Category Archives: Crux Linux

Remembering the twins

I waited this long to recap the two Dell Latitude LMs I had as guests last month because I couldn’t find the pictures I took while I was poking and prodding. This doesn’t usually happen where I lose photos of something, but I did find one leftover on my camera, taken the day they left.


That at least proves it wasn’t a dream. 🙄

The picture, of course, shows the ironclad and eternally trustworthy DSL running in its most basic form on the prettier of the two machines, replete with a wireless network connection courtesy of an old WPC11v3 b-only card. That was not my most successful attempt — and I really wish I could find those other pictures 👿 — but DSL did at least tell me that the guts of the machine were working.

I don’t have a picture of DSL’s graphical desktop on that unit because I never got one. DSL isn’t picky when it comes to hardware, but I have seen more than one computer over the years that is less-than-visual. In this case, both the vesa and VGA attempts, in every variation, resulted in a scrambled video display.

Some of my other attempts were also less than successful, but a few bore fruit. I had better luck with early, early versions of Debian and Fedora, but some very bad experiences with … anything after 2002 or so (which thanks to this machine, did not come as a surprise). :\ And of course, I managed to get a blinking cursor on a Crux 2.4 installation, which I count as a flawless victory. 😆

The biggest difficulty in working with these machines (I say “these,” but I did almost everything on the one you see in the picture) was twofold: First, these computers were not intended to boot from CD — only the primary hard drive or the floppy drive, of which I had none (and by that I mean the owner had none). Don’t even talk to me about a USB port. You know better than that. 😡

That’s a huge complication, but not something I haven’t had to work with before. I’m not above creating an entire system in an emulator, writing out the image file to a hard disk, and transplanting it physically into a target machine.

In that sense, these are great designs for that task. I’ve run into machines that were a bit curmudgeonly in that respect, but the drives on these laptops pull out of the front left corner like a drawer, connect firmly in a dedicated tray, and are more or less exchangeable in seconds. What’s more, there’s plenty of space in the tray for an IDE-to-whatever converter, which in my case was an SDHC adapter.

I did run into an additional mystery though, which constitutes Biggest Difficulty Part Two: a hesitance to boot from some systems, and I’m not sure why.

It may have been some sort of partitioning inconsistency, between the BIOS and the installation. Occasionally a system wouldn’t boot that I had written out via dd, but other times preinstalled or original installations wouldn’t boot either.

I don’t suspect hardware issues; instead, I suspect either (a) the old BIOS drive dimension limit, cropping up again decades after its relevancy, causing problems again in its passive-aggressive way of suggesting you should get a new computer, or (b) some misalignment between the way GRUB or LILO worked two decades ago, and what the BIOS expected.

I’ve seen machines — in fact, this EzBook 800 has it — that have a BIOS-switchable option for Windows-esque drive arrangements, with the other option as … “other.” :\ I know of one or two machines in my past that couldn’t boot an “other” system if the BIOS was set to Windows-ish, or vice versa. This old warrior was one of those.

I don’t have any way to document that, and I don’t know how or why it happens, but that’s my underlying suspicion. Since the BIOS in these Latitudes doesn’t have an option to switch, it was a crap shoot to see what will boot and what won’t.

Both of these issues, and their underlying problems, are magnified by the glacial pace of working at 133Mhz, and with the added time of swapping drives and bouncing between drive caddies. Plus, the constant risk of snapping or bending a 20-year-old pin array, or the natural brittleness of aging plastic. … I imagine even that caused a little hesitation on my part.

I can say with some honesty, if these were my personal machines, I’d probably be a little more aggressive in seeing what they were capable of. I tend to be a little antsy around other people’s computers though, for no other reason than general courtesy.

In any case, I gave them back a few weeks ago after giving each one a quick cleanup, and they returned to their home of record.

The irony of their departure is that the owner, when he came to pick them up, hinted that I might be able to keep them if I were inclined, and if my offer came within the range of what he thought they were worth.

I declined politely, partly in fear of bringing more wayward laptops into the house on a permanent basis, but also because I know he feels the pair together, with the power supply and a Dell-branded PS/2 ball mouse (woohoo!), are worth close to US$100. I put them around a quarter of that, maybe a little more. I doubt we could come to compromise, even if he were a little more realistic.

But if I were to find one of these in the recycling dump, I wouldn’t pass it over. It would be almost impossible (by my cursory research) to find replacement parts now, and even if you did, you’d likely be paying incredibly inflated amounts for something worth a fraction of the price tag. So you’d have to find one complete, unadulterated and in pristine condition to really appreciate it.

There are better machines of this era to experiment with. But treading the 20-year-mark on hardware this old, perhaps this exhibit machine and its “scavengee” comrade are a good investment. Maybe his offer isn’t far off the mark after all. 😐

(And in a worst-case scenario, it’s reassuring to think that Dell actually still has Windows drivers for machines of this pedigree. That, in itself, is amazing, even if the nightmare of running Windows 95 on those machines is only partially massaged by the thought of rehashing a few sessions of Age of Empires.)

Who knows? Junk — ahem, I mean, vintage computing is nothing if not an unpredictable hobby. :mrgreen:

Clearing out the bookmarks … again

I did it again: I collected a mass of bookmarks that I figure I’ll need at some time in the future. Maybe I used them and will again … and maybe not. Either way, they may still prove useful. I do refer back to this site when I can’t remember a page or a topic, you see. 🙄

So here we go again: More links for future reference.

