You may be interested in this post if you have an obsolete computer you don't want to throw away. The recipe to recover it is to install a lightweight window manager: you will see that your old box come back to new life.
Recently, I have spent some time trying to recover a very old Compaq
laptop, which I have been neglecting for years (actually my wife was using
it, by now she has her new Eeepc).
The laptop is seven years old, and it shows:
there are only 256 M of RAM (actually 240 M + 16 M for the video card);
the hard disk has 20 G, and it is pretty slow as compared to modern ones;
the video card is pretty poor, you can forget about installing compiz on it.
Moreover, the laptop is in a pretty bad shape:
the Athlon processor heats a lot and under heavy load the machine
is likely to freeze;
the builtin Ethernet interface does not work, as an aftermath of a
lightning storm of 4 years ago;
the builtin CD Writer/DVD Reader stopped working 5 years ago;
the external DVD Writer I bought 3 years go does not work either;
the BIOS is unable to boot from the two USB ports which
only support the prehistoric USB 1.1 protocol.
It was clearly difficult to install some usable operating
system on it, to replace Windows XP. I did not want to buy another external
DVD Writer, since nowadays I have no need for it (I use an external USB
drive for my backups, it is cheeper than buying DVDs).
Luckily, by googling on the net, I discovered the Smart Boot Manager
project: if you have a system which is unable to boot from an USB pen
or an USB drive, but has a floppy reader, you can boot from the
floppy and then dispatch to the real boot media.
I made a smart boot floppy and I was able to install
Ubuntu 8.10 on my laptop from a pen drive.
I have a wireless USB kit - bought a few weeks ago since it was
really cheap, something like 14 Euros - and I used that to replace
the wired connection. The wireless card was recognized out of the box
by Ubuntu, without need of any external driver, whereas on XP I had
to download the custom drivers from the producer site.
That was a happy discovery, so I decided that resuscitating
the laptop was a worthy project.
As I said, I installed the standard
Ubuntu distribution, but the performance was not spectacular.
Actually, the system was quite slow, and with Firefox open my memory
occupation was dangerously close to the top limit of 240 M.
It was clear that I should give up Gnome if I wanted to get a
snappier machine. So, I tried to install Xubuntu, which comes with
the lightweight XFCE desktop environment. With that configuration
the memory occupation was reduced and the machine was indeed faster,
but still too slow for my taste. I decided then
to go back to the good old Ice Window Manager (IceWM) which I had
used in the past with an even older machine with only 128M of
memory. IceWM did the job: the memory occupation dropped down
to 70 M (so says htop) and the machine is much more responsive.
I did install the ROX File Manager instead of
Nautilus, and links instead of Firefox: with those little
changes the laptop has become very much usable. I discovered
in the process that now links features a very neat graphic mode:
the trick is to install links2 (apt-getinstalllinks2)
and to start it with the -g option (links2-g).
The format of the configuration file is pretty simple: every line
in it has the form progalticonapp were app is the
executable application, icon is a path to an icon that will
appear on the toolbar and alt is the text which appears
when you hover the mouse over the icon, or the text which replaces
the images if the icon is missing.
With this trick a little icon for the Network Manager Applet appears
on my toolbar and I can connect to the wireless simply by clicking on
it. The applet is relatively resource hungry (around 10 Megabytes) and
there are slimmer alternative out there, but for the moment I am
keeping it, since I am familiar with it and I can afford it.
Generally speaking, IceWM seems to work well with Gnome applications:
in particular all the Gnome applications I have tried with an applet
in the task bar works under IceWM, and the applet appears
in the system tray.
One advantage of Gnome is the automount mechanism, so that removable
devices are automatically recognized and mounted. With a bit of googling,
I found out a couple of programs to do the same job, ivman (to monitor
the HAL daemon) and pmount (to mount the removable device).
Moreover, I removed the gnome-terminal, using the good old xterm instead.
An advantage of xterm with respect to gnome-terminal is that it
does not intercept the function keys, so it play better with programs
like htop or the Midnight Commander. Also, I have found out that
xterm used together with screen makes a good replacement for
heavy applications like the gnome-terminal or the KDE Konsole.
Plus, the scrolling is blazzing fast.
Since I always want to use a terminal with screen, it makes sense to
open it at startup. So, I wrote the following .icewm/startup file:
(notice that the startup file must be executable to be run). The first
line starts the volume manager daemon, thats mounts and unmounts
automatically the removable drives when I attach and detach them
(apparently there is a bug in recent versions of the Linux kernel
so I had to list the allowable drives in the file /etc/pmount.allow
to get pmount working). The second line open an xterm with screen.
I have been using this configuration for a week or so, and so far it
seems to work fine. The only issue I had is that I needed some time to
adjust to links: it is definitely less convenient than Firefox.
On the other hand, its memory occupation is order of magnitudes smaller,
and that makes it usable. I had to renounce to Firefox since it
was eating all of my memory and making all of my system sluggish.
Now I plan to use the old laptop as my main box for a while - I have
already installed subversion, postgresql, g++ and lots of other stuff -
and I will keep you posted with my findings. If you want to share some
good tips for people with an obsolete machine, please do so!
I have a laptop Compaq with 6 years. It has a hardware problem in the motherboard that disables the power to reach the battery. I was dealing with it being a bit obsolete by upgrading the disk (40GB -> 80GB) and the memory (512MB -> 1GB). Its an expensive path to have an usable old computer that I may now loose altogether... Those damn things are hard to open!