The 350 Mhz XFCE Linux Desktop Search

I’ve had troubles as of late in my household. I had a motherboard go bad that was powering my Media Center PC. This PC is the center of the entire family entertainment with 30 GB of music, 50 GB of movies, and the ability to watch live TV. That immediately ceased when the BIOS chip failed on the mobo. I had to send in for a replacement. In the meantime, I’ve had to shift all of my computers around to compromise for this loss. This means that I lost my normal Linux (PCLinuxOS .92) computer (an old Celeron 900 Emachines). I now have the old PII 350 MHz. While I know it likes Slackware and Vector Linux the most…I have to try other distros out on it just to see what happens. After all, even Windows XP can install and run on this computer…so I’d like to see how some of the better Linux desktops will run on it. To give a quick rundown, here are the specs:

  • ATI Rage Pro Video Card
  • 512MB PC133 Crucial
  • PII MMX 350 MHz
  • Samsung 32X CDROM
  • Western Digital 20 GB 5400 RPM Hard Drive
  • Linksys 10/100 Network Card
  • Sound Blaster 16

Even if my hand is forced in this round with the inclusion of such an old desktop system, I don’t mind. Let’s see how some of the big distros work using this PII 350 MHz shall we? I’m going to attempt to get a good desktop based distro running with an XFCE desktop. If a distro ships with Gnome, I can handle that as well…KDE won’t do though since it will run very slow on this PC.


Unfortunately, this didn’t want to boot. It got stuck on searching for the loop image during bootup. I tried pumping down resolutions and not probing practically anything but it just wouldn’t boot. Every single boot option in my arsenal came up nil. I didn’t think this would work for me, but I just figured I’d give it a try. I know PCLinuxOS is cutting edge normally with the best Intel and AMD processors…but I just figured that I might be able to run it with XFCE powering the desktop. So, it seems that PCLOS is good for newer computers but not what the doctor ordered for older computers. Darn, I really wanted this one to work. Next up, SuSe 10.0…

SuSe 10.0

So far so good, Suse boots with minimal safe options…Now to see how this works out. Installing with a Gnome based desktop just to see if it will work (I know you can go with minimalist desktop but I’d like to see if Gnome works. If not, we’ll try the minimal). Uh oh…problems. For some reason, rpms that are installing aren’t validating. This is odd because I just used these same discs to install SuSe 10 on a test computer at work. I exit out and verify the CD…everything checks out. Ok, let’s try going with minimalist desktop. No go on this either…it fails the same thing. So it seems that for a very odd reason, SuSe 10 doesn’t like the PII 350 MHz and fails out. Next up, SimplyMEPIS 3.3.1.
SimplyMEPIS 3.3.1

MEPIS is solid. Boots up with the safe option selected with no problems. Since this is a LiveCD, I’m greeted to a KDE desktop after a few minutes boot time. The desktop is extremely sluggish. Even though things are very slow, I can still operate fairly well. Since this has the power of Debian behind it, installing XFCE will be a snap. Let’s see how the install goes. Oddly enough, the LiveCD doesn’t detect my Network Everywhere NIC. Let’s see if things change on first boot…I may have to probe a module to support it.

The install takes around 45 minutes on this slower computer. Attempting first boot leads to my computer detecting no active partition on the hard disk. I boot back onto the MEPIS LiveCD and reinstall the bootloader (GRUB) onto my mbr. No fix, this still won’t boot. I boot up on a Win98 SE boot disk and flash the mbr…then boot back into MEPIS and reinstall the bootloader. Still no fix. MEPIS won’t write to the mbr to boot this old computer either…but I can use the LiveCD I guess. Next up, for control purposes…Slackware 10.2.