  • I sometimes keep links to pages that have instructions for lightweight systems for old distributions; here’s one for Debian Lenny and one for Crux 2.7 (in the i686 flavor, which doesn’t really matter). That might seem counterintuitive, but I will fall back on old distros when working with old hardware, before making the leap to current flavors of Linux. For an example, peek here.
  • Along those same lines, I found a fairly coherent tutorial on how to install Exherbo. I had a link to another one, but apparently the author took it down. 😦 I have been wanting to spend a little more time with Gentoo (and possibly Exherbo) but I’m always attracted to the way Crux handles things. That being said, Crux dropped i586 support years ago, and hasn’t had i686 ISOs (unless they’re hiding) for a year or two at least. 😦 Story of my life. …
  • I use dd a lot, not just to blank drives or scramble the contents of files, but for other things too. To that end, a speed comparison at different block sizes is actually very useful. Of course, I’ve seen some posts on StackExchange that might offer different solutions.
  • Along those same lines, this page gave me a little insight on how to mount a specific partition in a disk image. It saved me a little time with a copy of an old 10Gb hard drive, since I didn’t have to write it back out to a drive to get at the files I wanted. On the downside, counting out all those offsets was a trick. I’m surprised Linux hasn’t thought up a more straightforward way to do that. …
  • I used to be real nit-picky about fonts, but these days I don’t really mind. I did find a good collection of font suggestions for Arch on Reddit, but I’m not the kind of person who installs two dozen font packages just to see a few extra characters in my terminal emulator. Now if we were talking about fonts for virtual consoles, I’d be much more interested. …
  • Since I’m in fix-it mode, here are a few pages about
    • installing python programs to different directories with pip, which is interesting because I’ve thought for a long time that there is no uninstall;
    • checking to see if directories exist with bash, which came in handy just a day or two ago;
    • how to install Arch from within an existing Linux installation, which I want to try sometime, just to see if it works; and
    • the difference between single brackets and double brackets to bash, which I never knew but explains why some of my long-ago scripts didn’t work as expected.
  • emacs fans would probably love to run just emacs on a Linux kernel with nothing else, and this post can tell you how. It reminds me of my long-ago attempt to trap Midnight Commander within a tty session, much like could be done a long time ago with rtorrent.
  • I should take the time to set up mutt with multiple GMail accounts, like this. I don’t dislike alpine, but I only keep it around because I’m too lazy to set things up. :\
  • From the Department of Ancient Awesomeness comes three flasbacks that just made me nod my head: one on the best distros of the year 2000, another of the best window managers of the year 2000, and perhaps best of all … a complaint from 2008 about how Firefox is utter bloat. The more things change, the more they stay the same. …
  • I watch the Debian systemd soap opera with only a little interest. I’ve been using Arch for quite some time now, and I have no complaints about the newcomer. All the same, if you’re wondering where you’ll stand when the revolution comes, raymii’s chart from earlier this month might be helpful for you, as might this systemd vs. sysvinit cheatsheet. Neither page will convince you one is better than another, but might help you understand how they each handle the startup task. Knowledge is power. 😈
  • You won’t hurt my feelings if you find some Linux know-how somewhere else; even I found this list of tech podcasts rather interesting. I don’t really get into podcasts much, but from time to time I will grab one and spin it up.
  • Finally, from the Completely Unrelated to Anything Else Department, here‘s an interesting project: An Android browser that displays web pages (believe it or not) by way of relaying the content through SMS messages. O_o Now I’ve seen everything.

And now I’ve listed everything. If those are at all useful to you, please bookmark them in your own system. Hold on to them for about four months, and then yell “I gotta do something about these bookmarks!” and offload them to your own blog. It seems to work for me. … 😉

The trailing edge of the wave: The CTX EzBook 800

For as many times as I’ve introduced old laptops on this blog, you’d think I’d have a formula or a template page tucked away somewhere.

But I don’t, and here we are again with another underdog to report. I hope it’s not too dull for you; if it’s any consolation, I have three or four other laptops that I haven’t bothered to mention, because I imagine it to be terribly boring for you.

This one though, I feel is noteworthy. Not because it’s a cherished acquisition, like this one is, but because it’s such a curmudgeon that I have a feeling someone, somewhere down the line — probably me — will need information about it in the future. So I put it here, to avoid slogging through all the quirks again. And because that’s what this site was originally for. 😉


This is a CTX EzBook 800, the top-of-the-line model for EzBooks of 15 years ago. It’s a pure K6 machine, meaning it lacks a lot — and I mean a lot — of the requisites that most people saw in the computers of a decade ago, let alone now.

I got this as a castoff from a friend, who is also a bit of a technophile and prefers to work with out-of-date machines for a number of reasons. My friend is primarily a Windows person though, and I have a feeling this was such an underperformer that he was glad to see it go. I know he considered putting Linux on it and even asked a few questions online, but was out of his depth and didn’t see much future in it.

Apparently he paid about $1 in an online auction for it, plus the cost of a new power adapter. Not bad.

This is not my first EzBook, and that was one of the reasons I agreed to adopt it. I have had 700 and 700E models in the past, and if I remember right, that 700E was one of my first test runs with Linux. It didn’t go well, but I lacked the experience then to make it work.

And it seems that I still lack some experience now, given my rather lackluster success at getting the 800 version to sing along. Not that I have terrifically high expectations, but I do have a reputation to preserve. 😕

Here’s a rundown on the guts, and I can explain the implications later.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 03)
00:10.0 VGA compatible controller: Neomagic Corporation NM2160 [MagicGraph 128XD] (rev 01) (prog-if 00 [VGA controller])
00:12.0 ISA bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev c1)
00:12.1 IDE interface: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 11) (prog-if 0a [SecP PriP])
00:12.2 USB Controller: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. Unknown device 1234 (rev 03) (prog-if 10 [OHCI])
00:18.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)
00:18.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)

The hard drive is a Fujitsu MHD2032AT, and the optical drive is a TEAC CD-220EA. My friend maxed out the memory at 128Mb, which complements the 300Mhz K6 quite nicely. I’ve had good success with NeoMagic cards (better than the Tridents, that’s for sure 😡 ), and having USB ports on a machine this old makes it an absolute treasure. Phoenix made the BIOS, which is important because the USB ports and a few other things are enabled or disabled through that.

