Light dis­tri­bu­tions

Don’t have the heart to scrap your trusty old work­horse? Here’s ev­ery­thing you need to make it adorn your desk again

Linux User & Developer - - Feature -

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

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