More reasons to learn from old computers

I’m still a bit wired over the post from a day or two ago, insisting that a 1.7Ghz machine with a healthy amount of RAM and a decent-sized hard drive would be a detriment to anyone learning Linux.

More and more that strikes me as completely counterintuitive, and for plenty of reasons. I already explained that an older machine is a challenge, whereas a newer machine is a luxury.

But honestly, when someone wants to learn Linux, or at least try it out, I don’t recommend they go buy a new computer. I suggest they find a 4- or 5-year-old laptop, and learn the ropes that way.

And aside from three reasons to buy old machines instead of new ones — power demands, noise levels and Linux compatibility — there are other good reasons to use an old computer to learn about penguins.

  1. Cheaper. That’s probably the most obvious one. Suggesting someone needs a high-end machine to learn Linux suggests they need a new computer to use Linux, and that’s implying money. I wouldn’t endorse that under any circumstances. Save your money and use an old machine for your education.
  2. More impressive. Geeks love to see computers burst to life in a blaze of glory. No one will be impressed if you install Linux on a flashy new octuple-core super-personal-computer with 12Gb of memory and a terabyte hard drive. Do the same thing on a 12-year-old Pentium and geeks get interested. Heck, pull that off and you can even start your own blog. :roll:
  3. Expendable. If you forget to compile fan support into your kernel, and you end up melting your 333Mhz Pentium II processor into a puddle of goo, you might be sad for about 15 minutes, and then you’ll find a replacement on eBay for US$12. Do the same thing with a 6-month-old quad-core, and you’ll be crying in your tasty beverage. (Oh, and do that with your 66Mhz 486DX laptop though, and you might be crying in your tasty beverage too. :| … Wait, did 486s even have processor fans? :roll: )
  4. Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility. Why run the risk of having to wait six or eight months for software support to catch up with a new computer, when you can get started immediately with a leftover 750Mhz Thinkpad? Support for older machines has been honed and refined over the past decade, and then at least you have the relative assurance that if something goes wrong, it’s probably not the software.
  5. Historical lessons. This is a bit oddball, but if you work with older machines for long enough, you start to understand the hardware evolution as well. I knew zilch about the switch from straight PCMCIA to CardBus until I ran aground with a 100Mhz laptop. I knew zip-zero-nada about ISA sound cards until I finally got one working with Debian. Spend some time with an old computer and you see how the arc of technological history traveled. …
  6. Power suckers. You can argue this point with me if you like, but I will stand on any sinking ship so long as I can continue to insist that a 14-year-old laptop has a lower power draw than your octuple-core behemoth. You won’t convince me otherwise. Sorry.
  7. Cheaper (to upgrade). What’s it take to max out the memory in a Celeron laptop? Uh-huh. And what’s it cost to buy a comparable amount of memory for your quad-core laptop? Uh-huh. So long as you’re spending money on your education, you might as well save some for pizza. Feed your brain and your face, on less of your precious cash.
  8. Enlightenment. This is an off-kilter one, but there’s something to be said for finding your way out of technological imprisonment and trimming your life requirements down to a smaller, older, and less powerful machine. If you can rely more and more on that old computer to teach you Linux, you might learn a few things about maximalism in life, too.

No, no. More and more it’s just obvious to me that you really should learn the ropes with a leftover, secondhand machine with mid-grade specs at best. Going over the top, hardware-wise, just to learn a new operating system strikes me as ill-conceived. Not that my opinion matters, though. :|

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19 Responses to “More reasons to learn from old computers”


  1. 1 seidos 2010/10/27 at 10:00 AM

    Great blog post. I have a 1.47Ghz duo core toshiba laptop with 2gb ram, and i feel ashamed to even be posting a comment :(. the idea of getting another notebook to play with linux on older hardware really does sound like a fun thing to try. maybe i’ll do it after i get everything running on this notebook that i want (i’m presently using it as a web server and torrent server, plus my “workstation” for lack of a better term). i still need to install wordpress and move over my blog to my domain.

    anyway, love your blog. it’s always interesting to hear about your adventures, i can only imagine what a struggle they must be at times. thanks for being out there. and thanks for your opinion, it matters to me.

