Background

Many people at home or work have old Pentium PCs not doing much, the majority of these PCs are perfectly useful with the right software on. I'm going to take a look at what I can do with my old PC in the way of setting up a few different Linux distributions to make it into a word processor and networked PC.

The PC I will be using is a Compaq Deskpro with the following specification:

Pentium 166 Processor
96 MB?s of RAM
1.9gig Hard Drive
3com network card
CD drive
Floppy Drive
On board graphics

The network card is connected to my main network with an Internet gateway.

In the past I have used the PC as an IP COP firewall, a Windows 2000 server and an Apache web server. In this case I have decided to set it up as a Linux based word processor with either Gnome or ICEWM as the windows manager and abiword as a word processor. I will also install a web browser, in most cases either Nautilus or Mozilla depending on what the different distributions have available.

I did consider OpenOffice but after deep consideration I thought it would be too slow on the old pc and I would only really be using the word processor. The PC has to run at a reasonable speed and the number of errors must be kept to a minimal! I will try as many distributions as possible including the big names such as Red Hat, SuSE and Mandrake.

SuSE

Website: here

The first distribution I tried was SuSE, I use SuSE on my main computer and in all honesty its one of my favourite distributions. I have copies of SuSE 7.2, 8 and 8.1 so I thought I would try 8.1 first. My first task was to create boot floppy disks because unluckily my computer doesn't boot from the CD. This was an easy task as all the files needed are available on SuSE's ftp server.

SuSE has to be one of the easiest distributions to install and all seemed to be going well on the 166 until it came to formatting then coping files across to the hard drive. The installer would come to copy files and would then freeze, I tried 8.1 three times with different partitions and package selections, each time the PC would freeze at around the same place.

Ironically the screen that the installer froze on stated that SuSE was ?easy and stable?.

Next I decided to install 8.0 as 8.1 didn't want to install however I had the same problems again with the installer freezing when it came to copy files across. I considered the problem being the partitioning it was doing but after trying EXT2, EXT3 and ReiserFS I moved on to SuSE 7.2.

This installed fine and after a nerve-racking installation I was asked to configure X. This is where I had more problems, I knew that the screen and graphics could take 800*600 at 16bit colour and that the vertical range of the screen was 50-60hz but SuSE wouldn't take it! After messing about with the setting a bit I managed to get it to work in 800*600 at 256colors but this just made everything look horrible.

I managed to install Gnome, abiword and Mozilla without any problems and they worked fine however trying to look at any web page looked dreadful because of the lack of colours.

Overall I wasn't too impressed with SuSE on my 166 compared to my main PC and it was pretty clear that SuSE is aiming its products at PCs with a bit more power.

Debian 3

Website: here

Next on the list was Debian, I had never used Debian before so it was a bit of a new experience. Don?t ask why I decided to try Debian on the 166 it was just a hunch to try it. I didn't have Debian ISO images on CD so I was going to try the network install from the net.

After downloading 2 floppy disks and a small driver CD I was ready to go. I booted from the floppy and the installer detected that I had modules on the CD this made setting up the network card and configuring the network easy. The installer then downloaded a few base system modules from the net (took about 20mins on my ADSL) and installed them without any problems.

After rebooting it loaded up Debian's package managers, the first is called Tasksel which gave you a few basic categories to install, I selected to install X and it then loaded up a package manager called dselect, this listed every single package I could install and it took ages to select the ones I needed! However it did sort out all of the dependencies brought up by selecting different packages.

After going through a few thousand packages it downloaded and started configuring everything. It loaded Debconf and asked a few simple questions about X and whether I wanted Debconf to set it up for me, obviously I pressed yes.

The system then brought up the login prompt and started ICEWM in 800*600 at 16bit and everything worked fine. I was surprised how well things worked compared to my experience with SuSE and to be honest it was a perfectly useable word processor and net access system.

Red Hat 8

Website: here

I didn?t have much luck to start with when it came to installing Red Hat the stylish interface of the Red Hat installer booted up fine and everything went fine until it came to installing where I got an error message stating ?install exited abnormally? it was in a similar place to what happened in SuSE 8.0 and 8.1 so I can only guess my computer must have a problem!

Without wanting to give up so soon I decided to try the non graphical version of the installer however I got an error in the same place as before but this time I got a nice log too!

If anyone can work out what the following log is about let me know:

here

Mandrake 9

Website: here

After SuSE and Red Hat both not installing on the 166 I was optimistic whether it was worth trying Mandrake. I haven?t used Mandrake for about a year so I was keen to see what Mandrake 9 had to offer compared to previous versions. I spent 10 hours downloading the ISO images yet I had the same problem as in SuSE and Red Hat when it came to installing. However I wasn?t going to give up so I decided to try the network install.