Slackware 10.2

Absolutely no problems whatsoever. I install all software from both disks and first boot up is beautiful. Speed and simplicity are two things that Slackware delivers in abundance. A quick change of my default desktop by typing the following:

switchdesk xfce

and I’m in business. A sleek XFCE desktop boots up in a few seconds and I’m logging in with no problems whatsoever. Slackware has no problems finding my network or my NIC. It also detects my soundblaster 16 sound card and loads up with sound running. No problems with Slackware 10.2 as anticipated. Like I said, I threw this in here just to make sure that installing Linux on this current setup worked and that all parts in the system also worked with no problems. Up next, Xandros 3 Community Edition…

Xandros 3 Community

Having some difficulty with this one. Booting up, I freeze at “searching for Xandros CD”. By pressing the shift key you can choose different installation methods. I tried a total of 6 with all freezing at the same exact place. Looks like Xandros 3 Community doesn’t like the old PC either. Who can blame it right? But like I said, some of us can’t afford the AMD X2 and Nvidia 7800 just yet. Next up is VLOS 1.2.1 also known as VidaLinux.

VLOS 1.2.1

This distro prides itself on being Gentoo for the desktop. I ran this distro through some testing on the old Celeron 900 and it hummed with speed. I also really dug their desktop…the green theme was quite unique. Unfortunately, this time, the distro does not pride itself on anything with my PII 350 MHz. Kernel panics fly on both text and graphical installs. I believe this is caused by Anaconda the installation program that is utilized by VLOS. I’ve previously had problems with Anaconda when trying to do a clean install of ClarkConnect 3.0 Home Edition when I had this computer for my server/firewall. The same kernel panics that errupted from the ClarkConnect install are back in the attempted VLOS install. VLOS doesn’t like the old PC. Up next is Ubuntu 5.10…

Ubuntu 5.10

Ubuntu worked just fine, albeit a very long installation process (Over an hour on a PII 350 with cable modem for complete install). Gnome is VERY slow though during when trying to operate. I’d like to get XFCE 4.2 up and running. After a bit of snooping on google (no outstanding method was posted on how to install XFCE on Ubuntu’s pages…at least, nothing noticeable right away) I found to install XFCE you can just:

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

and you’re on your way to having a nice and tidy XFCE 4.2.X desktop. Overall, Ubuntu has been very good to the old PII 350. Better thus far than any distro other than slackware. Funny thing about slack is that it can run KDE faster on my old PII than Gnome runs on Ubuntu.

On first boot into XFCE I find things very manageable and a bit faster. Still not the speed I’ve gotten out of this computer before, but definitely manageable and very nice. After snooping around, I found my new XFCE desktop very workable with no visible bugs. I hopped over to and downloaded a few desktops to customize things and I was right at home. Good job to the Ubuntu developers…they really were able to come out on top by supporting this legacy system. Up next is Fedora Core 4.

Fedora Core 4

I had a bad feeling about Fedora since it uses the Anaconda installer. I was right about Fedora and this bad feeling. Kernel panics on both text installation and normal installation brought my test drive of Fedora to a screeching halt. It’s really too bad too because I think Fedora does some nice things with their desktop. OH well. Not every Linux can support a PII 350 MHz right? Up next is Vector Linux SOHO 5.0.1

Vector Linux SOHO 5.0.1

Vector is based on Slackware so I’m looking for great things to come out of this distro. The default desktop is KDE…let’s see if this thing has the juice that its father distro Slackware has by being able to run KDE on this legacy system.

Right away I run into trouble. Xwindows doesn’t like my card with vector. I have to respawn the configuration 6 times before I’m able to settle on 640×480 resolution and get something going. The good part about things is that this is easily fixable. A quick trip to the forums and I’m back in business. Running ‘xorgconfig’ reconfigures my system and allows me 1024×768 resolution. XFCE 4.2 comes with Vector by default and things hum along nicely. This distro is FAST. Boots quicker than Slackware. It has tons of administrative tools in the GUI. This is the ticket…we’ve found a winner. We may not have the apt-get repositories of Debian but a fair trade off for raw speed. Thus far, VectorLinux has been the fastest and most well rounded distros we’ve tried. Next up, Mandriva.

Mandriva 2006 Community

Mandriva will most likely be too cumbersome in its native form…but if we trim it down and slap XFCE on it, will things work much better? Let’s find out. Mandriva freezes after detecting a Mandriva CD during the graphical install. I reset and try a text only installation but Mandriva kernel panics. I try

linux vgalo noacipi

but nothing is working here. No matter what option I give, I either freeze or drop into a Kernel panic. It seems that Mandriva is not for the lower MHz PC’s.