  2. 2 idwer hagollin 2010/10/27 at 10:32 AM

    i have a pentium 4 laptop with 640MB (max) ram and it runs ubuntu minimal with Lxde/enlightenment. it was beautiful setting it up and i proudly still take it to the library to use for study/school work.

    the only thing i have to note is that RAM upgrades are on the contrary more expensive for older generation machines. newer/current gen ram is cheaper – at least here in the Uk.

    Great post. I think every geek should have some old hardware he/she has conquered :-)

  3. 3 Calabane 2010/10/27 at 12:17 PM

    I have been reading your blog for over a year now and have recently really started to push towards true enlightment on my personal laptop which is a Dell Inpirion 4100 w/ 256 MB mem and and is the first and so far only personal laptop I ever owned, which dates back to the turn of the century. (I love being able to say that) At the beginning of this month I installed Archlinux on it using a 32 GB compact flash card to make it solid state as you had mentioned doing in one of your posts. So far so good. Again thanks for all the posts and the inpiration. I’ll let you know how it goes. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

    • 4 Glenn Becker 2010/10/28 at 3:29 AM

      The 4100 has been my own like-a-rock since 2002 or so. :) Nice to know it has a sibling out there.

      • 5 Calabane 2010/10/28 at 4:54 AM

        I picked up a working 4000 out of a dumpster to cannibalize for spare parts, but luckily haven’t needed to use it yet. Even the 4000 is a solid little machine and it runs like a charm as well. I decided last week that I am going to pull the trigger and max out the memory in the 4100 to a whole gig. I think it deserves as much after almost a decade of service. We should share pictures sometime. ;)

  4. 6 Armor Nick 2010/10/27 at 1:07 PM

    Once again, I agree 1000000 % (beyond the laws of the universe :D ) that hardware compatibility is responsible for most of the angry posts in the testimonials forum of ubuntu. Trying linux with older hardware is not only better for the user, but also saves some trouble for the ubuntu forum staff.

    Also, it should have been the first thing to come to my mind, but this post actually gave me the idea to look for old laptops on eBay. I really didn’t think of that before.

    Btw, getting a € 25 Dell Latitude c600 soon :D (not eBay, btw)

  5. 7 Karthik 2010/10/27 at 1:10 PM

    “I can continue to insist that a 14-year-old laptop has a lower power draw than your octuple-core behemoth.”

    Why do you compare old laptops with “octuple-core behemoths”?

    I have a Dell Inspiron 1500 from 2004, a 1.7 GHz Pentium M with 512 MB of RAM. Powertop tells me it sucks 25W when idle, and it is noisy as an industrial drier. My present laptop, an ASUS with a 1.7 GHz CULV processor, has a power draw of 6-8 W on idle, and runs cool and silent.

    Barring high end workstations, newer generations of processors are about as energy efficient as older ones in the same class; compare the Pentium 4 with the Core 2 series. There are plenty of reasons to run Linux on older hardware; I don’t think power demands is one of them.

  6. 8 Earthling 2010/10/27 at 1:55 PM

    Gotta raise a concern on the power issue. Sure, an old laptop uses less power than an new high-power gaming system. On the other hand, using an old tower PC as a 24/7 firewall wastes a tremendous amount of power compared to a modern ultra low power system. It is always good to measure the actual consumption to figure out what a server is going to add to your utility bill.

    • 9 Gary 2010/10/28 at 4:39 AM

      If older machines are less green and generate more heat due to more power consumption then put it to good use like I do. My geek room is a converted bedroom and in the winter I just close that door and let the PC slowly heat the room up – it get so nice and toasty in there that I don’t want to go to bed :)

      I remember a friend of mine years ago running a server from his apartment and using the excess heat generated to slowly dry his washing!

      You need to be (as this blog is) smart and think outside the square. Wasted energy is just that but some of that can be put to good use too.

