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June 2, 2006 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What is the best OS for my old (650MHz Dell with 128MB RAM, 25GB hard drive) PC that I plan to give to my friend's parents? I plan on completely wiping the hard drive, and starting from scratch, but...

Should I load the original Windows 98 OS on it? I've got the original CD, but I wonder if 98 would be worthwhile. Are there security issues to be concerned with? What about reliability? It performed well for me, but still...

I also have the Windows XP system disk that came with my new computer. I checked the Microsoft site, and it seems the old system might just squeak by with Windows XP. But will they be able to do anything else? (Dang! 128MB is a lot for the OS!) A few friends with more tech experience than I say that even the minimum system requirements aren't really enough. Is that true?

A little about the recipients of my charititude... They are an older couple, in their 60's or 70's. Not very tech-savvy. This will be their first computer. They plan on using it for basic stuff - email and web surfing. Also, I plan to load Firefox for them, in an effort to thwart any spyware, adware, etc.

Oh, and one final word, I'd like to do this as inexpensively as possible (i.e. free). Thanks, all!!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As soon as I saw the specs I thought '98. But... if you add some RAM (get it up to 384 or 512MB), it would probably do ok witn XP. 128MB will seriously choke on XP.
posted by knave at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2006

"I'd like to do this as inexpensively as possible (i.e. free)"

Have you considered running one of the free UNIXes? By and large, they work well for small hardware, and let you avoid the extra effort of coping with the usual Windows headaches. Since you're planning to run Firefox (and presumably Thunderbird), you might as well run it on a comparatively low-maintenance free platform.

In any case, I've run XP -- with considerable tuning effort -- on hardware of that class. It was usable but not in any way pleasant. NT5 would be a somewhat better choice. And installing Windows 98 is never a good idea.
posted by majick at 5:07 PM on June 2, 2006

Maybe Windows 2K. Lighter than XP, just as modern in most ways, and super bulletproof.
posted by soulbarn at 5:07 PM on June 2, 2006

I've run XP on a 1997-vintage Pentium Pro 200 (!!) with 128Mb RAM. What makes it feasible is locking down the OS to keep the registry and startup items from filling up with crap. Create a user account for the new owners that either doesn't have administrator rights or has them severely curtailed.
posted by holgate at 5:07 PM on June 2, 2006

To directly contradict what holgate said, my cousin has a 1.3GHz P4 with 128MB of RAM and it is incredibly painful to use (Windows XP). A lot of the unnecessary stuff has been disabled, but it still swaps like crazy the entire time you're using it.

It's impressive that you pulled that off, but in the average case I think Windows XP will struggle on 128MB.
posted by knave at 5:12 PM on June 2, 2006

I have my mom running a Celeron 500 Mhz on Windows 2000. Works perfectly, very stable, fast enough, and will remain actively updated by Microsoft for at least one more year.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:26 PM on June 2, 2006

Oh, I agree that it's a stretch, and the PPro had advantages that gave it better longevity than regular Pentiums. (The machine in question was a Dell with maxed-out RAM and a case/PSU config that made it hard to upgrade the motherboard.)

Win2k or one of the nicer *NIXes would definitely be a decent option, especially since the owners wouldn't be bringing any previous experience. Given them a Linux desktop with two big icons: one for 'Internet', one for 'Email'.
posted by holgate at 5:28 PM on June 2, 2006

If it's just email and web browsing, you can't beat Ubuntu. The nice thing is that the OS is up to date and will run well on that hardware. I would highly recommend giving it a shot before committing to Windows. Don't like it, remove and go with what you got.
posted by qwip at 5:32 PM on June 2, 2006

If all they need is basic email and web browsing you should seriously consider one of the modern desktop oriented blends of Linux. SUSE, Ubuntu, etc are excellent choices.
posted by iamabot at 5:33 PM on June 2, 2006

Upgrade the RAM and give it to them with XP. Even 256MB is enough for XP, if you know what you're doing regarding disabling/removing/tweaking settings.

98 is just a pile of crap these days. It gets no updates (and hasn't for quite some time) and more and more programs will not run on it. Since it has no system-level protection any program can trash the system in uncountable ways.

