Linux for your old computer
Written by: Patrick Kelso on 09 May 2004
One of the best things about Linux, is that it runs on almost any X86 computer,
from 386 and up. Whilst a 386 running Linux is not going to be as fast as a
Pentium IV or AMD Athlon, it can still perform a lot of tasks, with up to date,
current tools, the other operating systems cannot.
This article assumes you have an old computer you are not currently using, and
that you already know how to install Linux. This is not a howto install Linux,
this is a guide to quality, low resource applications, that will run reasonably
well on an older computer, anything less than 500MHz, with 128MB of ram.
For the sake of standards, I am basing all my tests on my Intel Pentium 266MMX
laptop, which has 64mb of EDO RAM, a 4GB hard drive and a CDROM. Its equiped with
a 10Mbps network card, and I use the builtin 12" screen at its native 1024x768
Your mileage will vary, depending on the applications you are running, the
quality of your computer & the reliability of parts.
First. Get more ram. Chances are your old box has 32mb or less. If possible
put more in. This will be the single best thing you can do. Computer flea
markets are the best place to find such ram, or try the trading post. Don't
worry if this is not possible, it is feasible to get Linux working on a laptop
with 4mb of ram, but not so easy.
Ok, now decide what you want to do with the box. Is it going to be a router?
mail server, or are you planning on using this machine as a desktop, maybe
for that younger sibling who is always using your computer to look at
To choose the distribution, you need to know what you want to use the box for. If
you are not planning on installing the X Windowing System, any distribution will do,
more or less. I found RedHat 9 to be slow on a laptop myself. Even in
console mode. And the install was a painfully slow.
Personally I prefer Debian. I love it. But that's me, it may not be you. The
best advice I can give anyone who is a relative Linux newbie, is get your hands
on as many distributions as you can, and try them all. It won't cost much except
the price of blank cds, and its the single best way to learn.
If you want to set up a small mail / dns / dhcp server, I would recommend
Debian. Its quite difficult to install the first time, but once its installed,
apt-get is brilliant.
If however you want to use the computer as a router. Look at one of the
specific distributions designed for being a gateway, smoothwall, ipcop, Netboz,
e-smith or clark connect.
And now to the big part. So you want to use your old box for email, web browsing
and word processing. You are in for a bad time unless you choose the right
distribution, and more importantly, the right applications.
Again, I recommend Debian, its well designed, and rock
solid. Also, it has always been designed for the lowest common denominator.
Slackware is also good for that. Avoid distro's like Redhat, Mandrake or the new
windows clones, Lycoris and Lindows. Unless its an old version, it wont be much
good for hardware older than a pentium 3 with 128mb of ram. (preferablly more).
Distro's like Slackware & Debian are harder to install. But are much more
friendly to your hardware. I have a Pentium 75 with Debian installed, that works
flawlessly. Redhat 9.0 wouldn't even boot the installer.
Unless you are and old school Unix geek from way back (In which case why
are you reading this article?) you will probably want to run the X windows
system, with a nice pretty graphical interface. Whilst the major Linux
desktop environments, KDE and Gnome are both fully featured and easy to
use, they require a reasonable amount of ram, and are quite slow on older
computers. Kde more so. I use Xfce quite a lot, Gnome compliance means
virtually any gnome app, of which I mention a few below, will run. XFCE is
also quite small and fast. If you prefer a "windows" like interface,
FVWM-95 is the window manager for you. It looks and feels like Windows 95,
and runs pretty well on old hardware.
For the minimalists out there, Blackbox, and its derivatives, Openbox &
Fluxbox take a no nonsense approuch to window management. The only menu is
activated by right clicking on the desktop, and there are no icons. The
Box window managers are easily the fastest.
The biggest decision to make here is console or X application.
Personally I use mutt. It's a console email client that is very powerful, runs on
any computer, is accessible over a telnet / ssh connection. Works for
me, but it may not work for you. A lot of people still use Pine or even elm for
email, both are great console email clients. Try them, you may be amazed at what
they can do. You may need to use fetchmail to get your email, and while your at
it, you may as well learn procmail and sort your email too. A great howto for
fetchmail - procmail - mutt is available in the Gentoo documentation:
Pine is one of the oldest email programs on the planet, and one that is
still quite powerful. Although it doesn't really compare to modern clients
Linux has no shortage of good GUI email clients, Mozilla's Thunderbird is quite
good. Although I haven't used it myself. Mahogany is also quite quick, and also
runs on Microsoft Windows, if you have installed KDE (even if you don't use it)
Kmail is also a small light email client. For the Microsoft junkie,
Evolution is comparable to Outlook, although you will need the gnome
libraries to get it working.
Depending on your requirements, you can choose either a console browser like
lynx, links or w3m, which work with text only, the later two support frames
and tables which is nice. links also has a GUI mode, that runs in the X
Windowing System, and can render images. Links is by far my favourite, as it can
handle almost anything I through at it, with the notable exception of flash /
shockwave. But I always have them disabled anyway. If you are running X and you
require a browser that can render images, and flash/shockwave, you can't go past
Mozilla Firefox. Its lean, its fast & it gets the job done. Forget about trying
to use the full version of Mozilla or any of its clones, as they are two
resource hungry for an old box. The new Gnome browser Epiphany is quite
If you need a "proper" word processor, Abiword is quite small, and has a lot of
the functionality of more powerful options like OpenOffice which require vastly
faster machines, however, Abiword requires the Gnome libraries are installed,
and on a old box, you wont always have the space for them all. If you have
already installed the KDE libraries to get access to kmail, try kwrite, or kate.
Both are small fast word processors (kate is more a notepad on steroids).
Finally, if you just require text editing, or coding, you can't go past Vim or
its GUI version gvim. What do you think I am using now? emacs (and Xemacs) are
also an option, but both take a lot more space than vim or nano.