Don’t have the heart to scrap your trusty old workhorse? Here’s everything you need to make it adorn your desk again
Everything you need to make your trusty old workhorse usable again.
You won’t find many people on the planet who still use eISa FDDI adaptors, which were phased out in the ’90s. Maciej W. Rozycki is one of the few who does, and he’s the only reason why the Linux kernel continues to support this ancient piece of tech. While the kernel can afford the luxury of supporting such legacy hardware as long as it has even a single user, most distributions and individual open source projects cannot.
Forget about decades-old hardware; most distributions don’t think it’s viable to even support 32-bit architecture any more. Everything from new user projects such as Solus and Elementary OS to the privacycentric Tails Linux has dropped support for the 32-bit platform. Even mainstream projects like Arch and Ubuntu no longer spin installation ISOs for 32-bit machines.
Despite the fact that these machines have been missing from the shelves for quite a while now, they still adorn a lot of desks all over the world. Thankfully, you can still put these old machines to good use – and it really isn’t a surprise that a large number of open source developers are working hard to make obsolete hardware usable again.
Revive old computers
Labelling hardware as ‘older’ is tricky. The pace of hardware development is rendering even relatively newer hardware obsolete. Examples of these relatively recent atticready hardware would be a single-core or dual-core AMD Athlon/Intel Pentium with a couple of gigabytes of RAM that it shares with onboard graphics. In the not too distant past, mainstream distros would perform adequately on these machines, but no longer; nowadays, you need special-purpose distros to make good use of such hardware.
Tiny Core (http://tinycorelinux.net) will always be our first choice for powering computers that are light on resources. Its original developer, Robert Shingledecker, was previously involved with the oncepopular but now-dormant Damn Small Linux project. The distribution is available in three flavours. There’s a miniscule 11MB Core
edition that’ll help custom desktops, while the recommended TinyCore edition weighs in at 16MB and boots to a graphical desktop. At the top end is the 106MB CorePlus edition that has additional drivers for wireless cards, a remastering tool and localisation support. The oldest computer we’ve managed to run this heavier edition on was a 233MHz Pentium II box with just 64MB of RAM.
The hardware requirements of the TinyCore edition is even lower. True to its name, this version bundles just a terminal, a text editor and an app launcher on top of the lightweight FLWM window manager. It has a control panel to manage boot services and configure the launcher. If you need anything
Examples of relatively recent attic-ready hardware would be a single-core or dual-core AMD Athlon/Intel Pentium with 2GB of RAM
else, you’ll have to pull it in using its package manager, including the installer if you want to install the distribution. Due to its minuscule size, TinyCore boots blisteringly fast.
Remember however that the distribution is designed for advanced users, and you’ll need to spend some time fleshing it out using its package manager, which isn’t the most intuitive in the business. You’ll also have to browse through its documentation to familiarise yourself with the distribution’s peculiarities, irrespective of your experience with Linux.
Revive Chromebooks & netbooks
Both Chromebooks and netbooks were designed to replace traditional laptops.
While Chromebooks are essentially a cloud-based device, netbooks could run traditional desktop operating systems. The novelty of both devices has worn off over time. With Chromebooks this was due to the lack of flexibility of Chrome OS compared to a traditional distribution and netbooks simply couldn’t keep pace with the hardware requirements of the latest software. In the long run neither has been able to emulate the usability of the traditional portable computer they were pitched to replace; Chromebooks are limited by their operating system and netbooks by their hardware. The good news is that there are options to help you make these stylised paperweights usable again.
GalliumOS (https://galliumos.org) is your best bet to increase the usability of Chromebooks. The lightweight distribution
has several optimised versions for the different CPU architectures of the Chromebooks. It also features some other optimisations to squeeze performance, such as the zram kernel module to create a compressed swap space in RAM and the BFS and BFQ kernel schedulers to increase stability. The developers have also taken some steps to increase the battery life, and increased boot speed by using a smaller kernel and fewer number of services. Before downloading it, make sure you check the Hardware Compatibility list of supported models for any device-specific instructions.
Similarly, you can use Bodhi Linux’s Legacy edition (www.bodhilinux.com) to press a netbook back into active duty. This edition of the distribution caters to 32-bit computers and uses an older kernel optimised for hardware older than 15 years. Bodhi uses its own home-brewed Moksha-desktop which is forked from the Enlightenment 17 desktop. Moksha paints an elegant desktop with subtle animations and effects without consuming too many resources. The same is true for the distributions’ default apps. The Midori web browser, the ePad text editor, the PCManFM file manager and others are all lightweight alternatives that support virtually all commonly used functions of their more resource-hungry mainstream cousins.
The combination of the optimised non-PAE kernel pulled from the upstream Debian repositories, along with the lightweight components, help Bodhi Legacy perform well on Atom-based netbooks. In our tests, it worked wonderfully well on an 1.8GHz Atom N475 processor with 2GB of RAM. The official minimal requirements of the distribution are even less. The developers recommend a 1GHz processor with 512GB of RAM though you’ll want 2GB for optimal performance.
Left Bodhi’s default installation doesn’t have many apps and you’ll have to pull in the ones you need using Bodhi’s browser-based Appcenter