Saturday, September 27, 2008

Linux for Older PCs : From Ubuntu to Vector Linux


My linux journey began with Red Hat and Corel Linux, in the 90s. For a long time, I just couldn't convince my dad to install linux on his windows laptop, the only computer we had then. Then came the 21st century, with linux distros getting more user-friendly with easier and manual-free installations. I shifted from being a long time RedHat Fedora fanboy to an interim PCLinuxOS fan to finally an Ubuntu believer.

Finally after 2 long years, this week, I decided to move on a bit, and try something new. My PC is getting older and constantly struggles to carry the huge processing needs for the latest KDE4 or Gnome and the delicious compiz, which has now become an integral part of the entire Linux Experience.

This week, I tried Vector Linux, a slackware based distro, known to be fast and stable, ideal for older machines like mine and yet never compromising on the features. Read on, to see if it delivered what it promised.


Before we start, here is my PC configuration. It's an old Compax nx7010 business laptop with a Pentium M(Centrino) 1.6 Ghz processor, 1.5GB of Ram and a 64 MB ATI Radeon 9200 gfx card. It's pretty fancy for a 5 year old laptop, but it cost a bomb back then.

I downloaded the VL 5.9 Standard Edition iso from the Vector Linux Homepage and gave it a try.


1. Installation
VL has a decently friendly text-based installer. I found it easy at most times but the partition tool still needs some rework. If you are not comfortable using fdisk or similar text based partition utilities, I would suggest creating the swap and root partitions beforehand using gparted or something else, and just select them for installation. It is a lot easier this way.
The installation was really really fast, finished in less that 20 minutes. Lilo autodetects other OSs on your system and configures easily. VL also prompts you to configure xorg and suggests drivers for your card. In my case, fglrx doesn't work for older ATI cards (pre Radeon 9550), so I selected the opensource radeon drivers. You can also configure your network settings. The system reboots to boot into your new VL environment.

2.Interface, design and usability
VL uses Xfce as it's default desktop/window manager. It also comes with jvm, fluxbox and other light alternatives. The default Xfce environment looks really polished with Thunar being the default file manager.


It's nice to log in as Root for a change, though it is never recommended. On top of the standard xfce applications set, VL offers its own control center called VASM where you can configure - display, network, boot systems etc.


Another nice addition is the package manager GSLAPT, which looks like a skinnier half brother of synaptic but has everything you will ever need to install the extra packages.


Overall, for newbees it's a pretty friendly experience, and seasonal Xfce users will be delighted with the VASM and SLAPT.

2.Quirks, Pains and Woes
I am really tempted to recommend it to everyone, but no OS is perfect, including VL. Firstly, I wasn't really impressed with the partition tool in the installer. Secondly, newbees who select the wrong graphics driver will be left wondering why their Xorg crashes with "no screen found" each and every time they do "startx". Thirdly, the built in wifi configuration in VASM refused to obtain an IP address from my d-link router. VL comes with Wifi-Radar, which again gave the same message. I finally had to get Kdenetwork manager, just to get my wifi connected. Users from other distros - Ubuntu, Suse, Fedora etc. will definitely miss the extensive package support in Vector Linux, which currently has a limited package repository. There are some articles online, which talk about using Slackware packages directly on VL, which I still need to read. Overall some hits and some misses.

3. Final verdict
Once all the initial quirks are resolved (especially the xorg issue), VL is a really solid distro. It is fast as expected from Xfce.
For older machines, fluxbox is a really nice alternative. VL packs a wbar, a mac like dock on startup, which can be activated for Xfce with following command.

$ wbar -above-desk -pos bottom -isize 40 -nanim 5



The best way to really speed up things is by choosing a lower desktop resolution. It really works but would you wish to give up your crisp high resolution for a faded 16 bit low res? The choice is yours, speed vs looks. And yeah, forget compiz. The last one really hurt.. right? Enjoy your linux experience, and please do give VL a try. I am off to try Mandriva 2009 RC2, but I have a gut feeling, I will be back again to VL. Have a nice weekend folks!

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

For older PCs I always choose Debian stable.

For instance, I'm writing this comment with my AMD K6-2, 450MHz, 128GB of Ram and its awesome Debian Etch plus Xfce desktop.

