Some system suggestions

I get e-mail, which is cool, and I have a tendency to lump them into categories … mentally, that is.

First come the unfortunate, plaintive e-mails asking about obscure hardware and begging for help. I always feel really bad, since it’s usually something I’ve never worked with (or heard of, for that matter), and I have to politely redirect the writer to the forums. Oftentimes though, that’s where they came from. … 😦

Next are the e-mails asking how to help Ubuntu or how to learn more about Linux, which i usually group together since they’re not specific to any particular problem, and are asking for references or encouragement. These are easy: In reply I usually suggest things like the ones I listed here, a long time ago.

But best of all are the “What can I do with this?” e-mails, which are fun. Usually the writer has an unusual piece of equipment — or on the other hand, a laptop identical to one I use — and offers a few war stories. Those are very enjoyable, since we get to swap suggestions and links, and I sometimes learn something new.

Depending on the system they describe, I usually offer one of these “systems” they might build. Of course, they always reply by saying, “Well, I really don’t like program X, so I think I’ll use Y instead.” That’s fine.

Under 150Mhz is the pure Pentium range, and while it’s possible to run a graphical desktop on these computers, it’s far more impressive and speedy to run a terminal-based machine that relies on the framebuffer for a few graphical applications. Listen to music with cplay or mpd. Play movies against the framebuffer with mplayer. Surf with elinks or links2 -g. View pdfs with … anyway, you get the picture. These systems are completely usable, if you’re willing to adopt a new perspective.

Between 150 and 400Mhz, I usually suggest Arch (provided it’s an i686), and a GTK1 or straight X desktop. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, most machines that old don’t have much video memory, and glitzy desktops or shiny buttons take too long to draw and redraw. It irritates me to watch that, and so I turn down the flashy stuff when I use those.

Second, since the machine doesn’t have much muscle, compiling can be an intimidating task. Something like Crux or the like is fast, but the tradeoff is a day to set it up. Go with precompiled software, suffer the speed difference, but console yourself in know that you’d still be compiling if it were any other way.

For software on that machine I’d use Joe’s Window Manager with the old GTK1 fonts, emelfm (not emelfm2) as a file manager, maybe Dillo as a browser, XMMS for a music player, Sylpheed-GTK1 for e-mail, set the desktop color with xsetroot, image viewing with xzgv and PDFs with xpdf … and so forth.

The closer you can stick to GTK1, the better (in my humble opinion of course). Essentially those machines date back to 1996 and earlier, which means you’re running a Windows 95-caliber environment, if you want a reasonably speedy machine. (But don’t immediately assume it’s going to be ugly.)

(Like I said already, that doesn’t mean you have to run a GTK1 desktop; you can do with it as much as you like — put Gnome on there … it’s not impossible, just impossible to use. 😀 But that’s the bottom line: I confess I’ve run full compositing on 300Mhz machines with 2Mb video memory. It was completely impractical, but it worked. You can do the same if you want. It’s your machine.)

Between 400Mhz and about 800Mhz, it’s worth it to me to compile. Now we’re talking about high-end Pentium IIs or low-end Pentium IIIs, some as new as only six or seven years old. And those have enough processor muscle to make the task worth the wait. And the tradeoff in speed in the final system is night-and-day over a precompiled distro.

If it were me, I’d probably use Arch again on these machines, or take the time to learn Crux. It’s hard to beat a 450Mhz machine that boots to a desktop in 25 seconds, or a 1Ghz machine that does the same thing in 16. That kind of speed makes you think you own a new laptop.

For software, you’re in the GTK2 range now, with enough video memory to make things pretty, and you can incorporate as many of those programs as you like. Things like PCManFM, Sylpheed, Kazehakase, Openbox-Fluxbox-IceWM or even pure XFCE (not Xubuntu!) work great and are very usable. Machines like this look smart and run fast, are cheap to maintain and you get the added sentimental attachment that comes with building something attractive and functional out of someone else’s discard. It’s very satisfying.

It’s also worth saying that the high end of this range, around 750Mhz and up, saves a lot of setup time and has a lot of success with minimal Ubuntu installations. Start with a command-line system and add on the graphical packages you want. So long as you steer clear of the excess (like most of the Gnome morass) you can build something light and speedy in a fraction of the time it takes to compile a few packages for Crux.

After 1Ghz or so, you’re leaving Pentium III territory and moving into Pentium 4s and equivalents, which are generally muscular enough to handle most heavy distros and desktops. This is where I start to consider things like Xubuntu, Kubuntu or Ubuntu, and Firefox with plugins.

I’m a bit of a prude when it comes to things like this, but I usually save a full-blown Gnome-and-Firefox setup for machines that run around 1.6Ghz and up. Like I said, I’m a bit conservative, but that’s because I have a very low tolerance for system lag and stutter. What seems normal and acceptable to other people is completely insufferable to me. A slight flaw in my character, I know.

