Linux for an old laptop
March 14, 2008 9:25 PM   Subscribe

What version of Linux would be appropriate for installing on a 10-year old computer?

I'm looking for a version of Linux that would be good for tinkering with on a 10-year old throwaway laptop I have (4 GB HD, 512 MB of RAM). The idea is to use it as a springboard for getting familiar with the versions of Linux that are in use today.

I'm installing Ubuntu 6 right now but it's taken 35 minutes of chewing on the install CD just to get to the first install screen (Examples/Install). Easy install is important. Thanks.
posted by chips ahoy to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'd go for DSL - d@mn small linux - its very tiny (~50 mb) and can even run on a flash drive. Very minimal setup, very stable, great build.
The "versions in use today" generally are designed for a newer computer - the latest ubuntu will fill most of that HD. However, any build you DL should include the latest kernel (ubuntu 6 doesn't, though that shouldn't matter with such an old computer).
posted by lrodman at 9:32 PM on March 14, 2008

Ubuntu's the easiest Linux install I've ever done, but it might be a little much for a 10-year-old machine, maybe. I'd try XUbuntu, it's basically the same as regular Ubuntu but with a lightweight window manager rather than the sorta RAM-hungry Gnome environment regular Ubuntu comes with.

4 gigs of HD space seems pretty small these days, though. Assuming you're on a really low budget, would you be able to score a bigger HD from a friend who's upgrading or something? That would really help.
posted by arto at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2008

If you want to become familiar with the server-side IT apps available for Linux and develop facility with the command line (which, although I don't consider myself a hardcore Linux guy, I would say is necessary to being able to really leverage Linux) you don't need to install X Windows so of course any distribution would do.

Another good reason to learn the command line ways first is that if you ever have a remote server anywhere (like the nice cheap ones at slicehost for example) you can manage it through a super-slim-bandwidth SSH connection - like from a cell phone, for example.

My preference would be Debian 4, which is the parent distribution of Ubuntu, but it doesn't really matter. But the install of Debian is easy.
posted by XMLicious at 9:49 PM on March 14, 2008

Your computer more than meets the minimum requirements for Xubuntu. If it's really too much, you could try the alternate installer CD to Ubuntu 6.06 or 7.10, but it's a command line installer, so it's up to you to see if you're up for it
posted by Geppp at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2008

What's your processor and its speed?

Xubuntu might be OK. Use the alternate install CD. Fluxbuntu is only at release-candidate stage, but was made for legacy systems. Or if you're not interested in a windowing environment, you could install a command-line system from the Ubuntu alternate install CD (which would be much like installing a command-line Debian, which is also a fine choice.)

DSL and Puppy Linux are popular choices for legacy systems (but I haven't used them.)

Your hardware's not a great choice for a getting familiar with the versions of Linux in use today. The popular distributions of Linux in use today tend to use Gnome or KDE, which are too much for that hardware. (Note that I'm not saying that you can't do a lot of interesting and fun things with a minimal Linux on old hardware... just that this is different from getting familiar with modern mainstream distributions.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:59 PM on March 14, 2008

What XMLicious said about the similarities and differences: most of the server-side stuff doesn't have too big an overhead if you're running it as a test environment. You've got plenty of RAM, so you can look beyond DSL/Puppy in that regard, but the GPU/CPU are the bottleneck and the HD size is the constraint.

So: before I got my iBook in 2004, I ran an up-to-date Debian install with fluxbox on a P233 Toshiba Portege with 96MB RAM and a 4GB hard drive; as long as you're careful about the packages you're installing, and avoid anything that dumps KDE or Gnome onto your system, you'll do just fine.

On the 'versions' thing: distro-specific differences are mainly related to package maintenance, directory structure, preferred eye candy. It's hard to appreciate the quirks, say, the Red Hat / CentOS experience without installing it. Plus, if you are interested in the server side, with an eye on admin or maintaining a server, you might want to play with FreeBSD, just to get a feel for an OS where you're usually working from the command line. That might be a bit churny if you end up having to do a lot of compiling, but that's the server experience, and it's useful to have on the resume.
posted by holgate at 10:18 PM on March 14, 2008

I have stock Ubuntu 7.10 on a less powerful laptop, and it works surprisingly well for web browsing/mp3 playing. I'd try that before any of the Ubuntu variants... they sometimes have a different kernel, which makes esoteric drivers hard to find (case in point - I had to manually build wifi drivers for Ubuntu server because the restricted drivers package wasn't available)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:51 PM on March 14, 2008

Actually, having used Ubuntu and Debian for several years now and managed several live production servers I think I've only had to compile something once (which is why I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore Linux guy.) But I'm not disagreeing that compiling apps and recompiling the kernel et cetera are valuable experiences, the only reason I haven't done much of that myself is that modern package managers are so great and so I haven't gotten around to it.

