One week at 100Mhz: X-less and not a hiccup

My week at 100Mhz is quickly drawing to a close, and as one of the final tasks I ran the entire system this evening from the console, which is to say without X at all. No Awesome, no rvxt-unicode, no graphical dependencies.

And as you can see (or can’t really, I guess), the net result is the same. I get the same things done on the same hardware, with the only change being that screen is now a major player, allowing me to switch between tasks a little more smoothly than just allocating one tty to each application.

Of course, eliminating the need for a graphical interface, even one as slim and light as the Awesome setup I have available to me, means things run even lighter, if you can believe that. Ordinarily, under X, it takes a minute or so for Charm to start up, and another minute for it to jump to emacs, and there’s a soft lag as emacs does its usual backups and disk access.

I can live with those things — I consider them a necessary evil if I want to have three terminal emulators open and the desktop at 800×600 and so forth and so on. But if I sacrifice those things, I get an immense return on system resources.

Right now I have screen, elinks, htop, Charm (and Python), emacs and calcurse running simultaneously, and the net system draw is no more than 7Mb of 12Mb available, plus 6Mb of swap. And processor stress is spiking at 50 to 60 percent when disk access is occuring. Otherwise, it’s dropping to 10 and 12 percent, and floating there. It’s frightening how little the system needs to stay alive.

But even more frightening is the tradeoff on speed. No swapping whatsoever, except if I add another application to the mix. My typing speed under emacs, which is usually a little groggy, is a feather touch. Overall system responsiveness is a huge improvement over the X-bound system. Even software that spawns other software — like Charm to Python to emacs and back again — is lightning-fast. (For 100Mhz, of course. :roll: )

And I have all the same software at my fingertips, nothing lost in the transition from X to tty, and everything still working just as it should.

With one or two small exceptions, which I am obligated to report. Of course I no longer can access feh, and since I stripped all framebuffer support from the kernel and left it to stand with only standard VGA drivers, I don’t really have a way to display images. If I was really serious about running this under the console for any length of time, I could probably solve that issue in a matter of an hour or so.

And I didn’t install gpm since mouse support at the console level wasn’t really on my list of necessities for the week. And certain weaknesses — like sluggish Internet access speeds from certain sites in elinks — weren’t the fault of my machine really, so this didn’t affect them much.

But it’s funny to think that in the catastrophic failure of the graphic system, this machine is still 99 and 44/100 percent useful. Nothing is changed. Everything still works just like it did. Ordinarily if X mysteriously quits, I have an hour or two of troubleshooting to perform before I can go back to whatever nonsense I was pursuing before calamity struck.

More and more I think this might be the path I take in the future, regardless of the machine I use. I’m already committed to remaking the Thinkpad with Awesome. And considering my long-standing fear of the Silicon Motion drivers and my lackluster enthusiasm for Xorg 7.4, the idea of being able to use the greater portion of my computer even if X-Incorporated fail to deliver … well, that’s turning the table completely.

This is all a little embarrassing really. I’ve been pushing terminal apps for years, and I feel like I’m starting all over with them again. Perhaps that’s been the biggest epiphany from my experience at 100Mhz — not that a machine running at 100Mhz is completely and perfectly usable over the long run, but that the software I would pick to use on that machine is probably the software I should be using on a day-to-day basis.

You learn something new every day, but some days you learn the same new thing over again.

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5 Responses to “One week at 100Mhz: X-less and not a hiccup”


  1. 1 Primo 2009/02/27 at 10:58 AM

    Let me ask you, is the sacrifice of X really worth it? Sure you can get a 100MHz machine to be faster, but what is the point of going to SUCH extremes? I doubt you can use the internet normally on such a machine, for example how can you avoid flash?

    Maybe I am biased but it seems like using the terminal as a primary environment just seems cumbersome and backwards.

  2. 2 K.Mandla 2009/02/27 at 11:54 AM

    Primo: Well, your question implies I need things like Flash on a day-to-day basis. The answer is going to depend on each person.

    I resent Flash generally. I find it tends to smooth over the lack of real content on the Web today. There will be times when there is no avoiding it, but in my experience and for my purposes, a site that avoids Flash probably has better quality content.

    So to answer your question, the point of going to that extreme is to prove to me (and not necessarily anyone else, although there may be an occasional person who subscribes to the same principles) that I don’t need a graphical environment to do the same things I do on a daily basis.

    Every person’s experience is different though. What appears backwards or cumbersome to you or to me is often the best possible solution for someone else.

  3. 3 Bryan 2009/02/28 at 12:38 AM

    It seems to me that a couple of VT’s running dvtm would pretty well simulate an Awesome X session – at least better than screen would.

    Don’t get me wrong – screen is a wonderful piece of software, but I fail to see the need for the detach / retach silliness in 90% of cases.

    and dvtm pretty much picks up the dwm keybindings to which I’m accustomed.

  4. 4 Primo 2009/02/28 at 5:31 AM

    I guess that makes sense, I forgot to consider that my needs are not always what other peoples needs are.

    I am trying really hard to figure out what “useful” thing I can do with my P3 730Mhz arch box.

  5. 5 damaged justice 2009/02/28 at 10:52 AM

    With detach/reattach, I can move from machine to machine — go anywhere in the house, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection — and resume my existing session, with no interruption in the applications that are running. I originally started using screen because I wanted a way to cut and paste without a mouse, but for me, the detach/reattach has been the single greatest feature it provides.


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