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]