The irony is that after 1.6Ghz or so, the difference between a speedy Arch system and a speedy Ubuntu system is not that great to me. I mean, I can sense that a sparse Ubuntu system on a 2Ghz machine boots slower than an Arch system on that hardware … but it’s not enough to make me want to use one over the other. (That being said of course, I have an Openbox-plus-custom-compiled-Arch system on my AMD64 now. 🙄 )

And so that’s where my suggestions run dry. I’ve worked with a few machines that were faster than 2Ghz, or were unique setups — like Centrino systems, hyperthreading Pentium 4s or dual Xeon Pentium 4s.

But once I get to a certain speed, Linux is Linux, no matter what ISO you use to install it. So if you’re running hardware that’s faster than 2Ghz, I can’t offer too many tips. You’re in a range of speed I don’t regularly deal with, and chances are most of my tricks would fall flat. 😐

But there you have it. If you want, you’re always free to differ, and it won’t hurt my feelings. And as always, feel free to swap war stories. 😀


6 thoughts on “Some system suggestions

  1. Jim Campbell

    Hello, I’m curious as to why you say “pure Xfce (but not Xubuntu)” in the one portion of your article. Do you not recommend Xubuntu because of their inclusion of some Gnome-based apps in some of the recent releases (specifically, 7.10)?

    Whatever the reason . . . I was just curious if you could be more specific about your reasoning. Thanks.

  2. alexandru

    i was about to ask the same question as jim.

    i had used both xubuntu and arch+xfce on my dualcore laptop. i have to admit that arch was less bloated, booted faster and gave more control over my system. the dark side is that arch had almost always something broken that annoyed me. I’ve spent too much time try to fix things in arch (or configuring them). on the other side xubuntu is very stable and I had no single problem with it. i would gladly try arch again, but perhaps when it will be more polished.

    my opinion is that xubuntu is a really good distro for those who want XFCE (like me).

  3. K.Mandla Post author

    @Jim: In short, yes. I drifted away from Xubuntu when it started to pick up so much of the Gnome structure, and performance started to fall off on the machines I used it for. There’s a stark difference between a system running straight Xubuntu and a machine that starts with a command-line installation and adds only XFCE and GTK2 applications. Try it and see what you think.

    @alexandru: On a dual core machine, like I said in the post, you’ve got enough muscle that you’re probably not going to notice a huge difference between Xubuntu and XFCE, or one distro over another. And that’s a good thing — it’s just not a good thing if you’re working at 600Mhz.

    But like I said, all of these suggestions are tempered by what you like and prefer, and what you can tolerate. I started using Xubuntu at 5.10, and in those days it was a very, very lightweight version of Ubuntu. When things started to get slower and slower, I stopped using it. If the developers and the Xubuntu user base are happy with a Gnome-based XFCE, it’s okay with me too. It’s all about freedom. 🙂

  4. johnraff

    Hi, still on XFCE/Xubuntu, I’m not quite clear- is Xubuntu just XFCE with a lot of (some heavy) extra apps, or is there something more underneath slowing things down?

    Or to put it another way, to get my current Xubuntu 7.04 system running a bit faster should I uninstall – or just not use – the bigger stuff, or is there some more to be done under the hood?

  5. K.Mandla Post author

    In general, Xubuntu has aligned itself more with the Gnome desktop in the past year or so. Originally it promised a GTK2 desktop wherever possible, but for the convenience of the developers and with the consent of its user base, it began relying more on the software prepacked in straight Ubuntu over lighter, non-Gnome-based alternatives.

    As a result, some people (like me) who work with very old hardware find Xubuntu to run at an unacceptable pace — something that basically comes as a result of running Gnome with XFCE added over top. So to answer your question, it’s not that there’s anything slowing things down underneath, it’s just that you’re essentially running regular Ubuntu with a different face on it. Slow is as slow does.

    How you feel about that is your personal decision. For my own part I find it undesirable, and as a result I no longer use Xubuntu. But if your hardware can handle that, and you find the Xubuntu interface preferable to the Gnome one, I would suggest you keep it. It’s all about freedom. 🙂

  6. johnraff

    I started Xubuntu at 5.10 too, and while on my 450MHZ/128MB box it ran OK I found it a bit lacking in user-friendliness. Around Dapper or Edgy with the new version of XFCE it seemed to improve immensely with all the things I wanted (desktop icons – not just launchers – , printing and scanning out of the box, usb sticks could just be plugged in…) and maybe a bit faster too… It’s just recently that it seems to be moving in a Gnomier direction.

    I may well take your advice and try straight XFCE on a ubuntu server install some day – or, when I “know my hardware inside out”, even with Arch.


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