Old hardware a handicap? Au contraire!

I spat out my metaphorical coffee this morning, when I read this line, in regard to a 1.7Ghz Athlon with 256Mb and a 60Gb hard drive.

A machine that underpowered (mainly the ram size) will be a serious handicap when learning Linux. … All your choices will be driven by the limited ram. Even so, your time will be wasted waiting for even the lightweight applications you chose to do simple things.

Whoa, waitaminute. A 1.7Ghz machine with a healthy 256Mb will be a handicap to learning Linux? A handicap? Even when armed with lightweight applications?

I have to disagree, but before I do that, I have to ask a small question: What is meant by “learning Linux?”

Because if “learning Linux” is navigating through the latest rendition of Gnome, with spinning desktops and fancy eye doodads and a quadraphonic Blaupunkt, then yeah, sure, I almost agree.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account that all the way up to Ubuntu 8.10, I was playtesting Gnome desktops on a 1Ghz machine with a measly 512Mb in it. A 1.7Ghz machine with half of that would still have been at least usable … until 10.04, anyway.

But if you’re talking about learning Linux — I mean really getting down and dirty with it, and not just trying to figure out which Compiz plugin is your favorite — then my money says there’s no better solution than something hopelessly underpowered.

Why? Simply because a low-power, underachiever machine is unforgiving. It is restrained by hardware and time and you will know immediately if you’ve done something wrong on a machine with no real muscle to it.

Make a mistake on a dual-core machine, and yes, you’ll know about it. Leave off a kernel boot flag or misconfigure /etc/inittab, and yes, things will become frazzled.

But you don’t make the same mistake twice on a low-end machine because it’s considerably painful when you do. You learn your lessons the first time, when you scramble your filesystem or misconfigure Grub. Because recovering takes longer and you have time to consider the weight of your actions.

Of course, you’re free to approach the beast from any direction, and if you want to tackle a new operating system with a machine that requires its own zip code and power substation, you are free to do so.

But I can also say that I learned a lot more about Linux from a wildly unpredictable 100Mhz machine, and even more from a rancid little K6-2, than I ever did from a dual core Thinkpad. I enjoy having it, but I don’t count it among my educational treasures.

Old machine a handicap? Quite the opposite, thank you. 😈

16 thoughts on “Old hardware a handicap? Au contraire!

  1. Robert Hickman

    Since when has a 1.7Ghz Athlon with 256Mb been underpowered, the machines most people are using nowadays are ridiculously overpowered for what they are used for, running at 1% CPU usage 99% of the time!

    Im with you, The best way to actually learn Linux is to force yourself to live on the CLI, on an old box for a week. Most beginners try to treat the OS like Windows, which it isn’t. The true power of the OS only shows when it stands on its own.

  2. vespas

    I did my entire phd on such a machine. When I complained about the ram (matlab gobbles it up at unbelievable rates), my supervisor reminded me that he did *his* phd on a pentium 1. Oh what fun when I tried last year to replace a dead memory stick on warranty: the (19 year old) shop technician told me he had never seen one so old (from 2001) and even though the warranty was lifetime, it could not be honoured due to lack of replacements. So I got a refund at the current price: €9.

  3. scannerdarkly

    Hope this stands aside from what everyone else is saying.

    Where I work, they make no variation between UNIX OSes. “UNIX is UNIX*” my boss will say. Debian, CentOS, Ubuntu, Solaris 10.. it’s all the same to him.. except Ubuntu makes things easier. This is from a systems & networking perspective so graphical applications aren’t even involved. Proportionally represented that’s where *nix still has the majority of its users and credit.