There are some critical points in there, if you’re fighting with a similar machine or one from this era. Please bear with me, and I’ll work through them slowly.

My friend said he could get no modern version of Linux to work on it, and even though I suggested both Slackware and Debian, he still claimed no success. I can attest to that now: Both Debian 7.x and Slackware 14 ran into problems either locating the CDROM or hard drive, or both. You can add these to that list:

  1. Alpine Linux 2.7 for x86, which boots and will configure itself to the live CLI environment, but can’t find the hard drive.
  2. Puppy Linux, slacko in the non-PAE version, which spit out errors demanding a CPU with cmov.
  3. TinyCore, in its newest version, which reached text mode but couldn’t find the hard drive or CDROM.

In most cases, those were dealbreaker attempts, because the live or installation environment couldn’t find hardware I would need to move forward. Here are some others that fell flat, but for slightly different reasons.

  1. Crux Linux 2.7, which was the last i586 rendition. Refused to boot past connecting to the CDROM and ended in the jaws of the mythical “can’t access tty; job control turned off” error.
  2. Debian 5.1, which installed but boots into a soft lockup and seems content to spend eternity reporting its hopelessly frozen state at 90-second intervals.
  3. *buntu versions after 6.10, which usually didn’t get so far as Debian 5.1, and reported no hard drive or no CDROM or both.
  4. Slitaz, the 4.0 release, which booted into text mode and would allow me to install, but locked on boot.

Just out of curiosity, I also tried:

  1. ReactOS 0.3.16, the live rendition, which amazingly worked better on that machine than any other I’ve tried in recent years. I reached a Windows-esque blue desktop and a brief show of some wallpaper, but then it hung and became unresponsive. That may have been a low-memory complication.
  2. FreeDOS 1.1, which took an exceptionally long time to install, and would boot with the assistance of the installation CD. From there it would need the obvious additions of useful software and perhaps a graphical desktop.
  3. Clonezilla in recent 486 versions couldn’t find the hard drive, which is only important because it means any system I build on there will have to be dd’d off via USB1.1 for backups. 😯 Oh well, it’s not the first time. …

The real plot twists come here:

  • Ubuntu 6.06.1 and Xubuntu 6.06, both of which would find the hard drive and CD drive, and install over the course of an hour or so. The resulting desktop was forced into 800×600 (on a 1024×768 screen), and was marginally useful. I tried hand-editing the xorg.conf file but only managed to bork the display so badly as to require starting over. No network access through the PCMCIA port, which sounds familiar.
  • DSL 4.4.10 would of course work, but I ran aground again with the system freeze on wireless insert bug, which I blame on the 2.4 kernels. I used to suspect the PCMCIA-to-CardBus switchover for that, but it seems even CardBus PC cards inserted into a CardBus bridge will trigger it. My only orinoco-based card just doesn’t respond with DSL. 😦
  • Crux 2.4 for the i586, which includes kernel by default but could have a newer one implanted. Booted, found CDROM, found hard drive, and installed without major incident.

For me, what is at issue here is the evolution of PC hardware away from ISA-based components to the standards which are more common now. Along with that, there was the shift away from the old kernel support for PATA hard drives to the newer SATA-style code. Add to that an ATAPI CD drive, and it’s easy to see why some distros just didn’t work, and others worked reasonably well.

You can almost pick out a month and year when the trailing edge of the wave fell away. This machine seems to have ridden the far edge of that crest, and as a result finds itself drifting on the other side. 😦

My proof for this is in the kernel configuration for Crux 2.4, where the old-style ATA options are enabled and all the drives are found. That should correspond to the mid-2000s versions of Ubuntu, where the last support for those same drives is found. After 6.10 or so, the machine falls off again.

I can’t account for Lenny’s soft lockups though, and I don’t see much help online for that particular issue. I tried the old noacpi gimmicks from a decade ago, but whatever plagued the 5.x versions of Lenny persists.

But all is not lost. If I absolutely gut Crux’s kernel, I can compile it in about 45 minutes at 300Mhz, and best of all, I can boot to a graphical desktop with blackbox, which comes by default. (Now you understand my recent affection for blackbox. 😉 )

In fact, short of getting a CardBus network adapter to respond, the entire machine works fine.

And depending on how CDs I’m willing to burn, I could conceivably hopscotch my way up from 2007 to circa 2011. The bulk of those packages is precompiled and available on the ISOs, with the exception of the contrib ports. And I have time these days to babysit it, as it churns away at the code.

There’s a little voice in my head that keeps telling me to yank the hard drive and install it externally, and then replace it. Usually there’s another little voice right after that one though, that says I’m too clumsy to get the case open on this without cracking or scratching the body somehow, and it’s too pretty as it is.. And of course, there are no service manuals online any more. … 😦

So while all is not lost, this is definitely on the verge of falling through the cracks. And let’s be clear: I have no aspirations of bringing this machine into the 21st century, or for that matter, playing a YouTube video with it. Those days are over, friends. We have the Internet to blame for that.

I can’t deny it’s a terrific challenge though, and I am enjoying smacking my head against the screen for hours on end. But it does feel good when I stop. 😉

Looking over Crux again

It’s been a while since I installed Crux on any machine in the house, and even longer since I put it on anything faster than about 150Mhz.

Just for old time’s sake, and to make sure I hadn’t lost my touch, and to see what would happen, I put it on the 2.5Ghz Celeron the other day, and did some system updates overnight. The end result:

That’s an 8-year-old machine jumping from Grub to the X desktop in just over 9 seconds. I don’t underconfigure my systems, so everything is working there — sound, network and what have you.

