Linux for low-end HW, pseudo-scientific study(1)

OS Choices Indeed (for most!)

I myself am currently engaging in a pseudo-scientific self-study on optimizing some very low-end PCs with Linux.

Hardware that I obtained f or negligible cost

Pentium I MMX 200MHz
64MB 60ns EDO RAM
1 x 1GB hd, 1 x 2GB hdd
The pre-existing MS-Windows 98(FE) is still required for a minimal number of applications….. boo/hiss 🙁

Pentium I MMX 200MHz
160MB 60ns EDO RAM
1 x 8GB hd
The pre-existing MS-Windows ME is still required for a minimal number of applications….. boo/hiss 🙁

Pentium III 500MHz Celeron
1 x 10GB hd
Pre-existing MS-Windows 2000 wiped clean off after BIOS updated — yay 🙂

Pentium III 600MHz-E (Energy-saving)
1 x 10GB hd
Pre-existing MS-Windows 2000 wiped clean off after BIOS updated — yay 🙂
Routine questions I did ask and still ask myself on these:
– Do these low-end PCs power on, boot up and otherwise function at operable base-levels (motherboard, BIOS, CMOS, RAM… etc.) ???
– Are BIOS revisions as up-to-date as possible for these old PC’s ??
– What purpose can these low-end PC’s be BEST used for (e.g., “starter” office productivity workstations, simple multimedia workstations, router/firewall appliances, … etc.) ???

No DVD or USB-booting, no wireless setup, no CD-burning capabilities
My own groundrules RE: distros used

NO K/Ubuntu 9.10 “Karmic Koala” Linux, NO Fedora 11 Linux, NO OpenSUSE 11.x Linux, NO Mandriva 2009.x Linux

YES low-weight floppy and CD-R installable Linux distros having minimalistic X-Windows

Distros used

Basic Linux 3.50
Damn Small Linux (DSL)
– DSL 3.4.12 Syslinux
– DSL 4.4.10 Syslinux
Slackware Linux 13.0
Absolute Linux 13.0.3
Zenwalk Linux 6.2 Standard (c’mon for goodness sakes, this is Berkeley!)
Debian GNU/Linux “lenny”/stable 5.0.3 XFCE+LXDE
Debian GNU/Linux “squeeze”/testing 5.0.2 XFCE+LXDE
Knoppix EN[glish] 5.1.1CD
Eventually(maybe!), Puppy Linux 4.3.x, MEPIS 8.x.x, and/or Xubuntu/Lubuntu 9.10 “Karmic Koala” installation CDs


Used solely as testing LiveCD’s, and for distro-downloading/CD-burning on another PC :
Knoppix ENglish 6.0.1CD
Lubuntu 9.10 Lyxis Beta 23 and
TinyCore Linux 2.4.1

Used as low-spec routers/firewalls

I’ve done all the ISO/img downloads and burning, and am more  than halfway finished performing Linux installs on all four low-end PCs.

I absolutely (not the above distro;-)  STILL NEED TO perform extensive diagnoses and troubleshooting with these older PC both BEFORE and DURING their Linux installations.

Results of this pseudo-scientific study soon to follow — maybe within about two months ??

-Aaron / GoOSBears

14 thoughts on “Linux for low-end HW, pseudo-scientific study(1)

  1. I’ll keep an eye out for your conclusions, as I have a number of older laptops which I play with a bit but would love a decent Firefox browser computer in the kitchen (meaning, a distro with decent drivers!)

  2. D00d. ;-> A whole lot of us used to run major Linux servers on 486 machines with 32MB RAM — and the old incarnation of my Web server,, used to be an AMI Enterprise III EISA/VLB 486DX2/66 motherboard with 64 MB, which not only ran SMTP e-mail and Apache 1.3.x, but also ran the X Window System in foreground — and sailed right through being slashdotted a couple of times.

    Even with bloated 2009 kernels, you can still do either Debian or Slackware on 64 MB machines. The trick is to start with an absolutely minimal install, and avold even installing at all any “desktop environment” — no LXDE, no XFCE4, no KDE-anything, no GNOME. Pare down autostart services to what you actually need, disable unneeded virtual terminals in /etc/inittab (you need at most two, not six), and install just plain X Window System with your choice of old-school window manager. Blackbox, Icewm, Window Maker, fvwm, any of those.

    It works fine. We did it all the time.

    You’ll not be running most modern applications, though, and sure as heck won’t be running Firefox, let alone Maybe not even recent releases of Abiword and Gnumeric, not sure about that. They’ve all grown a bit since the old days, because everyone assumes those old RAM-starved boxes are dead or dying.

    RIck Moen

  3. I had tried Puppy Linux with two Pentium I MMX one of them with 128MB RAM, 2GB IDE, cd recorder and wifi card. The wifi card configuration was a little bit tricky, but in the end works flawlessy. And in general it had a decent user experience. By user experience I mean web navigation, mail checking/writing, text processing and not too big spreadsheet using). As a developer, that is an unusable creepy thing to use, but I think is suitable for low-end office usage (or, ahem, really low budget office).

  4. Jorge: I respect Puppy Linux for being a nice trick of making a usable demonstration system in 100MB that functions without the need to customise, but the list of drawbacks is way too high for daily use, starting with zero security, i.e., everything runs as the root user unless you retrofit a recent third-party package called Puppy-Multiuser.

    For purposes of installing a usable Linux system onto a Pentium MMX / 128MB RAM / 2GB disk machine, you don’t need a distro that default-installs a tiny system that can’t ever do much; what you actually need is a real Linux distribution that you can install in a sparse fashion and limit the RAM usage of. The latter requires a little more work, and a little more understanding what you’re doing, but the results are so very much better.