    The other side of the coin is Ubuntu, take it or leave it, it’s popularised GNU/Linux for the masses through ease of use. Usually books on “learning Linux” are either for the server use in which most people probably call it UNIX anyway*, or the graphical Ubuntu desktop OS use. Hardly any of the software on this blog is mentioned elsewhere or is resurrecting and prolonging the life of old equipment. The closest you get in the Puppy Linux crowd because it’s basically an easy to use graphical desktop for older system. All the aforementioned connotes to a totally different philosophy. The systems & networking guys just want the best tool for the job. They want something to display their Cacti graphs and don’t care what OS is behind it. The Windows-switchers and Ubuntu/desktop users want big modern, shiny desktops and do things with a button click. If something doesn’t work both parties will get a new one.

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  5. bpalone

    Hey, I must be drastically under powered. My main laptop is a 1.4Ghz Celeron, with 1.25 gig ram and runs XP once in a while, but runs Ubuntu Hardy 8.04 just fine and even does some virtual machine running with VirtualBox. Desktop, is not much better, AMD Athlon 3200 (2Ghz), 2 gig ram.

    I guess I just don’t like all the eye candy. The old (and still today) software philosophy of do one thing and do it well is still king in my opinion.

  6. dragonbite

    My current system is 1.6GHz w/1GB of Ram and I even have Wobbly-windows!

    From a Windows user point of view (where each iteration requires more and more powerful computers, plus that what you buy now is, as somebody mentioned above, ridiculously overpowered for most users) this may seem true but Netbooks also proven otherwise.

    I work on Gimp. I do video editing.

    It’s kinda like the CPU myth that Apple fought long and hard when they were running on G* chips and there was a disparity between the MHz from them and what Intel was offering.

    I have a P4 machine with 2.5 GB of Ram and both Ubuntu and Windows 7. Guess which one is almost so painfully slow as to be unusable? (*hint: it isn’t the free one!).

  7. Philologus

    i quit using plain ubuntu on my dual-core toshiba with 2gb ram and switched to a base install debian with e17. I like the fact that i can dedicate most of my memory and cpu cycles to doing work and not just running the gui.

    life is now good. It’s the only window manager i know that’ll crash and restart without touching your open apps! And yes, i cycled through Kde,Xfce,Lxde to mention a few. my soul has found rest at last.

  8. Michael

    It’s all perspective. I somehow get day-to-day task done on my 900Mhz eee pc with 512MB RAM and 4GB SSD This site always seems to show how to improvise with fewer resources.

  9. lefty.crupps

    For whatever reason, I am a big fan of ‘underpowered’ hardware and seeing what I can do with it (partly because its often considered ‘underpowered’ and I get it for free!). It’s much more interesting to stree an old machine than seeing what I can do with a quad-core machine (which is pretty much anything). Occasionally I’ll pull out some older P2 laptop and boot a new LiveCD to see how it performs, perhaps installing it, seeing what CLI and GUI apps I can run.

    Running my OS as CLI (with [ctrl][alt]f1] for example) and turning off some services also allows me to work on my EeePC laptop for longer periods of time (while in the car for example), so knowing the command line can be very useful there as well.

  10. WDS

    I also like to see what an old machine can do. Right now i am using a Pentium II with a Pentium III 600 mhz CPU and 256 MB of ram running PCLINUXOS LXDE. The only thing that slows it down is when the package manager is opened and used and if something is wrong you find out quickly. I have a computer i got for free with an AMD Thunderbird 1.4 ghz with 512 mb of ram running XP. It is now my eBay/website work station. Since we are a disposable impatient society a lot of still usable hardware gets trashed. The person that wrote the article must buy a new computer every year.

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  13. notzed

    Well they have a point – have you tried any ‘modern’ distributions? You can barely even install them with 256mb of memory, let alone bring up the default login manager. Although using xdm and a plain window manager they are fine. I did years of C development on a 128mb machine.

    But at least on this machine, 512mb is ok with a relatively modern system – it makes a huge difference. This is the only machine i still have with ubuntu on it, but i wont be upgrading it any time soon. It took a bit of tweaking to get rid of all the heavy junk you don’t need and i don’t really feel like going through all that again just to run a web browser.

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