A Windows XP-ish Debian at 120Mhz

The novelty in this is not in the desktop arrangement; I’ve been slowly tweaking and adjusting this setup for the better part of a year. In fact the fun part of this is that I’ve never been able to arrange it on this machine, even though I wanted to for quite a while.

One of my earliest coups with the late 100Mhz Pentium laptop, the close relative to this one, was a stripped-down Crux-driven IceWM desktop. But even at that early date, I could tell that a machine with only 16Mb was suffering with graphical interfaces — low memory meant constant thrashing at the swap space, and on a machine this slow, the delays were magnified exponentially.

Over time I pruned down toolkits and visual frills until the most usable and expedient X-driven desktop was running Xorg 7.3, Musca and an array of terminal-based programs. And it complemented the same array of programs I use daily on my other systems.

So really, this is not an improvement, just an experiment. I won’t be trading in the framebuffer-plus-screen setup I normally run for something that looks like the Windows XP Classic theme. On the other hand, it’s interesting to look at.

I’m still pleased with Debian for managing to keep things light, and at the same time streamlining most of the setup and tweaking required with building your own system. X, on the whole, is a bloated twisted train wreck of an application suite, and one I heartily recommend you drop like a bad habit. But until something better comes along, Debian can set it up quickly and efficiently.

It’s not all happy puppies and sunshine though. For almost half a decade now I’ve been flummoxed by the need (in both Debian and its offspring, to include Ubuntu) to bring in dozens of drivers for hardware that I don’t even own. I have software and packages on this Pentium now that represent the majority of PC technology for at least the past 14 years, if not longer. Why? I don’t know. I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Pointing the finger at X again, I know very well that it’s possible to run the C&T graphics card at a whopping 800x600x16, but Xorg 7.4 and xserver-xorg 1.7.4+/- can’t seem to handle it. I’ve even crammed a custom-edited xorg.conf file into its jaws, and got a bizarre, psychedelic rendition of what you see above. I would’ve needed leftover 3D glasses from Avatar to use it comfortably. Trust me — the 60s were not so great that I want them on my desktop.

So I drop back and punt (I think that’s the expression) and what you see is 640x480x24. Once I do that it’s where I’m trapped until I reboot though; it’s the same age-old issue I have with going back to the terminal after starting X in Ubuntu … and yes, I know how to fix that.

And I know I am fighting against the tide here, but adding hal-dbus-et-al to the requirements for X still simply annoys me. A year and a half ago you could get the same things done as now, just with less micromanaging and fewer daemons running interference. I still don’t consider that an improvement, and probably never will.

No, X doesn’t liberate a 120Mhz machine, since I still rely mostly on terminal applications. I have Xfe running in that picture, as well as a few other simple GTK2-driven applications in place (other toolsets don’t favor the XP look ;) ), but honestly to get anything done, I rely on rxvt-unicode. (I only wish Musca was in the Debian repos. ;) )

Redraws and shifting things are just too slow at 640x480x24 and I don’t remember 800x600x16 being much better with any graphical toolkit. Windows skip when I move them. The pointer flickers, and there’s a delay between clicking the mouse and the action on the screen. Startup is sluggish, and while it’s better than it was with 16Mb, it’s still irritating enough to warrant throwing the entire business overboard.

Which will be my next step, as soon as I get done typing this. Adding memory was liberating for this machine in the sense that it opened the choice of distros quite a bit. But after that, there’s not much it can do to make a graphical desktop more useful. I stand by my original suggestion: If you’re running a machine this old and want to use it practically, jettison post-7.3 Xorg, or stick with the framebuffer. It’s the only sane solution.

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7 Responses to “A Windows XP-ish Debian at 120Mhz”


  1. 1 reacocard 2010/01/24 at 9:20 AM

    FWIW, hal is being deprecated in Xorg in favor of using udev directly, so we won’t have to deal with this mess too much longer: http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=Nzg1Mg

  2. 2 K.Mandla 2010/01/24 at 10:12 AM

    I thought I had read that somewhere, but I didn’t want to mention it for fear I had only dreamed it. Thanks for mentioning it; good riddance, I say.

  3. 3 Luca 2010/01/24 at 7:32 PM

    “Windows skip when I move them. The pointer flickers, and there‚Äôs a delay between clicking the mouse and the action on the screen. Startup is sluggish”

    It sounds like you have the whole Windows experience down to a tee :)

  4. 4 ajlec2000 2010/01/24 at 11:33 PM

    I’m pretty sure that, in Ubuntu at least, all those drivers are there in the hopes that someone new to linux will more likely get their particular box up and running. When I look back to the troubles I had getting what I wanted out of those first distros I had tried I have to think its a good idea. If Ubuntu had turned out to be as difficult as the ones I had previously tried I’m sure I would have given up on linux. And considering how dis-satisfied I was with Windows my first computer would have turned into a five hundred dollar mailbox and I would have gone back to stamp collecting as my hobby.


  1. 1 Rounding out a terminal-based Debian system « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/01/24 at 11:48 AM
  2. 2 A Windows XP-ish Debian at 120Mhz | Debian-News.net - Your one stop for news about Debian Trackback on 2010/01/25 at 3:24 AM
  3. 3 hal’s day of reckoning « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/06/22 at 11:07 PM

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Some recent desktops


May 6, 2011
Musca 0.9.24 on Crux Linux
150Mhz Pentium 96Mb 8Gb CF
 


May 14, 2011
IceWM 1.2.37 and Arch Linux
L2300 core duo 3Gb 320Gb

Some recent games


Apr. 21, 2011
Oolite on Xubuntu 11.04
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