One week at 100Mhz: Lessons learned

The week has finally wound down, and I’m calling an end to the 100Mhz experiment. It was an interesting run, and I’m glad I followed it through to the end.

I say that because I was tempted about halfway through to call it quits, mostly for hardware reasons. Maybe it’s my imagination, but that stuttering power switch seems to be more of a problem as the days wear on. And it just plain scares me to watch the power flicker through the entire machine like that. That can’t be good for a 12-year-old computer. Or an 8-year-old wireless card and a two-week-old hard drive.

Overall I learned a lot during this little adventure. And with the notes I kept I think I can make some advances with that machine in the future — if the hardware holds out, of course.

I think the biggest revelation in the entire week was just how light and fast a machine can run, if you forego graphical toolkits completely and rely on terminal applications. Xorg 7.3 itself, for whatever reason, runs amazingly light on that hardware, but shifting to a console-only enviroment makes it unstoppable.

That’s the reason I rebuilt my 550Mhz Celeron today with Awesome 2.3.4 and console applications only — nothing from either of the GTK sets, no fonts save Terminus and no icons. I’m using mplayer for movies, cplay et al. for music and elinks for browsing. It’s quite a bit faster than the Pentium, and that’s only natural, but the difference between this and the previous installation with a graphic environment is also a huge improvement.

Regardless of the software, the system still needs something to act as an intermediary for USB or SD card or CD access. It’s a hard fact that a machine without a CD player just isn’t going to be able to use a CD. πŸ™„ So even if I were to use the machine full time, I’d still need something else on the side to pick up the slack created by relying on a machine that predates widespread USB use.

Since I’m discussing hardware, it goes without saying that the best idea for a machine like this is to make sure it’s running at 100 percent, and not have to worry about trivial details, like stuttering power switches. πŸ™„

And since I mentioned it, yes, I do believe I could continue to use the machine full time, for daily tasks. There would always be blind spots on it, but to be honest there wasn’t much I ran across in a week of use that the machine couldn’t at least work around.

Software-wise, I think I made only one small error, and that was to rely on emacs over vim. Nano proved to be a washout, since it wouldn’t do the line-wrapping-without-linefeed trick, but emacs was a monster on a machine with only 16Mb of memory, and there wasn’t a really good reason for keeping it on there. I’ve looked at vimwiki and a few other vim options since then, and I think, if I had it to do over again, vim would be the way to go.

But to be too honest, I am probably just a crackpot. It takes a strange mentality to consider downgrading your entire collection of laptop computers to a single machine that doesn’t even have a CDROM. I doubt there are many people who will agree with the idea, so I will only say that I wouldn’t be uncomfortable shifting to a 100Mhz machine with 16Mb.

On the other hand, I used to own a Compaq Presario 1020 in museum condition, and that one with the same arrangement would have easily erased every other machine from my menagerie. One hundred and twenty megahertz, 48Mb of memory, CDROM, integrated JBL speakers and a 1.08Gb hard drive that I would immediately swap out for something with some speed.

Yup, that was the machine to keep. Only I didn’t, and I kick myself on occasion for getting rid of it. Oh well. Hindsight, etc., etc.

So the moral of the story, with the entire week in the rear view mirror, is that there’s little you can’t do with an old computer like that, so long as you’re willing to take the time to learn it, set it up and get used to it. Make a few allowances here and there, keep an open mind, don’t put too much pressure to perform on yourself or the machine, and yes, you too can live free and easy with a computer you found in the trash.

But hey, if it’s a nice enough machine, it’s anything but trash. πŸ™‚

10 thoughts on “One week at 100Mhz: Lessons learned

  1. Nergui

    Once again, regarding editors, I feel compelled to suggest Zile:

    It’s a lightweight clone of Emacs. The only potential drawback I see is lack of Unicode support; whether that’s a dealbreaker depends on your needs.

    Actually, though, Vim is my own full-time editor, and I’m perfectly happy with it. I just know you found Vi traumatic and already put some time into learning Emacs, so it couldn’t hurt to try.

  2. Marshall

    Interesting that I came upon this blog: I run my recent dual-core Vostro 1500 the exact same way you run your 550 Mhz compy. However, I have an older computer that I turned in to a server and torrent machine by adding an external hard drive – it runs at my house a state away (I’m in college) and downloads torrents I scp into its download directory, and places them in a directory I can access via apache. There’s always something useful that can be done with an old computer.

  3. An_dynas

    Thank you for this experiment, K. As always your insight and your writing are lucid. I, like lots of people, will occasionally dabble in console apps, mostly to get that lightening-fast response time for simple tasks we have come not to expect from modern, cushy distros.

    Here’s my question, if you had to suggest one console app that people should really try and use in a functional way, what would it be? And you can’t say any word-processor since that is one (possibly the only) arena where true WYSIWYG is of value. What do you say?

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      An_dynas: Hmm. I think for sheer function, elinks is something that deserves better attention. But the question might be a little too broad; after all, there are probably a half-dozen terminal applications worth investigating fully, but they fall into different “categories” and are standouts in those groups. Let me think about this a little longer, and maybe I can come up with a better list. πŸ˜‰

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  5. siavash

    thanks for article , i learned so much from it
    i like your hardware page so much πŸ˜‰

  6. Jason

    I’m such a sucker for old hardware. I dig old PC’s out of dumpsters every day on my way to work and spend the day dreaming about what I’ll turn them in to when I get home.

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  9. Pingback: zile: A lighter, cleaner emacs | Inconsolation

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