THIS is a real old PC, LOL!

Unknown said...

wow, that's some antique piece of hardware, you got yourself mate. I have one similar to this back home. Will definitely give Debian Etch a try. Thanks!

Petitbob said...

hello,
vectorlinux is a very nice distro.
but your PC isn't really a old PC with 1.5 Go RAM.

i have a PC IBM GL 300 pentium III with 128 Mo RAM with vectorlinux. it's a bomb ! it's a really old PC !

@+ petitbob

Unknown said...

well, the RAM upgrade was done recently. Anyways, from the Financial context, a laptop has a useful life span of max 4 years, so all of us have systems with virtually Zero book value ;)
But yeah.. it is definitely newer than yours ;)

Harold Fowler said...

UBuntu Rules! All hail Unbuntu!

JIff
www.privacy.es.tc

CalcProgrammer1 said...

Lol, you call a 1.6GHz "Old". That's funny, because just earlier this year you could still get a low end 1.6GHz desktop new. It's not old. It isn't cutting edge, but a 1.6GHz PC isn't old. An old PC is a Pentium 1 133MHz or Pentium MMX 200MHz (I have both of those). I've successfully run DSL Linux and Puppy Linux on a Pentium 133MHz with 64MB RAM. That's a real "old PC". I use Ubuntu 8.04 on an everyday basis on my ThinkPad A21p that has an 850MHz P3 and 512MB RAM. I don't consider that old, it still runs a modern OS at a reasonable speed.

Anonymous said...

I think you got much decent rig than mine...currently using XP+Ubuntu+Backtrack3....

Stephen said...

I agree with the age sentiments, my desktop that I am using right now is an AMD 1900+ with 512mb of Ram. My Laptop is a PIII 1.13ghz with 512mb.

Other than not having compiz, the 1.13ghz laptop performs fine for small programming, office documents, and web surfing... and whenever I am on battery I take it down to 850mhz for power save.

Both run pretty full Ubuntu installations, and have a dual boot to Windows XP (which performs fine as long as you maintain a good personal security/services policy.)

I had a 200mhz computer in the basement running as a family file/web server for a while. Ubuntu Server worked fine.

As a college student, I will take your old computer any day - but don't think mine require replacement.

havok1977 said...

I agree with what others have said... that hardware is NOT old.. your system specs are pretty much the same as my three year old Sony Vaio Laptop (you actually have more RAM, as i only got 1 Gb); on which im running Kubuntu 8.04 along with KDE 4.1 and all the extras and i think it performs quite well.

However while i do get all the 3D desktop effects that come with plasma, the GPU's performance for games leaves quite a bit to be desired (running Neverwinter Nights; a six year old game is barely acceptable with the lowest graphical quality settings); so basically the Ati Radeon 9200 is definetly NOT the best GPU.

Still im always up for trying out new distros, and im looking forward to installing Vector Linux on a USB key to give it a test run soon...

Anonymous said...

I'm using my dell dimension L993r
(800 MHz) running Ubuntu Hardy ,and firefox runs a little slow...i would give VL a try...

Anonymous said...

Wow, if you are really running a laptop with a 1.6 MHz processor like you say, that really is slow. Even the original IBM PC 8088 processor ran faster than that.

Anonymous said...

So anonymous, you managed to upgrade the RAM to 128 gigabytes (that's what 16 x 8gb sticks minimum?) on a motherboard that supports a 400MHz processor? Naw, I'm just messing with you. You meant 128mb of RAM. My desktop has a 800MHz PIII w/ 256mb of RAM (upgraded from 128mb) and worse it's an i810 integrated graphics board, which has issues with Linux. -_-

Anonymous said...

1.6 GHz is quite fast. I have a Toughbook P2 300 MHz w/ 128 MB. Fortunately, Arch Linux came to my rescue.

I like VL, but if you haven't tried Arch, please do. IMO, it could have the fastest boot time of all the distros. The Toughbook boots up in like 20 seconds.

I'm not sure if VL packages are i686-optimized. That seems to help a lot.