On Debian, aptitude is your friend (the package manager). Be sure to uncomment the line for the "multiverse" repository in the /etc/apt/sources.list file; doing this is what provides access to commercial software like the Sun Java runtime. (Damn did I search high and low for Java before I figured out I had to do that.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:53 PM on March 14, 2008

Damn Small Linux is a stripped down debian that will probably get you started pretty quickly.
posted by singingfish at 12:23 AM on March 15, 2008

Try any of the CD-ROM based distros like Knoppix, or the Ubuntu livecd. FWIW I have run Linux with X on 1GB disks with 64Mb of RAM a few years ago so I don't think you should have any issues. I don't know why it is taking 35mins to get to the first install screen, that sounds like something is wrong.
posted by bystander at 3:32 AM on March 15, 2008

35 minutes to first screen of an Ubuntu live CD, on a box with 512MB RAM, says bad burn or failing CD-ROM drive to me. Really, the only reason you'd pick one of the really lightweight distros is a shortage of RAM. 512MB is plenty, and Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) will fit on your 4GB drive with more than a gig left over. It won't ever be a movie server, but it will be quite useful.

I've got a 700MHz P4 / 512MB RAM desktop machine at school with Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) on it, and it's completely usable. In my experience, Feisty is a bit more stable than Gutsy provided the kernel understands all your hardware, which shouldn't be an issue on an older box.
posted by flabdablet at 4:27 AM on March 15, 2008

Give antiX a try. It's a stripped down version of MEPIS - Debain-based, like Ubuntu. It uses Fluxbox instead of KDE or GNOME, so it's much less of a strain on older hardware. It's the best distribution I've found for my nine year old Thinkpad (P III-500, 320 MB RAM). Boots up quickly, autodetects all hardware correctly. Runs faster than Ubuntu, Kubuntu, MEPIS and Knoppix. More usable than DSL and Fluxbuntu. YMMV.
One of the bigger problems you will run into is that acpi was typically not implemented on laptops before 2000. Adding "acpi=off apm=on" to your boot options may be necessary to get sleep, hibernate, or even power off working correctly.
posted by sardonista at 6:07 AM on March 15, 2008

Seconding sardonista's recommendation of using fluxbox as your window manager. I had a pII 266 laptop running Slackware 11 and Fluxbox that ran constantly for about 3 years, and I never really rebooted the thing.

I also really dig the aesthetics of it.

Ease of configuration is something of a tossup, since everything is configured via text config files, which might strike a windows person as being totally retarded. To this I say, "Get used to it. Everything in Linux is configured from text files." Even GUI configuration programs in KDE or gnome are really just frontends.
posted by kickback at 7:49 AM on March 15, 2008

I would use an OLDER distro if you have problems with a modern-light one. Good modern lights are Puppy, damn small (above), and antiX (above), DeLi, fluxbuntu, xubuntu. A problem may be that the newer kernels have eliminated some support for very old hardware; in that case try something like mepis 3.4. has useful summaries and links for all of the relevant distros, but don't read too much into their rank list; that is generated based on how many people click each summary rather than some survey of use or quality evaluation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:50 AM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd say buy some ram, it's cheap these days.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:35 AM on March 15, 2008

Flabdablet has it: The problem is with the CD or the CD drive, not the computer. 512MB is plenty of RAM, and the slowest processor ever paired with 512MB of RAM is still going to load a live Linux CD in a couple of minutes at most.

There's also a tiny chance that Ubuntu 6 has gotten an obsolete driver pared out of it that your exotic antique laptop needs. Knoppix and Sabayon are two more Debian-based distributions that approach hardware recognition and support differently from Ubuntu. I know of two laptops that only enjoy booting from one of these three, SuSE and Slackware also have live CDs you can experiment with. I'd actually avoid the lightweight distributions like Damn Small Linux, which have only have a kitchen sink of old drivers to offer your hardware.
posted by gum at 12:28 PM on March 15, 2008

Knoppix's hardware detection was a revelation to me when it first appeared: it just works.

And as long as you don't have a dodgy CD-ROM drive, which is a possibility here, you really could get the 'Varieties of Linux distro experience' by running off the bootable CDs, and having the laptop drive partitioned with a 512Mb swap and /home. You've got enough RAM.

(When burning ISOs, knock down the speed. And see if there's dust and crap in the CD-ROM drive bay.)
posted by holgate at 5:33 PM on March 15, 2008

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