GNU/Linux on old hardware

Saturday, 13 August 2005, michuk

Is Linux a good choice for your old PC? In this article I’m going to examine the main issues connected with using GNU/Linux on some very old hardware. I will also cover choosing a distro, a desktop and the key applications for such a configuration.


Damn Small Linux in action

Pic 1. Damn Small Linux in action

Author: Borys Musielak

What are the minimal hardware requirements for Linux?

In theory, a computer with 386 processor and some 8MB of RAM is good enough to run GNU/Linux. There are a few specialized distros (still supported!) that allow you to install Linux on such a PC. Of course you won’t be able to run most of the modern apps on such a system, but it should be enough to do simple office tasks and play some old-school games.
If you have a Pentium I with some 32/64MB RAM, you can, with just a little bit of effort, make an outstanding desktop computer out of it, running GNU/Linux of course. You will still need a special distro for that, though.
However, if you get a Pentium II 455Mhz with a 10GB hard drive (it can be purchased for less than $50 nowadays), you can install any modern GNU/Linux distribution on it and with thoughtful selection of applications, it can make a great home Internet and multimedia center for next couple of years.

Which distro for an old box?

The simple answer is: almost any. Most of the popular Linux distros (like Debian, PLD, Slackware or Fedora Core and such) provide a dialog-based, not resource consuming installer, and the option to select applications to be installed on the system beforehand. Still, before installing, it is recommended to check the minimal hardware requirements for a distribution of choice. Some systems, like Yoper, Arch Linux or Crux, are 686-optimized, which means they will only run on a Pentium II processor or higher.

There are however distros created especially for old hardware PCs. Here ia a few most interesting ones:

  • Damn Small Linux – a very popular low-resource Linux, based on Debian and Knoppix. Runs on a 486 in a graphical mode,
  • DeLi Linux – this is a real pearl. DeLi stands for “Desktop Light” Linux. It is capable of running on a 386 computer in a graphical mode! Lately, version 0.7 has been released. Certainly worth trying on some very old PCs.
  • Zenwalk – minimal requirements for Zenwalk are: Pentium III, 128 Mb RAM and 2Gb HDD. However, it can be run pretty fine on PII, as well. Zenwalk is a modern Linux distro for low-resource PC-s.

DeLi Linux works even on 386
Pic 2. DeLi Linux works on 386!

With DSL and Zenwalk, you can either use a live CD or install them as full-featured systems on your hard drive. Both ways, you get a fast and reliable system working great even on a very old PC. Some more distros you may be interested in are: Puppy Linux, SaxenOS (STX Linux) or Wolvix. More information about those distros (including hardware requirements) can be found on projects’ webpages.

Don’t install ancient distributions!

One of the myths about installing GNU/Linux on older hardware is that one should rather choose old versions of popular distributions (like Redhat 7, Debian Potato or Slackware 7), because older apps work better with older hardware. This is truth with most propriety OS-es, but certainly not with GNU/Linux. Every respectable Linux distro provides at least one lightweight window manager and a set of apps which should work just fine on an old box. Installing an old version of OS is bad for couple of reasons:

  • You usually don’t get any security patches because the maintainers stopped supporting their old versions years ago.
  • You are unlikely to find help easily, just because everyone uses the latest stuff.
  • Latest versions of Linux apps usually work faster than their ancestors. This is true at least in case of these projects which aim at providing lightweight and usable apps – and these are exactly the apps you’re going to use to get your job done on an old PC!

Concluding, choose a distribution which you know best (or your best friend knows and uses) and install a set of lightweight desktop apps on it, one for each task. You will find more information about the apps suitable for such PC below.

Which desktop and applications are suitable for an old PC?

Well, it depends on how much latency you can live with. To some, the latest KDE running on a Pentium II 400Mhz with 256MB RAM is acceptable. However, for those who place system speed and responsiveness above modern (and sometimes useless) features, there are many alternatives, as well, naming only Fluxbox, XFCE or FVWM-Crystal.


Office apps in Zenwalk

Pic 3. Office apps in Zenwalk

At the beginning I have to warn you – you won’t be able to run OpenOffice.org package reliably on a system much slower than ~400Mhz and ~128 MB of RAM. If your hardware parameters are inferior, you can use some the the lighter office suites, like KOffice, Gnome Office (Abiword+Gnumeric) or in case of really old hardware (like Pentium I, 32MB RAM) – Siag Office (available in Damn Small Linux).

Web browsing can be a problem, since the most lightweight GUI browsers: Dillo and links-hacked do not handle modern technologies like CSS and DHTML properly. Even JavaScript can be a problem. So, it’s recommended to try some older version of Opera Browser (7.11 is a good choice) or try some lightweight Firefox alternative, like the Gecko-based Epiphany or Galeon first and use Dillo only when there’s absolutely no other way around.

Don’t worry, though. Office and web browsing are the most tricky part of using Linux on old hardware. Below, I prepared a short list of recommended CLI (command line interface) and GUI (graphical) applications which can be used painlessly on an old PC box.

Graphical apps Console (CLI) apps
Desktop environments XFCE, IceWM, Fluxbox, Blackbox, GNUStep (with WindowMaker), FVWM and more
Web browsers Dillo, Links-hacked, Opera (version 7.11), Epiphany, Galeon Links, Elinks, lynx, w3m
Mail clients and news readers Sylpheed-claws, Balsa, GNUMail.app mutt, pine, slrn
Office suites KOffice, GnomeOffice (Abiword + Gnumeric), Siag Office LaTeX, MS Office documents converters: catdoc, antiword, xlhtml
Simple text editors Leafpad, Xedit, Nedit, Mousepad, gvim nano, pico, vim
Audio players XMMS, Beep-media-player, gmpd mpc, mp3blaster
Video players MPlayer, Xine MPlayer (does not require X!)
Viewers and editors GQView, feh, Xzgv, Xpaint, Xpdf MPlayer (does not require X!)

If this is not enough, you can take a look at the lightweight applications shipped with Damn Small Linux. For a complate list of GNU/Linux applications (not necesserily lightweight) go to The table of equivalents of Windows software in Linux at www.linuxrsp.ru.

Security – What about the security patches?

Take it easy, nothing to worry about here :) In contrast to some propriety systems (i.e. Microsoft Windows versions 95, 98 and ME are no longer supported and Windows 2000 is likely to follow them soon), in Linux you always have instant access to all security patches no matter how old your hardware is. Most of the popular Linux distributions provide some kind of lightweight desktop environment and a set of apps capable of running even on ancient hardware like Pentium I or so. So, if you update your system frequently (which is painless and fully automatic in distros like Debian and derivatives), there is almost no need to worry about your system’s security – it can just as secure as your friend’s PC, running the most modern and full-featured distro like Xandros or Ubuntu on a hyper-threaded Pentium Dual Core. Really :)

Summary

GNU/Linux is a great choice for ancient hardware. It has proved that it can run on almost anything with a processor and a motherboard. Installing Linux may be the only choice for someone who wants to make some use of his old computer for something more than just running the software from the middle ages, so it’s really worth to give it a try before throwing the old PC away.

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