If upgrading the RAM is out of the question then give it to them with a linux distro of some sort... anything is better than god awful 98.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:33 PM on June 2, 2006

What kind of internet connection? If broadband, definitely put it behind a hardware firewall. If dial up, make sure you install zone alarm and get it all configured for firefox, ie, their mail client etc. I'd recommended staying with windows 98, as long as you are patched up to date and behind a good firewall you'll be fine. All they are using it for is email and stuff guys, no need for XP! Spend the money you save on buying extra ram to accommodate XP (which WILL need it btw...I have no idea how holgate got a useable system with PPro200 and 128MB ram...thing must have been slower than molasses in January!) and get some video professor tutorials or something so they can learn how to surf the web and email pictures to the grandkids.
posted by crypticgeek at 5:35 PM on June 2, 2006

I second the recommendation for 2000, if you can get a hold of it.

Second choice would be to buy some ram, 512M of PC133 or whatever it uses will set you back about $50, another 128 stick is about $20.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:43 PM on June 2, 2006

128mb ram is a deal killer for win xp in my experience. If I were you I'd install Xubuntu (ubuntu with the lighter-weight and also awesomer XFCE desktop), Firefox, Thunderbird, and It'll be pretty zippy compared to any recent Windows flavor. Use the package manager to remove all the extraneous stuff clogging up the default launch menu, and get it media ready with some browser plugins for flash, real, etc, and I think it'd be perfect.

There's no reason they'd ever have to see the console (apart from non-interactive scrolling during boot and shutdown) if you load it up with the things they need beforehand.
posted by moift at 5:44 PM on June 2, 2006

i have an 850mhz amd duron with 256 megs of ram that runs xp quite well, no tweaking needed

make sure that your version of xp isn't a proprietary one that works only with the kind of computer you have ... that could cause major headaches with video and audio ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:00 PM on June 2, 2006

Windows 2000. Hands down. Stable as hell, and quite possibly the best version of Windows. I run this on my 400mhz thinkpad and it remains snappy.
posted by cellphone at 7:10 PM on June 2, 2006

You could also run any of the various linuxes and expect to get a million questions from them about how to work the damn thing.
posted by cellphone at 7:10 PM on June 2, 2006

Another recommendation for Windows 2000. I ran it stably and successfully on a 350mhz Dell/128mb RAM until earlier this year, when the eight-year-old hard drive finally died.
posted by Hogshead at 7:18 PM on June 2, 2006

Thanks for the feedback!

A couple points... They will probably opt for a cable modem (they already have cable TV). I'd like to keep things as easy for them as possible. And easy for me. Not to do - I have no problem spending time setting them up, but I'd like to avoid being their "help guy". Not that I don't want the bother, I'm just not terribly well-skilled (hence asking questions here).

That said... Maybe LINUX, if it's easy to use. It could also give me an opportunity to play with it before handing it over to them. (qwip, iamabot, moift - are they easy enough to install after I wipe the drive with Darik's Boot & Nuke? via)
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:32 PM on June 2, 2006

Win2k is, no question, the best version ever.

Couple questions: do you anticipate providing post-gift tech support? And are these folks really starting from scratch, to the degree that Windows and XFCE/Gnome/KDE/whatnot would be equally familiar to them? And do you imagine them using other folks' computers, maybe neighbors' or family members', or at the library or something?
posted by box at 7:32 PM on June 2, 2006

If you do stick with 98, make sure that you at least up to 98SE (Second Edition). SE provides many feature enhancements including wireless network capability, as well as USB 2.0.
posted by richardhay at 7:52 PM on June 2, 2006

I just switched from Win98 to Ubuntu on a similar laptop and it works great. Better than Win98, even. Very stable and the networking has been no problem since I set it up. (It did take some work to set it up. But if they are using ethernet, it will pretty easy.) The automatic updates are simple and if it is their first computer, they may be less entrained in the windows file system (i.e. they will not find file navigation difficult on the *nix system.)
posted by imposster at 8:14 PM on June 2, 2006

I second Xubuntu if you want to try out a Linux. It's probably the most lightweight of the modern Linux distros, the rest of which really want 512 megs of RAM.

My suggestion to avoid being the answer guy is to set up whatever OS you choose to login with out a password and have it automatically fire up firefox in fullscreen mode with the webmail service of your choice. The less they have to do to get started using their email the better.
posted by Foaf at 8:19 PM on June 2, 2006

Re: installation of Xubuntu, it's pretty easy. It's got the same kind of blue ASCII interface as Windows' installer, mostly, and few options to trip you up outside of partioning, which is simplified in your case since you aren't saving anything.