After spending a further 3 hours downloading and installing, everything was going well until it asked me to configure my X server, unlike Debian or SuSE it didn?t auto-configure leaving me to try to work out what my setting were. Luckily in this case I knew what they were and entered the details I thought to be correct.

I rebooted but it couldn?t initialise the X server, I tried about 5 times with different parameters in the xf86config but it wouldn?t have it. Either my p166s onboard graphics wasn?t supported or I was putting something in wrong.

At this point I gave up going any further and decided to call it a week when it came to trying different distributions on my 166.

Conclusion

Out of the 4 distributions I tested over the last week Debian installed the least with about 400mbs of packages while SuSE and Red Hat wanted to install over 1gig of packages. For the smaller hard drive the less to install is clearly better so Debian won here.

Debian also won for overall distribution to work properly and install easily. SuSE and Red Hat both install fine on my Pentium 4 2gig but on my p166 they didn?t shine through as much. I was a bit surprised that Debian did so well considering I had no prior experience of the distribution and had relatively good experience with Red Hat and SuSE.

I was a bit surprised with Mandrake that it didn?t automatically setup X considering Mandrake is well known for its simplicity. Debian on the other hand was the only distribution to setup X first time without any problems, this was also surprising because I always thought Debian was more of a techie distribution.

I have learnt that my p166 seems to have some sort of hardware conflict that seems to stop the newer versions of SuSE and Red Hat from installing.
From my personal experience it seems that Debian has won the test of best distribution for a word processor on a p166 and I will be leaving it on the machine for the near future.

If you have any personal experiences of good distributions for older computers sign up to ImAFish and post your comments below.

[Last edited on February 11, 2003 at 8:05:22pm by pwhite]

Watch what you post!

By Pete | @kingpetey | 30 Jan 2003

I hate to sound stupid but watch what you post especially on your columns. Personally stuff isn't too bad as long as you dont mind anyone coming to the site and reading your personel details.

You may know a lot of the visitors to your column however it is public so there is nothing to stop anyone reading it.

Try to be careful when posting about how you smoke pot every day or take part in any ilegal activity (which i hope you dont)it can be interesting but any old cop or parent could come onto the site and could read a column post about how you smoke pot all day long. This really wont do you any favours.

ImAFish will not be responsible for any trouble you may get into because of anything that has been posted on ImAFish, and believe me there are cops watching a fair few of us online :P (ask ga and leon).

Needless to say ImAFish does not mind you posting what ever you like within reason, be it fiction or the truth however remember you are responsible for that content.

If you feel that someone has posting somthing unfair about you or that you want one of your posts removed from the site let me know and it will be sorted out.

SQL Worm Causes Chaos

By Pete | @kingpetey | 26 Jan 2003

A virus targeting Microsoft SQL server is causing chaos around the world because of the high traffic it is producing. The worm takes advantage of a vulnerability in Microsoft?s SQL Server 2000 allowing affected SQL Servers to send the dangerous packet to other affected SQL Server throughout the world. This results in massive amounts of network traffic causing servers to become very slow or fail.

The virus resides in the memory of the infected machine and so virus scanners that don?t search the memory will not detect the virus. The virus keeps sending 367 bytes of random code across port 1434/UDP until the server crashes.

However this vulnerability isn?t a new problem and Microsoft released a security fix over 6 months ago. The fix can be found here . The virus is easy to cure with this patch and any admin who thinks that their server is infected in advised to install the patch. Admins are also advised to block port 1434/UDP with their firewalls or their ISPs routers to stop the attacks.

The worm has caused problems especially with DNS servers and many people found yesterday that the internet was slow or certain webpages were inaccessible. Questions will be asked of Microsoft and of server admins as to why such a security hazard happened this weekend.

Links

here
here
here
here

[Last edited on January 26, 2003 at 2:27:54pm by pwhite]

SuSE Linux Office Desktop

By Pete | @kingpetey | 23 Jan 2003

One of the main quests of SuSE Linux is to try to make it as easy to use for the end user and especially the inexperienced Linux user. The idea behind SuSE Office Desktop is to provide a simple, easy and cost effective Windows alternative for businesses. One of the key features of the Office Desktop is compatibility between existing documents a firm may have when switching from Windows to Linux. There seems no point in a company switching from Windows to Linux if non of there previous work is usable.

