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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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 xfce-look.org 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.
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