The conclusion of this small experiment show that Ubuntu and VectorLinux are the two best distros geared toward the desktop that work well with my PII 350 Mhz. Still, no one can argue that Slackware drags its feet anywhere when it comes to the desktop. So for the time being, I’ll be sticking with Slackware 10.2 which provides the most overall speed and performance for my aging dinosaur of a computer. My reasoning for sticking with Slackware is that it is a distro I feel comfortable with since I took it for my first Linux test drive in the mid nineties.

Oddly enough, I’m a bit concerned that some of the ‘desktop based distros’ such as Mandriva, Fedora, PCLinuxOS, and MEPIS don’t install on this computer. The reason I’m concerned is that Windows XP installs on this computer just fine. While it isn’t the fastest desktop around, it does work just fine…albeit, punched full of security holes like a piece of swiss cheese. Perhaps some of these distros should learn by the example of Ubuntu which installed with ease. Ubuntu is the number one Linux distro for a reason…and in this experiment they delivered.

If I had to recommend a desktop distro for a slower PC like this one, I’d recommend both Ubuntu AND VectorLinux with Vector being the first recommendation. Vector is just quicker than Ubuntu on this platform and supports many different media formats out of the box. Sure, Ubuntu provides nice how-tos and tutorials to get things up and running, but Vector has VASM and that provides so much control over your environment…not to mention that Vector supports media on the fly. It just seems logical that you’d go with the faster one that you have to do less to in order to get a working media rich desktop.

If anyone has any input on other distros to try, please post in the comments section. Keep in mind that I’m looking for an XFCE desktop that performs well… Hopefully, those of you who are stuck with a PII like me find this article helpful in making a choice for yourself. Thanks for reading.

Author: devnet

devnet has been a project manager for a Fortune 500 company, a Unix and Linux administrator, a Technical Writer, a System Analyst, and a Systems Engineer during his 20+ years working with Technology.

29 thoughts on “The 350 Mhz XFCE Linux Desktop Search”

  1. I’ve found that the lack of PCLOS to find its loop device is generally due to a race condition in which it is searching for devices to use before /dev is fully populated. I’ve successfully gotten around this using a hint from the forums. Boot up using “livecd debug” at the boot prompt. The debug seems to slow things down enough that /dev get populated before it tries to find the loop.

  2. Phil,
    It would probably rate pretty close to what Debian did. The only reason I didn’t include it was that it isn’t known to be geared toward desktop users…it’s more of a catch all distro that can do anything for anyone. Since both Debian and Ubuntu are compiled for middle range processors and not high end…I’d say they’d perform rather close to each other…I always prefer Debian to Ubuntu though so had I included it, I’d recommend Debian first…mainly because I like the purity of Debian.

  3. Do you have good hardware on this system? It might be that the disk is full of bad sectors, the memory is bad or the CDROM is toast. Old systems do wear out.

  4. On a computer of that maturity I would suggest giving Damn Small Linux a go. I’ve found its hardware detection to be excellent and using Fluxbox it is speedy too.

  5. Hello all,

    I did a pxeboot install of Fedora Core 4 on a compaq with specs: 500Mhz celeron chip and 128Mb of ram. I chose the server setup and it installed (and is running) with no problems whatsoever.

  6. I wonder if Puppy Linux could work well. I’ve never tried it, but I notice you have quite a bit of RAM and Puppy Linux runs from RAM, so you might be able to get some pretty fast speeds from that…

  7. I have never had much luck using 32x or slower drives for Linux installs, I always carry a 52x drive with me to use temporarily.


  8. I use Kanotix on old laptops (like 300MHZ/128MB old) and it works nicely. I too like xfce, and also run xubuntu since it solved a non-persistent wlan card problem on my ThinkPad A31/Netgear MA401 setup. Kanotix handled the same card fine on an Armada 1750, but no likee the A31.

  9. You’ve got too much RAM for your test. Actually, I made the same test with a PIII 500 MHz with 128 Mo. My conclusion was : use Mandriva (I never had any issue with it) with Icewm or Slackware with KDE.

  10. Both Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux should really fly, by loading into RAM. No problem with a 512MB system.

