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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Thu, 31 Jan 2008

A Debian victory for the $15 Laptop

I've been toying with removing Debian Etch from the Laptop -- the 1999 Compaq Armada 7770dmt with a 233 MHz Pentium II MMX processor and 64 MB of RAM. When most computer users -- even those partial to Linux -- talk about "old" hardware, they mean either things in the 1 GHz range, even 3 GHz single-core CPU computers with 512 MB of RAM.

For me, a 1.2 GHz Celeron laptop with 1 GB of RAM is good enough to run just about any Linux distribution out there. And my main Windows machine at the office -- a 3 GHz Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM is way more than adequate for desktop use.

As far as the 233 MHz Compaq laptop goes, I'm probably going to bump up the RAM from the current 64 MB to the maximum of 144 MB, but that's pretty much besides the point.

When I first got this laptop (yep, it cost me , though I had to shell out for the CD-ROM drive on eBay) I ran into a lot of luck, because it wasonly supposed to have 32 MB of RAM but had double that. It wasn't supposed to have a hard drive, but not only was the hard-drive casing intact, but there was a 3 GB drive inside it. It was loaded with Windows 98 but wouldn't boot. Once I had the CD drive (the incoluded floppy drive doesn't work, and I could get another one for , but I really don't need it), I was able to run Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux from live CDs.

At first I loaded Windows 2000 just to see how it ran. Win 2K ran alright, but I'm not in this to run Windows. I had pretty good luck with both Puppy and DSL, but Damn Small Linux is really the more suited of the two for a computer with 64 MB of RAM.

Anyhow, I eventually wanted to try Debian Etch on the Compaq. I've done at least four installs of Debian on this computer, but my first began was the "standard" install, which means no X. After that, I added X and Fluxbox, plus all the apps I though I'd need. ROX-filer, AbiWord, Leafpad, Dillo, Lynx, Elinks, Sylpheed (which didn't work), MtPaint for image editing, and eventually even Iceweasel (aka Debian's renamed Firefox).

I was able to actually get work done on the laptop, which can connect to the outside world only through the Orinoco WaveLAN Silver 802.11b wireless PCMCIA card I had previously bought for This Old Mac (aka my 1996 Powerbook 1400cs). And since the PCMCIA slot in the much-better ode.cgi Laptop (Gateway Solo 1450) is inoperable ("busted" is the technical term), the wireless card has remained in the Compaq, which has no Ethernet port or USB capability (though it does have a serial port, parallel printer port, built-in telephone modem and a power supply fully enclosed in the case -- yes, a 120-volt power cord plugs right into the back). They made these Compaq's well -- this one still runs great.

Anyhow, my "roll-your-own-X" Debian install did OK. The display was a bit slow in Abiword, but I had everything running fairly well. Just not well enough.

Since then, I spent quite a bit of time testing DSL 4.0 on the Compaq. Damn Small Linux runs great on this thing, that much I can tell you. And I even ran Puppy 2.13 for a couple of days this week.

But I always had Debian on the hard drive. Just not the original Debian. I had wiped the drive and experimented with Debian Etch and the Xfce desktop install (desktop=xfce as a boot parameter in the installer) as well as Slackware 12.0 without KDE (Xfce and Fluxbox).

Well, Slackware without KDE means you don't even get an office suite, and I still had barely any disk space on the 3 GB drive. (I know, I just need to get a bigger drive ... I know.)

So I went back to Debian Etch, again the Xfce desktop. Surprisingly, this install includes the full OpenOffice suite and I still have about a full GB of space left on the hard drive. I have a separate /home partition with 800 MB in it, and a root partition with 2 GB, with about 150 MB left. The rest of the space is swap -- about 120 MB.

And while on the Gateway laptop (1.2 GHz Celeron CPU) I cannot detect a performance difference between the Xfce and Fluxbox window managers, on this 233 MHz CPU, there's quite a difference. I was about to give up on Etch altogether when I decided to again install AbiWord (I tried Ted ... again ... but the RTF word processor still doesn't work, at least in any Etch install I've had), as well as Fluxbox.

Fluxbox makes it a lot snappier. I still have all the Xfce apps, including Thunar, Mousepad and the great Xfmedia.

In fact, I finally got sound working tonight. I don't think it'll survive a reoot, so I'll have to run this line on startup, but for today it did work:

# modprobe sb io=0x220 irq=5 dma=1 mpu_io=0x330

I can't run alsamixer, but I can play an MP3 in Xfmedia, and it sounds great even on the built-in speakers on this 9-year-old laptop.