The system requirements are pretty standard as far as operating systems go and you will find that the Office Desktop will install on most of the computers in your Office. SuSE requires a Pentium compatible PC with at least 64mb of ram and about 3gig of hard drive space for installation, this doesn't include space for the large MP3 collection that you may have at work!

The Office Desktop is based on SuSE 8.1 so has many of the features such as the installation process, installed software and YaST configuration tool, there are also some new programs and features more specific to the needs of the office.

One of these features is a installed copy of StarOffice 6 which normally retails at about ?30 per license. StarOffice is a commercial product unlike OpenOffice.org which is still under development so for the business user StarOffice is the better option for not only stability but better support provided by Sun Microsystems.

SuSE Office Desktop also comes with the latest version of Cross Over Office, which is a Windows emulator based on CodeWeavers Wine project. The idea behind Cross Over Office is that you can run Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint in Linux. You may think that this may seem stupid as the Office Desktop has StarOffice installed already but many people do like MS Office so adding the option in to be able to use it is quite an important factor in attracting people to use the Office Desktop.

I managed to get my copy of Office 2000 to install with out any problems, it even installed me a copy of Internet Explorer 5 though I'm not sure if it was welcome. CodeWeavers do say that MS Access is not fully supported however after spending about an hour making a little database and a few forms I could see no sign of any problems (this isn't a Guarantee though).

Not only have SuSE been adding in external applications to try to make the Office Desktop as easy to use as possible they have also added their own little features to try to make things more simplistic. One of these is the ?Assistant? it doesn't have a big purpose to be honest but provides a few short links to make things a bit easier to setup. Its the sort of thing that once you know where things are you will probably want to delete it off your desktop.

I tried to setup file sharing between my SuSE Office Desktop PC and my Windows ME machine however after spending a while working it out I couldn't get the shared files to work, I'm not sure if this was because of network problems or workgroup problems (though I could ping each machine so there was some network activity).

A feature I liked a lot was the desktop, from installation I had access to all my partitions and devices which was very handy for accessing my documents on my fat32 partition. I also had 3 other icons called ?My Pictures? ?My Presentations? and ?My Text Documents? these were all folders within the /home directory in my account. It made it a lot easier to organise and store work especially when you have lots of images and text documents.

I noticed the file system had also changes, all my Windows file systems were now in /windows and all my CD drives were in /media leaving /mnt empty. A couple of things really annoyed me, such as when your in your own account (not root) and you have to access a feature in YaST that requires root access, you enter the root details then there is a box to tick to remember details yet it never remembers them, I ended up having to put them in every time I wanted to enter YaST.

I also found that the Office Desktop didn't seem to concentrate much on financial software, and some web design software, whether SuSE didn't think these types of software were necessary or that they aren't available for Linux yet I'm not sure.

Overall I thought that the Office Desktop was a step in the right direction, and one that hasn't been viewed by many other Linux distributions yet, I would certainly expect more distributions to look into this sort of market in the future. I did find the desktop easy to install and use and its fine if your business mainly uses computers for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations however if more specialist software is needed then perhaps now is the time that software companies start to bring out Linux versions to get a head start in the market against their competitors, because I can see Linux being used a lot more on desktops in business over the next few years.

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Check out more Linux articles here

[Last edited on January 23, 2003 at 11:33:35pm by pwhite]

The TV or Computer?

By Pete | @kingpetey | 10 Jan 2003

As computers get faster and TV's get more interactive which will be most popular in the future? 10 years ago computers in the home were very rare yet now homes across the world are filled with computers and we're being encouraged even more to setup home networks and to get broadband Internet. TV's have been around a little longer (over 50 years now) and you can now find at least 2-3 in most house holds. Yet trying to merge the two through TV cards and web TV never really took off.

This week in California Sony's chief operations officer, Kunitake Ando predicted the rebirth of the TV that would take digital TV and the Internet to the next level. Their new strategies would include the utilization of broadband in the home and using the TV to access the Internet for films and communication.

He stressed that people need to sign up for faster Internet access such as DSL and cable. Mr Ando also showed off Sony's Cocoon, a device about the size of a DVD player that connected the TV and the internet by broadband. The machine runs on Linux and has a hard disc that can record 100 hours of video. It is already gone on sale in Japan.

Also this week, the worlds leading computer manufacturer, Dell released plans for the future, that include their own brand of hand held computers and trying to make it even easier for people to buy the computer that they need.

Dell also mentioned about how the PC was becoming the center for entertainment in the home, with audio, video, gaming and the Internet. However Dell do not think it is relevant whether the TV or PC is best.

What ever happens it is clear that both types of entertainment rely of people signing up for broadband and are willing to invest in new subscription services.

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