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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Thu, 10 Mar 2011

Puppy in 2011 on a laptop in 1999 — I’m sticking with Debian

I pulled out the Compaq Armada 7770dmt, circa 1999, with 144 MB RAM (fully loaded), a speedy 233 MHz Pentium II CPU and the original 3 GB hard drive, the latter component of which I haven’t seen since I opened up the bay for the first and last time when I purchased this laptop in, I believe, 2007 for .

I had my CDs ready and loaded up Quirky and Wary — two of the latest Pups. As in the past, loading a live environment — even a Puppy environment — from CD on a 12-year-old laptop can take more than a little time. I was unsuccessful with the Xorg driver while running Wary. A reboot to use the Vesa driver was successful in getting an 800×600 display.

Even though my Orninco Wavelan Silver PCMCIA 802.11b wireless card has worked in the past with Puppy (and works now with Debian Squeeze), I couldn’t load up the orinoco_cs driver and get it to recognize the NIC. Not good. I never had trouble loading up the Orinoco driver with older Puppies. I’ll have to find some of those old discs and see how this worked in the Puppy 2.x/3.x/4.x days. Maybe a bit of Googling will shed some light.

Once I got the whole thing loaded up (sans networking; I do have a wired PCMCIA interface that I didn’t try) the Wary desktop wasn’t all that fast. It was certainly no faster than Debian Squeeze, even with the Xfce desktop, generally considered slower than the window manager in Puppy/Wary, which I believe is Joe’s Window Manager (aka JWM).

Just to check this out, I booted back into Debian Squeeze, started X from the console (no GDM/XDM on this install) and am now using Iceweasel to revise this entry. It’s going rather well, I would say.

And I haven’t yet reinstalled the Opera web browser, which brings an added measure of speed to this aging platform.

If you already forgot what you read up top, we’re talking a 233 MHz CPU and only 144 MB of RAM. My long-gone desktop Pentium II system has a 333 MHz CPU and 256 MB of RAM. You can find systems like this (desktops) in half the garages in the U.S., long ago removed from service but neither junked nor recycled. You can pluck one of them out of virtual (and literal) obscurity, load up either a live CD like Puppy or TinyCore, or in my case install Debian, and have a nice, working machine.

I can easily see using this Compaq for writing, “light” web use … and writing. That’s pretty much what I do anyway.

And with Debian Squeeze still “young,” as the project’s Stable release, I have about two years to go before I have to think about a new OS for this old computer.

If/when I find my spare 8 GB IDE laptop drive, I will pull this drive and do a fresh install (or three) to see if that has the magic Grub 2 touch (Grub 2 being the main thing not working after the Lenny-to-Squeeze upgrade.

Comments from the FlatPress version of this post

Saif Friday, March 11, 2011 - 07:28:17

Hi Steve,

It is not surprising that Debian from an HD install is faster than a CD boot from a compressed file system on a 4 X CDROM drive.

I guess there are many reasons for the performance issues…

1) Slow CD ROM, 2) Performance overhead of decompression from sfs 3) reduced left over RAM after using the usual load-everything-into-RAM boot from CD that puppy uses.

You can address this partly 1) having a frugal install (the files are loaded from HD rather than CD 2) having a full install reduced need to decompress the file system etc 3) having a swap partition of the drive that puppy can use…all without any newer hardware.

Grant Wagner Friday, March 11, 2011 - 14:26:43

Hey Steve,

I know these machines are incredibly cheap, and if you want to play with them just because, by all means go ahead. However, if you advocating using such a machine for any particular end means, I believe there are much better solutions. For server purposes, something like a DreamPlug gives a lot more options, at a fraction of the power, a savings that makes a real dent in your power bill. Likewise, a good netbook (, less with a bit of shopping) gets rid of the headaches of such antiquated hardware and it’s difficult setups, gives the benefits of a new battery, and still uses a fraction of the power. Although not as drastic as the comparison to a desktop, we’re still talking changes that can pay for themselves in a years time. I recently changed my always one P4-1.7GHz home server for a PandaBoard(, and while it was still a bit of a hobbiest project (the ‘Plug above would have been a easier and cheaper but less fun solution), my power bill is honestly dropping ~ a month.

In short, if your goal is not to spend money, recycle that old machine and get something newer. It’s just not worth it.

steven Friday, March 11, 2011 - 18:09:49

@Grant - I agree with you. Older hardware just doesn’t perform all that well, no matter what you run on it.

I got rid of all my old desktops, and even dropped a laptop after stripping off a few parts.

I did get a new laptop (Lenovo G555, not the best but certainly inexpensive) last year, and it’s way less frustrating to run something that’s way faster, not falling apart so much (I did replace a keyboard key last week) and with enough disk space (320 GB — I swapped in my own drive to replace the stock 160 GB — vs. the 20 GB drives I have in my other “old” laptops).

I’m torn over whether or not to build a mid-tower/MicroATX/ATX or Mini-ITX desktop, or find some other low-power home server solution.

Even though I much prefer the better parts quality of a desktop, laptops are just too damn convenient; that’s why everybody uses them.

I hate the fact that laptops can be so expensive yet are pretty much junk hardware — they really can’t take the kind of abuse that they should, and they’re hard as hell to fix.

I am fast becoming a one-laptop-per-adult advocate. I think a home server, however, especially one with low power consumption, is very compelling.

walterav Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - 21:47:13

Hi,

I found myself doing a similar job on a Acer Travelmate 7100TE. Debian was the only OS that was able to run on that machine, even suspend works and battery detection worked after some fiddling.

Did you get sound / audio working on your compaq machine in linux? Does it use a yamaha opl2/3 like chip.

BTW are you sure it is really a Pentium II mmx which has cmov cpu extension support? Because mine was a Pentium I mmx without cmov therfore only i386 or i486 kernels would boot and not the more popular i686 kernels that ship with modern distro’s. Ubuntu 10.04LTS is the latest of its kind which kernel hassent been compiled with the need for cmov, but there is debian…

steven Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - 23:56:26

@walterav

I did get sound working. I had do a modprobe command. I can’t remember it exactly, but I will boot the laptop (where I have my upgrade notes) and find out.

The command does not persist. I have to re-do it every session. I should get it in one of the boot script files so it automatically loads every time.

I’m much better-versed in getting that done in OpenBSD and FreeBSD than I am in Linux, but I’m sure I can get it done when I spend a few minutes.

The CPU really is a Pentium II MMX. It’s running the i486 kernel. This machine was never able to successfully boot Xubuntu from the live disc the times I tried it.

Successful distros/projects I’ve run on it include: Debian Lenny and Squeeze, Slackware 12.0, TinyCore (forget the release number), Puppy 2.13 through 4.x, Damn Small Linux (forget the release number), OpenBSD (4.2?). I can’t remember for sure, but I might have had Wolvix 1.1.0 (Slackware 11 derivative) on it.