I got a note from benj1 the other day, about a Phoronix test of an “old” machine running two or three different flavors of Ubuntu, and how the Pentium 4 and Radeon AGP card performed.
I usually rant at this point about how Pentium 4 machines aren’t old, and how they’re plenty fast to handle modern Linux-based software, and how there’s no reason to banish a 2.8Ghz machine to the closet. But people have heard me whine about that for a very, very long time, and whether or not people listen is immaterial any more. I could say you don’t need a new computer because the old one works fine, and I could say that you don’t need a new car because the old one works fine, and there would still be people crawling out of the woodwork to point at any real or imagined faults on either side.
Use whatever machine you like, and if it doesn’t work as well as you would hope, that’s for you to deal with. I type this on a 14-year-old Pentium machine that boots to the login prompt in under 26 seconds — faster than my dual-core can reach the desktop with Ubuntu 10.04 — and I consider that no loss of function or speed. And so long as it keeps running, I intend to keep using it.
The surprising thing about the Phoronix test though, is how poorly Ubuntu has degraded with respect to those “old” machines. I really expected any version to run any core test (not so much graphics tests though) with the same level of performance, instead of holding out such a marked difference.
But they didn’t, and that obvious discrepancy that says two things to me.
- First, it suggests that Ubuntu, and possibly Linux, is getting chunkier all the time. True, the target machine for the Ubuntu crowd is not a single-core Pentium 4 any more; Ubuntu wants to tackle Microsoft and Apple, and so the systems should probably be written for machines that are contemporaries of those OSes.
I can accept that as a reason, but not an excuse. Linux is always touted as a lighter, faster option — I do a lot of the touting too — but it’s beginning to appear that as Ubuntu ages, it relies on hardware to compensate for software bloat — and the bloat is considerable. I resent that.
- Second, and perhaps more importantly, I can’t endorse full-blown, up-to-date software stacks for “old” hardware any more. I usually tell people with “old” machines to use the current version anyway, hinging on the belief that newer Linux-based software isn’t bracketed around a particular generation of hardware.
I’ve advised people countless times on the forums to use command-line installations of the freshest version of Ubuntu over out-of-date versions, because many people coming from a Windows environment assume that a four-year-old machine needs four-year-old software. And with Microsoft, yes, that is the case.
And now with Ubuntu (and perhaps even with Linux in general), it also appears to be the case. Dropping back to 8.04, which will be around for a very very long time to come, might just be the best plan for a machine that predates quad-core, 16Gb “family computers.” So long as the software is going to hog space and allow itself to become insufferably obese, then it makes sense to reach back to a time when there wasn’t as much space to work with. It’s either that, or build it yourself.
How much of this is inherited from Debian and other upstream projects is beyond my ability to read. I don’t use Ubuntu on a daily basis, and when I do use it, I consider it a brief stopover to a more enlightened destination.
But the real and final tragedy here is the number of distros, either derivative or offshoot, that are based on the Ubuntu superstructure but targeted on old hardware — and notice here that I didn’t put the word “old” in quotes. I’m talking now about distros that have Pentium III and earlier computers in their list of “appropriate hardware,” because anything built on those newer versions of Ubuntu is going to likewise be genetically predisposed toward weight gain.
I am confident and calm that many of those distros — OSes like Puppy Linux, which I admire greatly but aligned itself with Ubuntu in recent renditions — will either take a crowbar to the beast and whack it down to size, or see an alternative elsewhere and make the appropriate choice. Personally I abandoned Ubuntu quite a while ago and wouldn’t recommend it for anything without at least 512Mb of memory and a Pentium 4 in it, but now I see that I have to add another caveat to that … one that says Ubuntu 8.04.4 is your best bet.