I also didn’t overconfigure it: CFLAGS are only -O2 and the recommended settings for a Pentium 4 Celeron, as per the Gentoo wiki.

So why so fast? No good reason … except for the one I mentioned a while ago, when I made the same pitch.

If you recall a speed jump when you moved from something gluttonous and bloated, like Ubuntu, to something sparse and clean, like Arch … well, you’ll see the same improvement when you move to something skeletal and streamlined.

To illustrate the point:

The same system, same hardware, same filesystem, but more than 20 seconds for Arch to start just to the console — and that’s with the network daemon backgrounded so it doesn’t hang while it contacts the router.

Of course, the day-to-day speed improvement comes at the cost of building up a system from scratch (more or less), and like a lot of my Crux systems, this one quickly went southward when I started tweaking it.

Plus, it took me two or three attempts just to get the kernel working, and another one or two to get the graphics system functional.

Personally, I consider that to be a good thing — I’ve learned a lot from Crux, and I can always stand to learn some more. I learn my making mistakes and figuring out how to solve them, or at least circumvent them.

So while I don’t use this much for faster, heavier machines, I still rely on it — sometimes too much — for low-end hardware and extra slow systems.

Because if it can trim Grub-to-X to under 10 seconds at 2.5Ghz, imagine what it can do for 150Mhz. 😈

P.S.: Sorry about the sideways videos. I thought YouTube let you rotate a video after posting it, but it appears that I am wrong. 😐

A comfortable arrangement: Musca and screen

I’ve mentioned a few times in the past that there is a clear advantage to nesting window managers and/or terminal multiplexers on the same “desktop.”

Oftentimes that’s just because they work better together. For example, meshing dvtm and screen gives you the chance to keep three or four applications in a block, in one window. Neither by itself can do that, really.

Lately I find myself doing the same thing in Musca on the Mebius, where I have individual programs assigned to the Mod4 key plus a number.

Mod4 plus 9 triggers screen, which opens all the same programs in the places I expect them, same as on my terminal-only systems. And I still have the option to open things individually, if that’s what I’m after.

It might sound odd, but the real reason for that is screen’s copy-and-paste sequence. After you get used to moving text around with screen, the old way of click-and-drag is rather cumbersome.

Plus, I spend most of my time in screen, so I can usually work the keystrokes faster than reminding myself how to bounce between applications in Musca, all the while clicking and dragging.

So there it is again: something else that’s easier done via keyboard than by mouse. The list keeps growing. … 🙂

First time in a long time

A rather large change took place here over the last day or two: For the first time in a couple of years, no machine in the house is running Crux.

It’s true. I’ve backed up the year-old system on this Pentium and begun transferring everything to Debian.

Why? Partly for a change of pace, but partly because I fell flat four or five times in a row getting Crux 2.7 installed.

A half-dozen non-booting kernels, two or three applications with missing libraries, and I’m a bit weary of trying to keep up with configuration changes.

Of course, the hardware only makes things more complicated. Each attempt needs a swap of the CF card, and each failure requires a swap back.

At this point I’m willing to experiment with something that doesn’t require as much maintenance. Debian is always satisfying, and even if it is a little slower, it should take less effort … and time.

So … where to next? 😉

A comparison of text-based browsers

Enough mamby-pamby housekeeping posts. It’s time to put some meat on the table.

I’m going to borrow an idea for a post from persea, who suggested taking a look at the running weight of several browsers — specifically text-only browsers — for a comparison.

Because in the same way that all graphical browsers are not equal, all text-based browsers are not equal. And if you are working on a machine with little overhead, that can be important.

Like everything else I discuss here, your preference for one particular program or another is paramount. My goal is not to prosletyze, but rather to take a somewhat-unbiased snaphot, for educational purposes.

Our guinea pigs today come in six flavors, and some of these hearken back so far into the history of online computing that I swear it’s 1988 again:

elinks links
lynx netrik
retawq w3m

I’m concerned strictly with text-based interfaces here, so things like links2 and the image support patch for w3m are out of the contest. Sorry, wait for the next contest. 😉

Our judges today will be the python memory script from summer a year ago. Because this is all done in the name of science, of course. 😈

Let’s get started. First, elinks, by virtue of starting with an E. This is done in alphabetical order, you know.

I should say up front that elinks is what I prefer on a day to day basis, and if that skews the results or my presentation, I’ll apologize up front.

But my perspective on the issue says I shouldn’t have to. I like elinks because it pushes hard to mimic the features and behavior of run-of-the-mill graphical browsers.

So it has tabs, an on-board download manager, a replete bookmarking and history system, more options than you can shake a stick at, and a vicious array of configuration settings.

So yes, I’m partial to the first on one the list, but that’s just life. To be fair, it’s a bit heavy and can be quite sluggish at times.

It’s a tradeoff for me though: Yes, it can take a while longer to load a page. But I get more goodies with elinks than with some other browsers.

Next up is links — straight links, with no added fillips. I built this one myself, stripping out things like support for X11, Javascript and so forth.

elinks and links are obvious cousins; even the menus and line-drawing options are the same. I’ve never tried to cram the options or settings for one into the system of the other, and I doubt it would work.

On the other hand, learning one is easy if you know the other, and considering that links recoups some speed when compared with its relative, it might be worth learning one, to know both.

links has a few other progeny you should be aware of: links-hacked drags some features into the links corpus, while links2 is an offshoot that makes the leap to graphical arenas. Albeit framebuffer driven and somewhat basic.

Next is lynx, which is an obvious pun but a clever name. Lynx does a lot of the things elinks does, and does a fairly quick and clean job doing it.

