February 28, 2006
Microsoft lately has been challenging Linux's suitability for older hardware, so it seems like a good time to look at Linux distributions that can run on older machines. I took six distributions for a test run on an old machine, and also tried software that turns old hardware into a thin client. The bottom line: Linux is still quite suitable for older hardware. It might not turn your aging PC into a powerhouse, but it will extend its lifespan considerably.
For these tests, I dug out Igor, an old PC that had been collecting dust in my closet. Igor is a Pentium II 233MHz machine with 64MB of RAM, an 8x CD-ROM drive, a 3GB hard drive, and an integrated ATI 3D Rage Pro video card with 4MB of video RAM. You can run Linux on older and slower machines, but this is the most under-powered machine I had available.
Next, I selected a handful of lightweight Linux distributions that looked promising, and started downloading. The distributions ranged from popular "mainstream" distros such as Slackware and Debian to distros that are specifically developed for lightweight machines, such as Damn Small Linux (DSL). I apologize in advance if your favorite lightweight distro is not represented here.
While Linux is good for bringing new life to old hardware, users may need to make some concessions for really old machines. Most applications aren't written with older machines in mind. If you want to use a desktop environment on a machine that's nearly 10 years old, it will probably require some patience on your part. If you don't mind waiting 20 or 30 seconds for an application to start up, older machines will probably suit you just fine.
You may also run into limitations in terms of what devices you can use with the hardware. For instance, my test machine doesn't have USB ports. Sometimes older hardware can be advantageous, though -- finding drivers for cutting-edge hardware is sometimes difficult, but that four-year old video card should be well-supported by now.
If you want or need to keep using hardware past its expected life span, it should be obvious that it isn't going to keep up with today's hardware. Whether you're using Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, BSD, or something else, most of the applications being written for these platforms require additional resources with each release.
That said, many lightweight open source application alternatives exist for users who want to use older hardware. KDE and GNOME may not be suitable for older hardware, but Fluxbox, Xfce, FVWM, IceWM, and other window managers are just fine. Lightweight GUI applications and console apps also shine on older hardware. OpenOffice.org may be sluggish on older machines, but AbiWord runs well on less robust hardware, as does Siag Office -- and it's hard to notice a difference at all when you're using Vim or Mutt. Older machines also make excellent file servers, firewalls, and routers.
I have an old 400 MHz machine sitting in a corner of my office at home which, I believe, is dying to be used again. And I don't think that it will mind too much when I remove Windows from the hard drive.
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