I didn't think I could get sound working in Debian Etch, but since I did, Etch will definitely live to fight another day on this laptop.

Before I close out this entry, let men emphasize that the Xfce install of Debian is a quirky distro, to be sure. It's nowhere near as complete as Ubuntu's Xfce variant, Xubuntu.

Etch in its Xfce incarnation includes the full OpenOffice suite, but not Abiword or Gnumeric (which would be good substitutes). There's no Synaptic or Update Manager, so I've been doing what Debian aficionados always tell me to do: use Aptitude. I was running aptitude in a terminal for awhile, but it's much easier to just run it at the command line:

# aptitude update
# aptitude upgrade
# aptitude install abiword

Yep, just like apt-get and apt-get install, but Aptitude is supposed to do an even better job with dependencies and it keeps track of your changes to the system, should there be any problem.

And if this entry appears on this Blogger blog, it means that the lightweight Dillo browser actually works with the blogging interface -- a great thing because Dillo is very, very fast.

Note: I did save a copy of this as text in case Dillo and Blogger aren't exactly cooperating.

Further note: Dillo and Blogger weren't exactly getting along, so I completed this post with Iceweasel.

Final note: The fact that Debian Etch -- a modern, up-to-date Linux distribution -- can run so well in 233 MHz of CPU and 64 MB of RAM is something truly to behold. Again, my thanks to everybody at the Debian Project, past and present, for all they've done for the rest of us.

Post-final note: If Debian continues to perform so well, I just might blog the SCALE 6x convention with this 1999-vintage laptop.

Positively the last note: I've had trouble with Iceweasel and anything on Google for which I have to log in, so I just cut the fat and posted this to Click. And in case I only mentioned it once above, Fluxbox is really flying on this setup. And since the 1999 Compaq with Debian Etch and Movable Type 4.0 are playing nicely, I think this laptop is definitely going to SCALE 6x.

Sorry, just one more note: Look for a SCALE 6x feature on Click in the days ahead.

This post originally appeared on The CTRL freak blog.

Original comments

Mika said... "Etch in its Xfce incarnation includes the full OpenOffice suite, but not Abiword or Gnumeric (which would be good substitutes). There's no Synaptic or Update Manager, so I've been doing what Debian aficionados always tell me to do: use Aptitude."

Why don't you then just install Abiword, Gnumeric, Synaptic and update-manager? Those are in the Debian Etch repository even if you install xfce-desktop. You need to understand that Xfce is just another desktop and nothing else. Debian with xfce is not different distro than Debian with Gnome etc. So ofcourse you can install those applications even if you installed Debian with xfce-desktop.

Just do this:

apt-get install abiword abiword-plugins

apt-get install gnumeric

apt-get install synaptic

apt-get install update-manager

apt-get install update-notifier

I have no idea if update-notifier can be used in xfce, but atleast update-manager should work.

Looks like you have used ubuntu, so you know that they have three distros: Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu. I have never understood why they do that. I think that's simply idiotic. In Debian you just tell Debian installer which desktop you want. you van select desktop, but there is still just one Debian distro.

February 1, 2008 at 1:38 AM
Steven Rosenberg said... I know I can make Debian into whatever I want with apt, but I'm just curious as to why the different desktop installs of Debian (the standardesktop with GNOME, plus the KDE and Xfce versions) install the way they do.

Ubuntu may do things differently -- and I think they give short shrift to Xubuntu and Kubuntu as well, but Ubuntu's Xubuntu offshoot is a whole lot more usable in its default configuration than Debian's Xfce.

I think it would be a great thing if Debian would adopt just a little bit of Ubuntu's marketing acumen. If Debian put out a live CD with an application lineup similar to Ubuntu's -- but with Debian's imprint -- and that CD would also install that system (in the same manner as the Ubuntu live CD) Debian would be easie to grasp, and would open up a door to many, many more users.

In any case, the Debian Xfce install is plenty curious. There's also a bunch of database software that installs by default. I'm going to take a very close look at what's installed on this thing before I start paring it down so I can get some more space on this puny 3 GB drive.

February 11, 2008 at 9:53 PM
Steven Rosenberg said... Also, thanks for the tip on installing the Abiword plugins. When I used Aptitude instead of plain apt, I got all the Abiword extras, including the excellent spell-checker.