I found only one options page and it is very easy to navigate. In fact, one of the things I liked best about lynx was it’s flat approach to configuration. Everything is right there, and easy to control.

That being said, lynx probably has the most configuration options at the command line of all the six listed here. Looking over the --help list, it seems like just about anything can be turned on or off … even turning things on or off.

Number Four on the list is netrik, and one I admit I hadn’t used before today. netrik is very light and very sparse, and many of the features or frills that others have, netrik seems to avoid.

Which is most likely a good thing, because the ultimate feel of netrik is more of a pager and less of a browser. (Bonus points for using the names of three pagers in a sentence about pagers.)

If you’re not into pagers or think I’m talking about the beepy thing on your belt, you might have a hard time understanding that. Let me put it into different terms.

If you can imagine a browser that just spits out the text of a page and lets to step through the information little by little … that’s what netrik feels like.

Funny: It sounds like something Apple would bundle up in their latest gadget, fete as a major innovation and win kudos from fanboys everywhere. Oh wait, they already did that.

retawq is next, and probably the best thing I can mention about retawq is that it is so small and so light that one of my favorite distributions that I don’t use — ttylinux — keeps it on board as its sole application.

retawq is a speed demon even when compared to the other five in this list, and while it doesn’t do a lot of the fun stuff (or necessary stuff) that most people probably want, it’s hard to find something to complain about.

You can see in the screenshot that retawq, like netrik, stumbles a little when it comes to specialized characters, but it doesn’t impede the main function — getting in and around the web.

So personally I’m willing to forgive that teeny speck of inconsistency and rank this one alongside its predecessor as a very very light solution to the task.

Last but not least is w3m, and with this entry we’re back among top-rung feature-filled text-based browser applications. w3m comes by default in a lot of Linux distributions.

And for that reason, is usually (in my experience anyway) the one text-based browser everyone seems to know about. The sad part of that popularity is people are usually trying to fix something when they’re using it.

So it sometimes rides the ignominy of a failed X session, or comes to the rescue when something video-ish goes kaput. And it might be that it bears a little of the ill-will of those adventures.

Be that as it may, w3m makes it easy to browse — and this time I mean browse, not just page — in an easy fashion. A simple combination of arrow and tab keys will have you surfing in no time.

And with that, this quick rundown is finished. I can tell you a lot more about elinks (and probably, by extension links) than the others; if you’re more familiar with one of the other four, please share.

Now for the moment of truth: How they size up against one another. Just to be clear:

  • The host machine was this one, with a custom installation of Crux 2.6,
  • w3m and lynx were the default versions built from the Crux ports repository,
  • elinks was a custom version bumped to the prerelease beta,
  • I adjusted the Pkgfile for links to remove graphic support, and
  • retawq and netrik were converted from AUR PKGBUILDs.

Here’s what our judge had to say about the experience:

 Private  +   Shared  =  RAM used	Program 

104.0 KiB +  35.5 KiB = 139.5 KiB	init
160.0 KiB +  20.5 KiB = 180.5 KiB	dhcpcd
476.0 KiB + 128.5 KiB = 604.5 KiB	retawq
540.0 KiB +  93.0 KiB = 633.0 KiB	netrik
356.0 KiB + 280.5 KiB = 636.5 KiB	udevd (3)
752.0 KiB + 205.0 KiB = 957.0 KiB	screen-4.0.3 (2)
844.0 KiB + 178.0 KiB =   1.0 MiB	ssh
  1.5 MiB + 100.5 KiB =   1.6 MiB	links
  1.6 MiB + 178.0 KiB =   1.8 MiB	w3m
  2.1 MiB + 141.5 KiB =   2.2 MiB	elinks
  2.0 MiB + 172.5 KiB =   2.2 MiB	lynx
  3.1 MiB + 998.0 KiB =   4.1 MiB	bash (10)
                         15.9 MiB

 Private  +   Shared  =  RAM used	Program 

retawq is the clear winner when it comes to running with a light profile, although it’s keeping ahead of netrik only by a tiny fragment.

Meanwhile, the four browsers with more options and features are definitely riding higher on the list than those two. links and w3m have the middle ground for a megabyte-and-a-half plus-or-minus.

And the two I would probably suggest, just by virtue of usability and familiarity take the upper end of the spectrum, with a massive 2.2Mb consumed, for one page of the Web.

Speed is relative, but at 120Mhz, there is a distinct difference between the pace of retawq versus the pace of elinks. Particularly with larger, heavier pages like Wikipedia, where elinks can take a minute or two to render a single entry.

So as you might imagine, memory profile tends to mirror speed and performance, in my opinion.

And there you have it. My advice would probably be to keep a high-end browser and a low-end browser on hand, and use a tool suited to the job.

That decision should of course be tempered against the hardware you’re using.

And now, purely as torture for anyone who has read this far, I give you the obvious and clear winner over all others in this category:

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the worst possible browsing experience with a minimum of resources:

curl | dehtml -p -s | less

Happy surfing. :mrgreen:

Just for fun: A three-part home media system

It’s a new year, so here’s something fun. I’m going to show you one screenshot, and then another, and then tell you what’s going on. First, this really boring console shot.

Nothing special there. mplayer is running. So is alsaequal; that’s probably unusual enough to note. I keep it on every system I have, just as a way to compensate for the sound qualities of the room.

Next, the Toshiba Satellite J12 bequeathed to me for a song, as I mentioned yesterday. You might recognize it; it’s famous on the Internet. 🙄

What’s worth mentioning is the fact that these are not the same computer — the console image you see there wasn’t taken on the Satellite.

It was taken from a machine that predates it by about 10 years, and is networked into the larger one. mplayer is running on the big one, but it’s being controlled from the small one.