Anonymous said...

anyone got any thoughts what can i install on 12 year old laptop? PI 90mhz, 16mb ram, 492mb hdd.
email me
solomon7 at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

Jez, making my comp look like a god compared to yours. Amd 5600+ 2gig mushkin ram, recently got a 9600gt, a 5.6 vista rating for around 500$. Running dual boot ubuntu/xp64.

Anonymous said...

For REAL old systems(seriously, I live in Brazil & you can still buy slower PC's with less RAM than the one used for this test brand new!) try TinyME. It's a stripped down version of PCLinuxOS & is not only quick but is comfortable transition for those moving from Windows(which is what most of these old PC's run right?)

Anonymous said...

Great. I'll to do this on some of the old computers I have laying around. I'm sure someone can make some good use of it.

Anonymous said...

Jesus. 1.6GHz/1.5GB is not old. Infact, that is powerful. My most recent *nix rig runs on a 500MHz/128MB ultraportable system.. If you had trouble getting something to work on a 1.6GHz machine then you're doomed with that is actually old.

Anonymous said...

Bwahahahahahahaha!!!

1.6ghz Pentium M w/ 1.5GB is old hardware?!?! Damn man, im writing this to you on a 500mhz P3/256
MB ram thinkpad running slack. It's plenty fast for email and web while chillin in front of the TV. I would love a fast 1.6ghz Pentium M.

This post is not really helpful to us with old hardware... Vista will run fine on your laptop with aero turned off. XP would be perfectly fast.

Anonymous said...

:P Running HP6535, 466mhz Celeron with 64mb of RAM on Puppy Linux. Runs smooth, but have to use Links2 as a browser. Need to upgrade memory, then will be able to decent browsing. Win2ksp4 runs quite well on it though.

Anonymous said...

Guys, his machine IS old: 1.5 MHz is not very fast ;)

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this.

I run a site listing Ubuntu tips, and I've posted a link to this posting there: http://ubuntukungfu.org. People can submit tips/tricks/hints, and vote for those already there.

I wonder if you might consider posting any future Ubuntu-related postings you make? Cheers!

Anonymous said...

IMVHO, the best Linux for Pentium III PCs with less than 256MB of RAM and older - Puppy Linux. No contest. It runs circles around the "light" distros like Xubuntu and has better packages than Damn Small Linux. Puppy Linux can make an old computer actually feel snappy.

Unknown said...

To everyone, Old is relative term in an age where technology becomes obsolete within a day. I still have a PIII which I bought 10 years back, which still runs Mandrake 9 pretty well. The point of this article was to try Vector Linux which works beautifully on much older rigs. especially with the fluxbox variant.

Anonymous said...

I've used Arch Linux for a 350 MHz Pentium II with 192 MB of RAM, nVidia 440MX, installed LXDE, Opera, SMPlayer, MPlayer-plugin, Openoffice (Abiword+Gnumeric don't compare very well) and a bunch of other apps and it flies again. It might be even faster than Windows 98 SE and it's a lot more stable. Then again, you should know something about Linux before using Arch Linux.

Anonymous said...

I concur, the old PC sentiment is all a matter of perspective.

I personally run an old Sun Ultra 30 w/ 1x300mhz processor and 512MB ram.

Of course she flies with 2x73GB 15K/rpm drives. But for what it does (ssh gateway, torrentflux and minor utilities) it does well. It'll saturate a 100mb/s line using samba.

Now if one of the microdistros could support sparc than I'd be happy, as it is I run Debian testing. I almost upgraded to Ubuntu, but a week later they launched the latest version and dropped sparc support.

Anonymous said...

Children, Children

PII 233 128MB Ram 4MB TntRiva 4 GB HD

After 6 weeks and countless live cd's, the only distro that worked was Gentoo. Minimal install and emerge everything else. Sorry but no fancy X for this bad boy.

Can't beat links, mutt, vim et. al for speed.

Anonymous said...

For your network manager, I'd consider using NetworkManager for gnome (Xfce uses the gtk libraries). Also you might want to consider Wicd for gnome. Recently I switched to it as NetworkManager wouldn't automatically connect to certain networks:

http://linuxtidbits.wordpress.com/2008/09/23/a-wicd-solution/

Anonymous said...

i agree with fader05 and slapo that Arch linux is the snappiest distro out there, especially for i686. i have been playing around with linux for two months, and have tried half a dozen distros in search of the perfect one. i have tried *buntu's/vector/gentoo/debian/slackware/pclinuxos/puppy/dsl/etc. i was never happy with the idea of reinstalling an OS every 6 months or so, and seeing certain distros packed with bloatware is not much better than keeping M$ Winblows. Arch linux solved all the issues i had and now im happy with my 24 second boot and only the apps i care for. Arch is THE distro-hopper stopper!