  11. I have been testing distros on a similar system, looking for an adequate desktop to give away to a day care center.
    One disto you could test is Zenwalk, it seems to be very lightweight.
    You could also try Slax (Popcorn Edition), although being a live cd I don’t know if you can install it.
    Right now I’m sticking to Xubuntu because Zenwalk didn’t like my serial mouse.

  12. Since I’d had an overall positive experience with SuSE for the last two years, I also recently tried installing SuSE 10.0 on an older [HP-Brio] computer, and found errors on installation of the RPMs. However, when I changed out the CD-ROM drive to a slightly newer drive, I had no difficulties at all. I actually had much more trouble getting the Conexant-based modem to work.

    This computer is now being used by my father’s 79 year-old ladyfriend as her computer. Firefox and Open Office are her two most-used programs, and it’s working just fine for her. No more Viruses!!!

    By the way, after the successful install, I swapped out the drives again and checked the “faulty” installation disc – it failed with the original drive, passed with the one that was used for installation. Perhaps its error-correction was not working properly?

    I tried several other spare CD drives, most worked well, another one did not – the ones that worked best were post-1999. Since I’d run into similar installation problems with other distributions, I’d suggest that anyone who is installing Linux on an older machine spend a few extra bucks to get more memory and a new or recent CD-R/W drive.

  13. Have you tried debian out of the box. I have gotten debian to install and run on a dx4-75 mhz machine with 32 megs of ram. I didn’t do much with desktop. Size of the screen was too small to do much.

  14. Steve,

    The hardware is still good. The hard disk is new. The video card is older but has always worked. The CDROM may cause problems because I took it out of an old computer that was given to me…but I’ve never had any read problems from it when using it in Linux before…the RAM was bought by myself at a computer show last year where I had the RAM tested before I bought it.

  15. I’ll have to give distros those a try.

    However, I really prefer the XFCE desktop to fvwm, icewm, or fluxbox. Just a preference thing…XFCE was my first ‘real’ desktop.
    Question would be…can XFCE be installed on those distros? I’m sure they can…but what I mean is…is there a nice and tidy way to do it or would I have to comple everything from source? That’s always a big decision maker for my Linux desktop PCs…I’ll compile anything for my server but for my desktop, I don’t want to compile anything if I don’t have to.

  16. NoCalDrummer2k,
    Thanks for the info. It may be that my CDROM is finicky. I’ll look in to getting it replaced and see if I can’t get more distros to like this old PC.

  17. You ask if it’s possible to install XFCE on a DSL installation?

    Yes, it’s possible. I recently fixed up a 166Hz Pentium 1 computer for donation, and used DSL as the base. That worked okay, but I wanted some programs that are not a part of the DSL experience…

    …so I upgraded to Debian Unstable!

    It *IS* possible to upgrade DSL (based on Debian Oldstable) to Sid – it just takes
    1) changing the /etc/apt/sources.list entries from oldstable to unstable
    2) changing the /etc/apt/preferences from stable to unstable
    3) making sure that APT::ForceLoop Break=1; is in your /etc/apt/apt.conf file
    4) ping pong back and forth between “apt-get dist-upgrade” and “apt-get -f install”.

    After ping-ponging back and forth between those last two commands about 5 times, you’ll have a completely updated Debian Unstable system running kernel 2.4.31 (the newest kernel for older hardware).

    5) you can then “apt-get install xfce4” and you’ll have the latest version of XFCE4 that’s in Unstable at the time.

    This process (hd install of DSL; dist-upgrade to Sid) took me about 90 minutes from start to finish. I stuck with Joe’s Window Manager which is pre-installed with DSL, because it’s very very fast, and easy to configure… but putting XFCE should be a piece of cake.

    GBYLBT, PastorEd

  18. Devnet,
    I have a older computer with 333 Mhz processor, 192 MB ram, 3.2 GB hard drive. I don’t use it much. I currently have misplaced the hard disk after
    getting it back from someone I lent it to for a month. I had Vector and later Debian on that hard disk.

    My first choice would be Debian for myself. My second choice for myself would be Xubuntu.

    I would recommend Xubuntu to others because it doesn’t ask about configuring X11. Well on second thought I take that back. I would recommend Debian if I could help them out personally.

