Linux: The Little Operating System That Really Can

I began what I like to think of as my “Linux Adventure”, in February of 2006 on a short, much-frazzled shoestring.   I couldn’t afford to buy a new, or even a late model second-hand computer to use with Linux and I wasn’t prepared to give up Windows.   Used computers are comparatively easy to find but my choices were narrowed down to what I could afford.   My first Linux computer was a 266 MHz P2 with 128 MB of RAM.   Of several full featured distros, Debian 3.1 (Sarge) was the only one I was able to install on it and, at that, I had to learn how to do some very geeky post-install tweaking.   I later acquired a 333 MHz Celeron with 256 MB of RAM and it too seemed best suited to Debian 3.1.   As time progressed I was able to finagle and trade my way up to my current Linux machine which is an 800 MHz Duron with 512 MB of RAM running Debian 4.0 (Etch).   Debian Etch, by the way, didn’t require any geeky post-install tweaking, although I did have to ascend a short learning curve to give it multimedia capabilities, and is at least as user friendly as was my first Windows 98 computer.   In my opinion, anyone who contends that Linux isn’t ready for the ordinary desktop user hasn’t tried it and/or isn’t an ordinary desktop user.

Recently, through the generosity of a friend, I was able to acquire several identical 600 MHz Celeron systems and, with a bit of careful scrounging and eBay shopping I was able to equip each of them with 256 MB of 100 MHz RAM.   These systems represent a special challenge for the operating system because the onboard video only has one (1) MB of RAM.   The OS must “borrow” some system RAM in order to produce any sort of video.   A few months ago, working on a very similar system, I found that several then-current versions of popular distros simply wouldn’t run on the computer but, knowing I might never again have such a unique opportunity I set out to try as many distros on these computers as possible.   In all honesty I didn’t expect any surprises.   I was wrong.

I can’t afford to buy distro CDs and my “fast connection” (Verizon DSL) isn’t all that fast so, excepting only OpenSUSE, I avoided distros which required more than one CD and I consulted with Distrowatch to find suitable candidates.   What follows is my own, purely subjective, personal opinion of several distributions I’ve tried in the last two weeks.

Debian 4.0 (Etch): I don’t believe any distribution offers more choices than Debian or runs better on older hardware.   Even if I had a newer, nicer computer to use for my own personal Linux computer I’d still be using Debian because it suits me mentally, emotionally, morally, philosophically, and, best of all, financially (because it’s free).   Insofar as I’m concerned, Debian rules and it worked beautifully on these machines.

Xubuntu 7.10:   The last time I tried Xubuntu on an older computer I didn’t like it at all, it seemed klunky and kludgy.   That is absolutely no longer the case.   Xubuntu ran very nicely on a 600 MHz machine and is easy to install and use.   If I didn’t love Debian Etch with KDE so much I’d most assuredly be using Xubuntu.

PCLinuxOS 2007:   This is the most user friendly and powerful distribution I’ve ever seen.   Yeah, it runs a little slowly on a 600 MHz machine but run it does and perfectly at that.   Everything about PCLinuxOS is thoughtfully designed to be sensible and user friendly.   Try it, you’ll like it.

Fedora 7:   The installation was smooth and easy.   The look, feel and performance is superlative.   Like PCLinuxOS, it’s a bit slow on a 600 MHz machine but it worked and very impressively too (I tried the KDE version).   Fedora is the Open Source child of Red Hat Linux and, as such, is a mature and very well developed distribution.   Fedora comes with a preconfigured firewall and very tight security settings by default.

Blag:   I signed up for a free copy of Blag (on a CD) a while back and promptly forgot about it so I was pleasantly surprised when it came in the mail a few days ago.   Blag is based on Fedora but has been carefully (I’ll even go so far as to say lovingly) crafted into an integrated, user-friendly, and comfortable distro.   I can’t think of a better way to describe it.   My wife and I both liked it very much.   This is our favorite Gnome desktop (and we really don’t care for Gnome so that’s saying something).

Kubuntu 7.10:   The installation was very easy, albeit slow, and the look, feel and performance is easily equal to PCLinuxOS or Fedora.   If I was building myself a second Linux machine, with newer, nicer hardware, I’d have a terrible time deciding between PCLinuxOS, Fedora and Kubuntu.

Ubuntu:   Like Kubuntu, the installation was slow and, once installed, I got a non-specific error message telling me that some processes might not work properly, each time it booted up. I tinkered with it for a while looking for an obvious solution and didn’t find one so I moved on.

Sabayon:   I had some sort of problem with the install, every time it boots up there’s a display error which requires a keystroke to continue booting up.   It looks and feels very nice but I gave up on a post-install update of the software.   I couldn’t figure it out, I’ve no idea whether the problem was caused by me or Portato and didn’t explore it any further.

OpenSUSE 10.3: The installation was easy, though slightly more complicated than some, and it seemed to work well enough but it didn’t shut down by itself.   I had to manually turn off the computer on shutdown.   There were two CDs on the download page, one of which was described as “add ons”.   After some thought, I decided to download them both but I couldn’t figure out how to install the second CD.   I tried asking for help on their IRC channel and was subjected to the most rude treatment I’ve ever received from any group of Linux users so I moved on.

DSL-N 01RC4:   Not particularly easy to install, looks fabulous, couldn’t access a CD or USB drive.   It’s designed to be a live CD and one should leave it at that.

Zenwalk 4.8:   The installation ran beautifully but, once the installation was complete, it never came back after the reboot.   I tried it both with, and without, adding an nVidia graphics card to the system and finally gave up after five (5) unsuccessful attempts to install it.

LInux Mint:   Wouldn’t boot up on these machines.

NetBSD:   Wouldn’t boot up on these machines.

Mepis 6.5.02_32:   Wouldn’t boot up on these machines.

Slax:   This is my favorite of the small, live CDs but the developer recommends against installing it to the hard drive and I respect his wishes.

Puppy 3.0:   I keep coming back and trying Puppy because of all the glowing reviews I’ve read but it never works for me.   Oh it booted up as a live CD but didn’t run very well and it got worse when it was installed to the hard drive.   I don’t think Puppy is fond of older hardware.

I didn’t subject any of these distributions to a rigorous regime of tests or keep meticulous records on the process; I installed the operating system, surfed the web, and simply played with it for a while.   I was surprised that several of them “just worked” on these computers when I’m quite certain that as recently as a year ago this would not have been the case.   Of course that makes me a victim of Windows mentality; “things don’t always work that well but they’ll be better in several years when the next version of Windows is released”, just as it’s always been.   Linux doesn’t work that way; there are frequent updates to the software and operating system (just lately they seem to be occurring almost weekly) and with each update things work a little better.   What an incredible concept; an operating system which gets better all the time!   It just takes some getting used to; I’m working on it.

Don Crowder

[tags]Linux, older hardware, subjective review [/tags]