Anonymous said...

My PC is a 400Mhz Celeron with 256MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive. I have tried about two dozen different distros on it that are supposed to support old PCs. So far, Debian and Fedora are about the best. They have a good mix of features and performance. Other distros such as OpenSUSE and Ubuntu run slower. DSL and Puppy run fine, but are just too ghetto for my tastes. I tried an older version of VL, but had trouble with it. I will give the latest version a try.

Anonymous said...

people have misconceptions about windows xp.

windows xp, with general cleaning can use about 19 processes at startup, eating about 90mb of ram to maybe 133mb.

using like 1-2% on even a 600mhz laptop i own.

so your article is irrelevant unless you are just speaking about oooolllldddd hardware.

i seriously own a toshiba satellite 646mhz celeron 192mb ram, 8mb vram and it handles xp VERY nicely, i promise you this.

it's what common mistakes we make AFTER the inital install that bloats things up.

xp is light and stable and not to mention very much compatible with almost everything:P

i am in no way a microfanboy.

infact i am an apple lover:P


i loved running ubuntu on my laptop, but on the point of lightweight, usability and stability, not to mention ease of use xp still has it...


remember, linux is great, but most of it's appeal comes mainly from being something new and different.

Anonymous said...

I am going to ring the bell for Debian Etch again. This just recently rescued my butt. Uber-condensed version: our MVix went up in smoke and after being tired of its shortcomings for far too long, I sent the wife to the store to get a media-center replacement; only reqs I gave her was it had to have an nVidia card w/SVIDEO out and it had to cost less than 450 bones. I kid you now I about crapped when she came home with this quad core AMD Phenom w/nVidia 8500 GTX or something in it, 3G of RAM, almost a terabyte of storage and she had enough $$ left over to get a gigabit ethernet card, bless her heart. So needing this up in realtime I throw Mint, Ubu 8.041 and Ultimate Ubu at it thinking the newer HW will be better supported there. Problem is these distros make too many assumption and all three exhibited a little to a lot of problems. Then on a flyer I popped in Etch netinst and because I was building from the ground up, the latest nVidia drivers built, installed and rand with no problem, about three apt-gets later and Oxine is installed, remote NAS(s) mounted and I am fiddling with Streamzap that came that day. An hour later we were chilling out watching the latest House...

*Excellent*

Anonymous said...

Does she have a sister? the wife I mean... : )

Akshat Kaul said...

hows it going man?

33 comments .. looks like there are lots of vector linux lovers out there :) .

Anonymous said...

You'r lucky! you think your machine is old? I have an old machine. I'm writing this with a typewriter! with no ink tape!

You tell all this to the youngest and they won't believe it...

PD: funny reading, and good to know small distros

Unknown said...

I have an old PII 300mhz laptop with 256mb RAM, and a 5 gig hard drive running antiX.. Its a very stripped down fast distro based on MEPIS. Fluxbox, JVM

http://antix.mepis.org/index.php/Main_Page

Anonymous said...

Try puppy.

Anonymous said...

how come no one mentioned linpus?

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Anonymous said...

Pentium II 350 Mhz, 128 MB RAM, 40 GB HDD
Running Windows XP SP3! (Stripped down) 11 processes consuming 12MB and can run almost all programs including Office 2003, Photoshop etc.
Can you suggest a Linux distro to replace this?!

mulenmar said...

@ Anoj: My oldest computer is a 286 with about 2MB memory. The oldest I've installed GNU/Linux on so far, a Pentium III with 128 MB Ram.

Believe me dude, your 1.6GHz computer is not slow.

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kotakotakota said...

Whoop... I think my atari 800 is a tad bit older than most of your computers :P (Contrary to popular belief, the atari 800 was a PC not a game console. Aka it has support for C and other programming languages, and there are lots of programs for it, even things like 3D modeling programs)

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