    Wolvix and Slax Frodo Edition deserve mention. Also Vector and Zenwalk. I would not spend to much time with Wolvix , Slax Frodo Edition or Zenwalk unless I liked them though. Slackware based stuff drives me mad after a while because you have to do so much that other distributions make just work.

    Anything based on Mandriva works great on some computers and dies on others for me but debug as a boot parameter helps. MCN live Jordan with Xfce or a remastered PCLinuxOS are included in this.

    Love your blog. Makes me wish I had something like it myself. Yours is very good. Most of the stuff you write about is interesting. Have a good new year!

  19. One word. STX. It comes with ede as installed, but then you can install xfce4 thru glapt. STX’s main purpose is to run on older hardware. I would have liked to have seen your thoughts on Stx Linux.

  20. Based on some recommendations from those commenting to my previous entry…I will attempt a few more distros on my old PII 350 MHz PC…using the XFCE Desktop of course.  I’ll attempt to get the latest and greatest XFCE up and running.  Those that I’ve re

  21. You should look into xfld which is the Xfce4 desktop. I got tired of KDE because I believe that it tries so hard to be like windows or to make windows users feel @ home by bringing most of the stuff for which I had left windows. Besides that I have been comfortable with XFCE4 on my T40 and most of my other desktops. I use Debian as a base on all destops and servers. I believe in having an identity and not “looking or behaving like the “others””.

  22. I installed Vector 5.1 (standard edition, not SOHO) on a 350 MHz K6-2 with 256 MB RAM, onboard video/sound, and an old 20x CD-ROM. This system used to run Red Hat 7.3 (using gnome) and W2K. Vector seems to start up more slowly than RH 7 but runs faster thanks to xfce. I had previously tried Ubuntu with the default gnome desktop but it was just too slow to be usable.

  23. Ubuntu is too slow with the default gnome desktop, I agree. I would suggest if you still had it installed as well to install xubuntu-desktop with synaptic. Just log out and then choose xfce before you type in your username and password and set it to use it next time. Your performance will then be much better. As a last touch I would install Abiword and perhaps Gnumeric and/or Gnucash for office stuff because openoffice is a bit of a hog. With 256 RAM you may be okay; I only had 192 in a machine I tried it on. Vector is pretty fine though and I like how you can choose fluxbox or icewm too from the login screen on it. I really think it has the coolest little graphical log in program.

  24. It may be a little blasphemous to talk about here, but have you ever thought about FreeBSD? I have never had a problem installing it on any computer ever.

  25. Well, you asked for some comment, I figured I might throw mine into the ring. I’ve long been a Windows flunky and tried to get rid of Windows for a while. I’ve been associated with Linux since Redhat 5, but never seriously tried it for the desktop until the last couple of years or so.

    One of my biggest pet peeves with all of the distros AND with Windows is the amount of unnecessary crap that they put on a system that will inevitibly slow the system down. I wanted a clean install, something fast, regardless of what system it lives on, and something that was relatively user friendly and something that was easy enough that even I can install without too much customization.

    Turns out, there really isn’t one. You either have to be willing to tune your system to meet your needs or be prepared for bloatware. Fedora (and formerly Redhat) and its relatives (all of the RPM based distros) offer a nice level of flexibility for installation, but they don’t really explain what you only NEED to have, so most people, myself included, wind up installing a lot more than you ever need. The Debian variants don’t give you a lot of flexibility in how you install the system. Ask for a desktop system and that’s what you get – complete with Gnome, whether you want it or not.

    Sure in any of these distros you can add or remove until your hearts content, but I wanted something that I could build from the ground up that would include ONLY that which I wanted, nothing more, nothing less. And I still had memories of getting into dependency hell with Redhat.