Which means all of the interaction — audio control, position, subtitles, color control … everything — is piped back and forth across the network from the big machine to the little, and vice-versa.

But the video output goes to the Satellite’s screen. 😈

And there’s one more thing here that I can’t show you, because there’s nothing really to see. The DVD rip itself — the actual video file — isn’t on the Satellite.

No, it’s being served across the network by still another machine — and this one is almost as old as the control system.

But with an oversize drive and a fast network card, it can serve video data over a wireless connection, which is played on the larger machine, which is controlled by the oldest computer in the house.

(This is the part where I apologize for the post the other day, suggesting that screen and mplayer have a difficult time working together. They did, but the problem appears to have vanished with a fresh installation. My mistake. Sorry about that. 😳 )

More importantly, that means this is another possible use for an out-of-date or ancient computer: as a front-end for a larger one.

And most importantly — to me, anyway — is that the entire circuit, from controller to server to display, runs without the need for Xorg.

You only need framebuffer support on one machine — the display computer, and that one can be as powerful or as not-powerful as you like.

Considering I used to play the same DVD rips on a machine that was running at 550Mhz with only 4Mb of video memory, that’s not saying much. 😉

Here’s a little detail, machine by machine.

Controller: This only needs ssh access to the main machine. I run this with Crux i586 on the second tty of a 120Mhz Pentium, and ssh into the display machine. I also have the Terminus font installed, but that’s neither here nor there.

Networking hardware is an ancient pcnet-driven PCMCIA card, and that’s more than enough since the traffic in and out of this machine is negligible.

Server: A server system can be and do a lot of things, but for my purposes Debian is perfect, and easy to set up too. I put everything in the home directory of a privileged user, and serve that directory as an nfs share.

The network connection is a ralink PCMCIA wireless card, which was rather quirky to arrange, but gets good upload and download speeds, and so is best suited for this situation. Best of all, the power draw is less than a light bulb, it takes up almost no space, and has a battery backup in times of need. 😉

Display: This machine is the winner this time, chosen for its large (to me, anyway) screen, clear display and speedy network access. I using the wired Intel PRO/100 connection because I have a five-meter network cable, and I like the fast access speeds.

This machine needs the most in the way of software, because this is where most of the action happens. To wit:

  • Framebuffer access. If you’re using a modern distro you probably already have this. If you’re using a very old computer, it might be a little tricky to get working.
  • mplayer and codecs, if your conscience allows. I should mention that keeps a codecs package in its repository.
  • ssh daemon. Remember dropbear is considerably lighter than some other ssh suites. And remember Remy’s ssh dialog, if your connections are stacking up.
  • nfs client access. If you prefer samba or another service, you’re on your own. 😐
  • alsa or another audio subsystem, of course. Unless you can read lips, I guess. … 😉

I also include screen and a few ancillary programs, like alsaequal, mc, htop and moc. They’re all useful on the odd chance, or for playing music if video isn’t required.

I mentioned networking equipment for all of these, because that’s where your bottleneck is. I am confident my 133Mhz Pentium can actually serve up those files in plenty of time for the Celeron M.

But if I have a slow wireless card in it, or if there is network pressure from other machines, things start to stutter. So be aware: Skipping playback, in my experience, is probably because of network speed.

(Those new Blue Ray DVDs ripped at 1080p or whatever are going to be tricky. Even my core duo has trouble with those, and that’s if they’re on the local drive. 😯 😐 )

That’s all for the hardware I’m using. There are a couple of minor points that should probably be addressed, in way of configuration. First of all, it’s useful to know a few of mplayer’s flags, like …

  • -zoom, to expand or contract the output,
  • -fs, to push the size to full screen, which paints the outlying areas black, as opposed to leaving leftover text on the fringes,
  • -x and -y, to manually force the dimensions of the output,
  • -vf scale=x:y, to scale the output instead, or
  • -aspect x:y, to force an aspect, and
  • -vo, to force a video driver, although with nothing else on the machine, mplayer (in the default Arch version) jumps straight to the framebuffer.

In my case, this is what my ~/.mplayer/config file looks like.


The -3 in the vf line throws the y dimension out to a proportionate depth. I think. I can’t find the documentation on it, but I’ve had it around forever and it seems to work. I know, I know: Google is my friend. …

That’s not the last though. This little trick is this coup de grace:

setterm -cursor off -blank 0

Because even with mplayer’s -fs flag, the cursor on a tty screen will blink by itself, in the middle of the screen. Sometimes. But more importantly, -blank sets the default video timeout for the terminal to zero — meaning, never.

Otherwise, after about 20 minutes, your screen will go dark and you’ll have to get up and walk over to the keyboard, and press a key to get the image back. And we can’t have that, now can we? :mrgreen:

That’s all. Let me know if you can get this working with something in the handheld department, because that might be where the fun lies.

I have heard of people connecting to home networks with Sharp Zauruses (Zaurii?) or Toshiba Libretto minicomputers. Something that small … well, it’s practically a remote control. 😉

Just don’t fight over it. :mrgreen:

P.S.: I should mention, if you are more keen on forcing the video into Xorg instead of the framebuffer, to try the xinit command with DISPLAY=0:1 and your mplayer command. And to remember xset s off, which should stop screen blanking. Beyond that though, you’re on your own. … 🙂

Twenty-ten: The picks of the litter

Two-thousand-and-ten is almost over. I’ve done more than my share of distro-hopping this year, and not because of a fickle character, but because of a curious streak.

This year's judge and jury.

That curiosity is bent toward very low-end computers though, and it’s not enough to me to just show a pretty desktop at 150Mhz if the overall experience feels like your head is being pressed through a bowl of mashed potatoes.

To that end, some distributions stick out in my mind more than others this year, as good options for low-end machines. A few more I tried are just good options, for any kind of machine.

