offer basic configurations and preinstalled linux that will work just fine for most common uses for under 300EUR.

Right now, this offers an additional advantage: a modern low-end computer requires less energy, produces less heat and less noise than an older one, expecially those power hogs from the early 2000s. Laptops, netbooks and the general green trend brought on the mass market low power hardware that used to be confined to embedded systems.

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