The only thing that can be a bit of a pain is trimming the fat off the default stuff that will get installed. By default your menus will have like a hundred items in them and less than a dozen will be anything more than a baffling distraction to your intended recipient. The options are to just remove the links in the menu editor or (preferably) to remove the programs themselves with the package manager, the graphic interface to which should be in your menu and is otherwise callable under the name 'synaptec'.

If you do go the linux route, regardless of the distribution I strongly recommend the simpler and vastly more resource-efficient XFCE to Gnome or KDE.
posted by moift at 8:23 PM on June 2, 2006

2K hands down. Will they get more bang for their buck with a *nix? sure. But for a friends parents? You have to be kidding me. They'll keep wondering why their new cool app they just downloaded isn't working or why they can't view certain file types.

Despite how easy to use Linux has gotten it's still not for someone who doesn't have a support network around them to help them use it.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:05 PM on June 2, 2006

Thirding Xubuntu. It will work fine with the hardware in question and it is easy to install, use and maintain.

And yeah, remove some of the junk that is installed by default before you hand it over (they probably don't need five thousand different text editors anyway ;-))

bitdamaged: Despite how easy to use Linux has gotten it's still not for someone who doesn't have a support network around them to help them use it.

This is just as true for Windows. If these people have never owned a computer before they will need someone to teach them how to use the browser, send email etc. but these tasks are no harder to do on Linux than on Windows. Upgrading the OS or installing programs might be a bit harder on Linux if you're not very computer litterate but these people only need basic functionality such as web surfing, email and word processing and once that is set up they don't need to fiddle with it.

Also, with Linux they are less prone for malware, virus and all kinds of nastiness that comes with being a newbie running Windows.
posted by sveskemus at 5:07 AM on June 3, 2006

If you install Windows XP, and use the same licence key that came with your new computer, the following things will go wrong:

1. It will run like an absolute dog. 128MB is not enough. I'm typing this on an elderly 266MHz PII-based machine running XP Home; it works fine, because it has 192MB RAM and the system, the swap file, and the apps are on three different hard drives. Don't even think about running XP with less RAM than that.

2. Microsoft will find all kinds of ways to make life miserable, since you've breached the terms of your XP licence agreement.

If you install Windows 98SE, and load it up with SoftPerfect Personal Firewall, AVG 7.1 Free Antivirus, Firefox (with extensions: Adblock Filterset.G Updater, Adblock Plus, User Agent Switcher, IE View), Thunderbird, Sun Java and Spybot Search & Destroy, install all critical updates from Windows Update along with the optional Mapped Drives Shutdown, IDE Cache Package, IE Navigation Sound and Critical Update Notification updates, turn off Active Desktop and destroy every shortcut to Internet Explorer except for Windows Update: it will run fine and stay safe - but they will have trouble if they try to use stuff like USB thumb drives or if they want to do anything with photos, and they will fall prey to installing all kinds of crap they don't actually need, just because they can.

If you install Xubuntu, it will run OK right out of the box, and you will probably be able to make it run even better by fooling about with video drivers. It will also do everything you say your friend's parents want to do with it, and provided you turn on the Multiverse option in the package manager for them, they will be able to install extra apps to do just about anything they could conceivably want to do, it will never have annoying licencing issues, and it will keep itself up to date.

You need to give up any hope of not being roped in for tech support. Noobs are going to need it, regardless of what you give them. If I were you, I'd rather support Xubuntu remotely than Windows 98.

If you pick one of the Windows options, stick OpenOffice 2.0.2 on it (it's already there on Xubuntu).
posted by flabdablet at 6:17 AM on June 3, 2006

This is just as true for Windows. If these people have never owned a computer before they will need someone to teach them how to use the browser, send email etc

I'm not saying someone won't have to show them how to use it. I'm saying that with windows it can be almost anyone.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2006

I'm typing this on a laptop that's a PIII-650 running XP Home, and it runs fine. They key, as several people have mentioned, is that you must have enough RAM - this machine has 448MB.
posted by rfs at 10:53 PM on June 3, 2006

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