And some I mention because they are ingrained in my lifestyle now. Maybe I didn’t discover them this year, but in 2010, they became essential to my workflow.

So I have a few end-of-year “notes.” These are not awards so much as recommendations, since I am hardly qualified to award anybody anything. 😐

The wake-up call: KolibriOS. In a world of multi-DVD distros, of thousand-dollar operating systems in a half-dozen flavors, of operating systems that require multiple processors and double-digit gigabytes of memory to use, KolibriOS hits you like a ball-peen hammer squarely in the forehead.

KolibriOS: Pocket-sized powerhouse.

It’s hard not to find something to like about a full-featured desktop replete with games, applications, hardware tools and even networking support that sits in a meager 1.44Mb of space.

And thus it’s hard not to include it in a list of things to love about 2010, considering that KolibriOS in its latest rendition is a stern lesson in software design and how to put together a truly ultralight desktop.

Granted, this is minimalism to the nth degree, lightweight to the point that you can’t conceivably pit this against any other “modern” desktop without feeling almost foolish.

But let’s be frank: Why is lightweight and conservative software such a crusade — in Linux and in other operating systems — when KolibriOS stands as such a stark counterpoint?

Why does the search for a lightweight operating system begin and end with racks and racks of desktop environments, window managers and alternative desktops, and page after page of lighter upon lighter applications, toolsets and support libraries?

Why is it such a carnival to say out loud, “I have a machine that dates back a decade, but still works great and I’d like to find modern software that will run on it”?

I’ll let you decide, but deep down I think we all know that software demands push hardware upgrades, and upgrades in turn allow for bigger, fatter software. In that way, everybody makes money.

It’s a vicious circle, but it’s hard to reach any other conclusion when I can hold up a decades-old floppy with a complete operating system on it. It’s not for lack of skill or ability or time or even desire.

KolibriOS is proof that it’s possible. Just as much as it is proof that perhaps everyone else is going about things the wrong way. Probably so they can take your money. 👿

A chicken in every pot: Slitaz base. I’d love to say that I have a Slitaz CD perched at the ready, any time I need to jump into a live environment on any machine in the house.

But that would be a half-truth, since I don’t use the standard Slitaz ISO to do that. I stick to the base version.

Slitaz base: What it looks like inside your computer, with the lights turned off.

You won’t like it. You’ll be dropped at the command line without a stitch of help from a mouse or a pointer, and feel rather cold and naked and alone. Welcome to the underbelly of your computer.

But you’ll get there on a meager 12Mb of RAM or less, meaning that this disc can get almost anything with a working CD drive up and running and with a minimum of resources. It’s amazing.

And what you do from there is up to you. Install Slitaz, or use that hovering OS to transfer files across a USB port (or entire operating systems), or repair or recover a dying hard drive.

True, there are other distros that offer these same tools on bigger and better and more complete CDs, but the resources they will demand and the time it will take to get them moving is likewise bigger. And not necessarily better.

So for a lightweight tool that I keep coming back to, and for a full-featured console environment that will fit inside a sliver of memory, it’s tough to beat the Slitaz base version. I can think of no higher praise. 😐

Knight in shining armor: Clonezilla. Clonezilla is crack for the distro hopper.

Clonezilla: So yummy, it should be illegal.

Clonezilla is going to eat your life away in small pockets, leaving you with dozens of archived systems, waiting on an external hard drive.

Clonezilla will save your life, when calamity strikes.

Clonezilla makes it too easy to backup and restore entire systems, and isn’t afraid of anything.

Clonezilla turns on a dime, needs less than the average memory available to a Pentium III to get started, and even comes in a i486 flavor, for weirdos like me.

Clonezilla boots from USB, boots to memory, boots to anything with a keyboard and an LCD attached, and won’t quit until you tell it to.

And what it does is free up your life to think about other things. New things. Fresh things. Knowing full well all the time that you can always go back to your old way of thinking.

Technically it’s not an operating system, so you can throw stones if you want. But if you’ve tried it, and you know it, you won’t make that big of a noise if I include it here. You’re a believer. You know you are. 😈

Tried and true: DSL. When I peel away the frustration and dismay, I have to admit a solemn reverence for a distro that manages so many convolutions in setting up this computer, and doing it so well, and being about a year or two out of development.

DSL, even at this late date, does things for ancient hardware that my best efforts still can’t. Maybe I’m just not well educated enough (no CS degree on my resume, pal). I am more than willing to admit my ignorance.

DSL: The ghost of Christmases past.

But the 60 seconds it takes this 5-plus-year-old distro to start, configure and announce its presence with authority are more than enough to spellbind me. Audio, video, network and peripherals, all moving at a good clip and with no sense of weariness.

It’s almost infuriating. I’ve been inside and out of the machine, probed its inner recesses and researched everything I can think of in terms of arranging and configuring. And an out-of-service, 50Mb distro beats me, with one hand tied behind its back.

Touche, sirs. For that, a small tip of the hat. I wish I could do as well, left to my own devices. 😦

Service with a smile: Debian Lenny. I haven’t mentioned it much, but the Debian server I built to run at 133Mhz has convinced me to keep an otherwise superfluous computer and a network card I thought unworking. And that’s saying something.

Debian: The magical stuff that binds us all together.

Given the chance, Debian will perform back flips at the snap of a finger, and provided you don’t overwhelm a machine — of any architecture — you’re more or less assured of top-shelf performance.

Even so, combining a 13-year-old 133Mhz Pentium with only 32Mb, a RaLink-based PCMCIA network card and a gift-from-god 120Gb 5400rpm hard drive sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But like the rug that pulls the room together, Lenny makes it all work as a file server and torrent slave … with only a small bump in software for complete and perfect usability. No hiccups, no flukes, no spotty hardware performance.

