So long as I’m harping on desktops for Pentium-era machines running Debian, I might as well give a run-down on what I personally would (and sometimes do) use. Provided you’re not going to dedicate the machine to a singular task and imprison it in the closet, this might actually make a machine usable for you, all the way down to around 100Mhz.
Which release you use is up to you, since it doesn’t really affect anything except the version of the application … or whether an application is available at all. In that sense, I make no endorsement except perhaps to say that working out of testing is not all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, it’s as close to a rolling-release Debian as you’ll get, but the things I use still seem a step behind Arch or for that matter Crux. The same ground rule applies as ever: If you want stable reliable software you follow Debian’s style, and if you want something cutting edge you move out into the wilderness. Don’t be shy. Jump in with both feet.
First on the list and probably the most important, is to pick out a console font that makes your eye happy and uses screen space efficiently. Provided you have the framebuffer working on your computer (and if Debian can handle the framebuffer on this ancient, eccentric machine, it can probably handle yours too), I recommend something like the Terminus font. It’s strictly a matter of preference though.
After that, I would recommend screen, except that the Debian version does two things I find less-than-enjoyable. For one, it includes a single-character-width bar between vertical panels, which eats screen space and serves no purpose. Second, it always redistributes the screen space evenly, which I don’t want. I want to be able to adjust individual frames to suit the application I’m running.
For those reasons I recommend rebuilding screen from scratch and patching it manually. The directions here are aimed at Ubuntu but will work with Debian too; there may be minor differences in packaging versions but it worked fine for me and compiled in a reasonable amount of time at 120Mhz.
On top of that, and this might sound somewhat unusual, but I recommend installing dvtm as well. Why? Isn’t that hypocritical since you just knocked Debian’s screen for including a vertical divider? Maybe yes, but I say that mostly because screen and dvtm complement each other quite nicely. I would like to be able to group frames in screen and pop them in and out, but that’s not really possible. At the same time, once something is running in a dvtm window, it’s a bit awkward to shuffle around.
By combining them both, you can do things like paste htop and iftop in a pair of horizontally arranged windows in dvtm in one screen frame, label them “monitors” and bounce in and out any time you need a system or network profile. Purists will say that screen and dvtm are two sides of the same coin, but using them both in conjunction gives you a different and innovative way of managing parts of your workload.
It might be best to tackle the biggest issue up front: So long as you have a working framebuffer you have the ability to use links2 as a browser, and get a satisfactory graphical experience from an otherwise console-based experience.
Test runs at 120Mhz suggest this is a clean and brisk way to browse without overburdening the machine to a point of unusability. Firefox with Flash it is not, but if you are an unbeliever and demand a graphical browser on a Pentium Pro, this will satisfy. Furthermore, adding fbi to your system brings along fbgs, which allows you to display images and pdf files, respectively. For the reverse, try fbgrab and share your desktops with the world.
Before this turns into a list of random framebuffer-based applications, I’ll stop and say that my own personal preference is for the terminal-based applications listed here, supplemented with a few from here. Not everything listed is included in the Debian repos, but what isn’t there is usually small enough to compile at a low clock speed without waiting a week.
The converse of that is true though too — there are quite a few applications in the repos that I don’t even consider for my day to day patterns of use. Look into fbset for unusual terminal dimensions or rotated displays, jfbterm or fbiterm for an international terminal emulator, or some others.
I have a feeling my Debian adventure is drawing to a close, but I have no doubts I’ll be putting it back on this machine. I have a few more stops before that though. ;)