    Solution: Gentoo. A friend of mine turned me onto Gento and I gave it a shot. Aside from FreeBSD, it’s probably one of the most difficult systems to install and, yes, it will take a LENGTHY amount of time on a 350. But once its complete, depending on how you configure it, it will run RINGS around just about any distro out there and be a LOT more secure. It took me several goes to get the hang of it, but once it was done, it was a breeze. I currently have two Gentoo systems now, one being a IBM Stinkpad 600 with a Celeron 400 and 128 MB of RAM. It’s running Gentoo installed from the 2006.0 minimal CD and I got really crazy with that one and installed the experimental Enlightenment DR17 desktop. DR17 isn’t even in beta yet and I’ll admit, it’s a little difficult to configure and more than a little buggy. But boy, she’s pretty. 🙂

    My Winblows box on the other hand was giving me fits…so I figured it was time for a change there, but again, I wanted something that was a little more stable than DR17. After all, this IS my gaming box – and yes, it does have a small Windows partition on it. I have some games that just won’t run on anything else. Love Cedega, but I wish its library was larger…

    So I have recently installed Gentoo on this system on the larger of the two hard drives. I’ve installed Xfce4 and done some customization on it, installed adesklets and removed the xfce4-panel and use instead modubar. Makes it look probably a little like OSX, but I don’t care, it’s pretty…and VERY lightweight and fast.

    This is an Athlon XP 2000+ with 768MB of RAM and a 120GB 7200 RPM hard drive (60GB drive as well for Winblowz) and it’s got everything I need…and nothing more. Cedega, OpenOffice2, Xine, XMMS, MPlayer, Eterm, GVim, Firefox, Thunderbird, and xffm…and folks, it SCREAMS!! I’ve timed it. My Debian server takes twice as long to load up and it doesn’t even have a GUI!! And Windows takes up to FOUR TIMES as long to boot up. And typically, I have problems with my Windows partition, especially when trying to play DivX files – sends Windows right into a fit. But all of the same DivX files I had to install half a dozen things in Windows to make them play, I play in Linux natively and without a hitch. Those same files would often cause Winblowz to bluescreen on me.

    And here’s another test. Take any distro you want…install it and then run nmap on it and see what it says, take a look at how many ports are listening natively on these systems. Winblows is by and large the worst of the lot and the most insecure, unless you have their “firewall” turned on. But with Gentoo, you have no need – it listens ONLY on the ports you tell it to. An NMAP of my system now shows ONE port open (and that’s only going to be for a little bit longer until I’m done with this system) and that’s SSH. Aside from that, this system is non-existant on the network, absolutely unseeable.

    Yes, Gentoo is a more difficult animal to install. But I can almost promise you, as performance goes, as security goes, once you have it installed, it will run and run WELL on just about anything you put under it and will run faster than any other distro out there with the exception of probably FreeBSD or OpenBSD, both of which are for old schoolers that really like a challenge. I might get adventerous one of these days and try out BSD…I mean you have to admire a person that is brave enough to take an OS that requires you to download the source for every component and compile it from scratch!! I’m not there yet. Gentoo does that for me rather nicely.

    I will say, that Gentoo is the last step before you go off into BSD or Unix land. 🙂 But it’s package management is probably just about as good as you can get. Easily as good as the APT system of the Debian variants and actually nicer in some fashion because, where Debian (and its family) pull precompiled binaries and just “stick” them on the system without regard for tuning the applications for your particular system, Gentoo actually pulls the source and compiles the apps for YOUR system and YOUR hardware. That’s one of the reasons that Gentoo (and the BSDs) are so much faster. Your apps are specifically compiled for YOUR hardware, not precompiled to work on just about any hardware.

    Sorry for the long post, but if you’re interested in speed and performance, albeit the install is more intensive and does take more time and routine updates take longer because you have to recompile the apps more often than not, if you’re not ready to dive into something like BSD which is reserved for the *nix Messiahs of the world and you feel as though you’re only a minor *nix prophet and not worthy to share space with the *nix heirarchy bretheren, then Gentoo is a good starting point for you in your trek to becoming a *nix diety. 🙂

  26. Been trying to figure out a Linux for my 450AMD and this really helped! I’ll go back to my Vector 5.1. I’ve been trying to find a faster one, I couldn’t get Vector 3.2 working.. other ‘fast’ distros too hard to work properly, without stressing over the installation and setup.

  27. If you are looking for an Xfce LiveCD with a clean interface, fast load time, and basic desktop software platform, check out my modified Slax Popcorn .iso, SimpleSlax:

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