      • 10 Matthew 2010/11/13 at 6:35 AM

        Considering the electronics’ heat emissions a good use of power is not very smart. Electrical power is very expensive, compared to oil or propane. Plus, ~50% of electrical power is lost in the transmission from the power station. Electric blankets and electric space heaters are not an efficient use of resources.

        • 11 Gary 2010/11/13 at 12:00 PM

          Great Scott! I must investigate the possibility of an oil or propane powered PC…

          Electrical power is very expensive you are correct but please identify why it is so expensive. It is the electrical company keeping shareholders pockets full whilst knowing the average joe cannot do without electricity – most of us know electricity pricing (especially in NZ) is a complete rip off. If 50% of power is lost in delivery then we all better ask for a 50% discount on our bills!

          Now, where can i find an old 486 to keep in my bed as a bed warmer/mp3 player/alarm clock :)

  7. 12 bpalone 2010/10/27 at 11:51 PM

    Great post!!!

    I agree that an older system is the way to go to learn a new OS and also to learn a bit about hardware. Someone new to Linux shouldn’t go to far back on hardware time line though. Some of the issues will become to big for them to figure out, unless they are really devoted to the learning experience. But, anything say 7 years old or newer should work fine.

    Here is my current educational experience:

    GALPon MiniNo, on a Compaq Presario 1600 XL, 128 meg ram and spacious hard drive. I have two of them, one with a 450 Mhz processor and the other with a 500 Mhz processor. The OS weighs in nicely at around 32 meg and the GUI is pretty responsive. Now, to get everything working. Which is part of the fun and why we do this.

  8. 14 John Ortiz 2010/10/28 at 1:27 AM

    I have an old PC with a poor hardware. I use it for test lightweight Linux distributions. Thanks for this information!

  9. 15 Matthew 2010/10/28 at 4:11 AM

    Also, I add to that list the environmental reasons to re-use computers. The electronics in a computer makes a toxic soup, when the base metal is salvaged at “computer recyclers” (the term being a stretch, since the material is not used for new computers). The fact is that the computer we trash very often still work, and getting them working with GNU software helps keep landfills and water supplies cleaner.

  10. 16 KeithB 2010/10/29 at 1:16 AM

    @bpalone GALpon looks very interesting! Thanks.

    I suspect there is a U curve. Very recent hardware, driver issues. Really old hardware, compatibility with recent kernels, memory demands &c.

    Middle period hardware: can run a popular distro OK so easy to get started, but desire for snappier performance will lead the owner onto fiddling and trying out new lighter distros.

    My most recent discovery is puredyne.org – a music full workstation on a 6 year old laptop…

  11. 17 samspade 2010/10/29 at 8:16 PM

    Mr Mandla I know you are not a troubshooter but I wonder if you could help a regular reader of your blog (me) with an opinion?

    I’ve been running Puppy Linux (world’s best distro?) on an old Compaq Celreon for about two years with no trouble.

    Yesterday, at boot the symbol “]” kept appearing on my screen. When I opened any word processor or other software this symbol “]” keept appearing over and over.

    Naturally my first thought was a jammed keyboard as a coin did disappear under there years ago and rattles around but has never caused a problem. However a few shakes of the whole laptop and whacks of each key didn’t help. The other strange thing is that the cursor will whack out this symbol a hundred times, stop, do a couple more, wait again, then do hundreds more when I touch a single key. I assume a stuck key would keep repeating at a constant rate?

    I also disconnected all usb sticks, and other attchments, no change.

    In short I want to ask: do you think this is more likely a virus or hardware fault?

    Thanks,
    Greg

  12. 18 Dmitry 2010/10/30 at 1:02 AM

    I make my Linux experiments with Presario C300 which has 1.6GHz and 1Gb RAM. It is 4 years old now.
    Everything looks fine there, and I was never upset with drivers existence.
    On other hand, I have new&shining Toshiba laptop bought around last Christmas. None of Linux distros could match drivers for LAN or WiFi cards there yet!


  1. 1 Links 27/10/2010: Red Hat CEO on Growth, Fedora 14 Preview | Techrights Trackback on 2010/10/28 at 4:26 AM

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