    Rick Moen

  5. Rick: I tried Lenny/Icewm on the same machine, and as yo said, it requires a little more work (so much that I never completed it). What I suspect is a better solution is to put that machine as a terminal under LTSP but that’s will take so much of my ‘toying’ time to afford it.

    PS: I remember when I must run a Novell 2 on a 486DX with 64M (a LOT in 92) with a really (physically) big 1GB SCSI disk to support 20 DOS 6.22 terminals with a system programmed in CLIPPER. SIGH!

  6. Jorge, I suspect that the customisation work required is too much work if you don’t understand how to do non-default installations, plus understand system config files and (in particular) the startup process, but really fast and trivial if you do. My larger point is that learning those things should be your very next step, after having fun kicking the tires with various distros’ default installations. You’ll have immensely greater satisfaction from Linux, far greater control, fewer mysteries, fewer problems, once you understand how processes start, which ones you want running, and how to prevent others from wasting scarce resources, especially on low-hardware-spec machines where it really matters.

    It’s not actually very difficult. Back in the day, I learned it because (not having RAM to waste) I needed to know. If you’re using low-spec machines, inherently you’re in the same you-need-to-know-this boat. Just spend an hour or two learning how the System V Init process works (on distros that haven’t moved on to newer, event-driven inits), how to best install/remove packages on your distro, and how to do a sparse, non-default installation. You’ll never regret the time it takes.

    Rick Moen

  7. Thanks for some of the suggestions so far!
    Several things I’m already seeing: 1) the Debian-based distros (Lenny, Squeeze, DSL, Knoppix) are just SHINING STARS(!) among the other distros used on these low-end PCs 2) Zenwalk and Slackware-based distros with their LILO-Nature;-) just have not been installing that easily on low-end PIII’s. Problems with having to choose which original Slack disk-sets pkgs are REALLY necessary, problems with the ENORMOUS time it takes to get all those TGZ packages installed, and problems with the copying the TGZ pkgs to hard drives during the install itself (all the Slack-based distros used here seem to be CONSISTENTLY finicky about using lower-end CDROM drives (?)) 3) Puppy boots up acceptably on the PIII’s, but would agree w Rick that this does NOT appear to be the best INSTALLABLE distro on these particular PCs 4) AntiX M8.x “might” be okay for the 200MHz MMX’s, and based upon separate feedback, MEPIS 8.0.x and Arch 2009.x “might” be okay for the PIII’s.

  8. Jack: The limiting factor is almost never CPU, actually. RAM is almost always the bottleneck.

    The fact of the matter is that (1) Most distro iinstallers, in their default modes at least, have started assuming and relying on 256 MB of RAM or so. Sometimes you can Web-search for instructions about low-RAM installation modes. (2) Most distro installers assume, at least by default, that the user wants to install and auto-launch immensely RAM-hungry software (including the KDE, GNOME, XFCE4, and LXDC “desktop environments”) and service processes.

    The AntiX image is working for you out of the box because it uses a RAM-thrifty installer and eschews installing / auto-launching any RAM-gobbling “desktop environment”, instead giving you your choice of the Icewm or Fluxbox old-style window managers. You can and should achieve additional RAM savings, above and beyond that, by tweaking the processes that even old-school window managers autostart, e.g., by paring down the number of virtual consoles as I mentioned upthread.

    SimplyMEPIS 8.0 normally is among the extremely RAM-grabbing distros because its default operating mode is a live-CD of KDE, with an optional graphical installer on top of that. However, at the GRUB prompt you can (instead) type “failsafe” to avoid starting the live-CD graphical environment, and then “minstall” at the command prompt to run a text-mode installer.

    What’s wrong with lilo? lilo’s simple and cool. Just because a bunch of people unclear on the concept used to fail to understand that they needed to re-run “/sbin/lilo -v” whenever they put in a new kernel, and thereby shot themselves in the foot, doesn’t mean it isn’t a superb bootloader. See:

    I haven’t actually installed Slackware in a long time, but having to choose which disk sets to install is just another way of saying “You get to decide what to put on your computer”. Some people don’t like choice, which is why “forehead installers” are so popular. (That is: You insert the CD, boot the machine, and repeatedly hit the space bar with your forehead to accept defaults until done.)

    It’s great, I guess, when forehead installations work, but that’s primarily when you have half a gig or more of RAM and plenty of disk. (I’ve only lately realised, to my astonishment, that a lot of Linux users can do only that sort of default-everything installation.) The price you pay for never venturing outside default installations is that you end up with no real understanding of or control over what you’re running, little ability to deal with problems, and no ability to adapt to (e.g.) low-RAM or low-disk situations.

    Again, I strongly urge working past that, and not attempting to end-run the problem by sticking only to midget Linux distributions pre-shrunk to fit lower-spec machines. It’s worth the small amount of effort to actually understand and control what you’re doing — especially on those low-spec machines. Really.

    Rick Moen

  9. For clarification – the author, goosbears, is not Jack – but another berkeleylug member Aaron. Now, I fully expect to hear a lecture on usernames 🙂

  10. Rick et al, Helpful info and advice for certain! 🙂 There is also another type of Linux “distribution” (quotes deliberate here) which you probably already know about, and which seems to get down to real low-level Linux basics. This pseudo-distribution is called Linux From Scratch, its website is , and it requires you to spend a significant amt of time to REALLY learn the ins and outs of Linux. Here is its description: “Linux From Scratch (LFS) is a project that provides you with step-by-step instructions for building your own custom Linux system, entirely from source code.” I think that if I had more time, it would be well-worth it to go through LFS on one of the Pentium I MMX 200MHz PCs.
    As it is, I won’t be able to get around to using LFS this particular time around, but others reading this are very much welcome to try out LFS or its different subprojects on your own low-end PCs, and then let us know how they work out for ya.

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