And with uptimes in double-digit days, it shows no sign of stopping. You want a reason not to throw out an old machine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Debian Lenny.

Not for the faint of heart: Crux 2.7. Source-based distros are not for everybody. That should go without saying.

But of the ones I’ve tried, Crux — and most recently in its 2.7 version for the i586 — is by far my favorite.

Crux 2.7 i586: You too can be an Internet hero.

Linux From Scratch is educational, but becomes esoteric for me. Gentoo seems overcomplicated, when compared with Crux’s spartan arrangement. Of the others … well, I should probably look a little more before saying anything.

Suffice to say that Crux has just enough automation by default to keep it from becoming obtuse. But it also skimps on a lot of other points, which keeps you on your toes.

I mentioned the other day that I learned more about Linux from a 450Mhz K6-2 running Crux than I ever did with any more powerful machine. That’s very true.

But you could probably substitute almost any hardware for that rotten little K6-2, and still learn heaps and mounds more than what Ubuntu or other distros have to offer.

I’m no expert, and your way is always the right way. But if your goal is to figure out what makes your hardware tick, I can think of no better suggestion than Crux.

And best of all, I can guarantee with 99 percent assurance, that any speed improvement you might remember if you moved to Arch from Ubuntu, you will see again if you move from Arch to Crux. Believe you me. 😯

Up and coming: ConnochaetOS. It’s probably not fair for me to highlight a distro so recent in my mind, because there is an observation bias that can’t be avoided.

But let’s be honest. I have a half-dozen computers I’ve used in the past year, and the majority of those predated the Pentium II. What do I really want out of life? An Arch Linux for i586s. dried up more than a year ago, but the DeLi Linux project morphed into the latest i586 effort built on Arch. And I am 100 percent on board with that.

ConnochaetOS: A promising future on the playing field.

Any Arch veteran who has an old machine in the house is going to wipe a tear from her eye if there’s a living, breathing version of i586 Arch out there. Time saved in compiling is the first reason.

Simple ease of use, a minimal starting point and an easy-peasy configuration system are others, and are all hallmarks of Arch proper. All three of those are gold to an antique computer enthusiast.

So while there might be a curse attached to i586 renditions of Arch Linux, I’m hoping ConnochaetOS can ride it out, in part with its history as DeLi Linux, but in part because it’s got what Arch users are used to.

My fingers are crossed for this one.

Big toys for big boys: Linux Mint Debian. What I’ve mentioned thus far all has the potential — if not the promise — of running on extremely low-end machines. Pentiums. Maybe even i486s.

But if you were born after 1992 and you think a single-core machine is sluggish, then your idea of “antique” is quite different from mine.

No matter: I have one more candidate for you, and this one should run on anything from a Pentium 4 up, and suffer no setbacks at all.

And heck, you can even strip the machine down to (a no doubt frightening) 256Mb and still get plenty of use out of it. Put in those hours at Free Geek, because your reward will no doubt perform with Linux Mint Debian.

LMDE: All of the flavor, none of the fat.

Distros like this one should put fear into the hearts of big-name projects like Ubuntu or Fedora or OpenSUSE. Why? Because all the flash (dare I say “Flash”? 😆 ), all the glitter and all the goodies are instantly available for us peons suffering with leftover machines.

How can LMD be doing things so right, and all the others be doing things so … not right? I don’t know.

But spend a week with LMD and you’ll probably never walk back to Ubuntu. And you’ll probably never walk into another computer reseller either, because the machine you use now (I feel safe in saying) is powerful enough to run it.

And Mint’s reputation for making Ubuntu even easier … ? Well, what can I say. Back in August I dropped Mint into a neighbor’s Celeron, with the hopes that it would be easier and cleaner to manage than — but just as speedy as — Arch.

And it ran without a complaint — no, really: without a stitch of attention from me — for three full months. What do you make of that? 😀

P.S.: Get yourself some floppies. What is life without floppies?! :mrgreen:

(All right. You asked for it, you got it. 👿 )

For now, 2.6 is fine

It’s been about a month since the release of Crux 2.7, and technically I still have two machines I haven’t upgraded.

Or maybe I should say one and a half. Half because the Mebius is usually bouncing between operating systems, off in la-la land, testing a wild and bizarre distro du jour.

So yes, I do have a backup Crux 2.6 system written as an image file, and when I want that system to work as I like it, I write it back and do what I need to do.

But it’s already out of date, since back releases of Crux don’t get much in the way of updates. And that means the machine I rely on most is dreadfully stagnant.

But let’s be honest for a second: A meager 80Mb of memory, a lowly 100Mbit PCMCIA network card and probably three or four gigabytes of open space. Nothing critical there, that’s for sure.

And all of the hardware is so old, it hasn’t seen attention in the kernel for years. Honestly, I don’t feel like a target demographic.

Furthermore, if it’s not broke, why fix it? Short of system underpinnings and maybe an odd utility or two, there’s not much I have in the way of installed software that will get updated very often.

On top of that, building a new system would be a little bit of a pain … and maybe this is why I am really so hesitant.

Back when I had the Celeron in the house it was the surrogate for the CF card while I installed Crux. Running the CF card to the adapter to a USB enclosure didn’t work. I don’t know why.

But it means that I would have to replace the CF card in the Mebius, build the new system in an emulator, boot the Mebius to a live environment (thanks, Slitaz Base), write out the system across USB, reverse the drive arrangement again, and then troubleshoot.

Once more, for emphasis: And then troubleshoot. 🙄

That might be just a little more intermediary steps than I like. If I can commandeer another, faster mid-grade IDE-driven machine, I might go for it, but for now, 2.6 is just fine.

I think. … 😐