Linux on Old Computers

One of the things I really take joy in doing is restoring old throw-away and hand-me-down computers and making them run better than new, using lightweight Linux operating systems and free software. I can then donate them to a local school, church, or other charity. Mostly desktops, because laptops are harder to do because of the wifi tweaking I have to do. I prefer the Xfce desktop because it’s so very intuitive, even people who never used a computer before can just point-and-click their way along with an easy learning curve.

By the way, I got in trouble at school for my silly answer to the professor’s question, “What was the first point-and-click interface?”
My answer: “Colt Firearms.”

Where was I? Oh yeah – old hardware. I may have to quit when 32-bit Linux systems become impossible to find. It may not be long, but while it lasts I’ll keep that ancient, one-step-up-from-an-abacus Windows98 machine running along for as long as I can.

Here’s one I won’t ever donate:

Xfce desktop with desktop icons for school stuff I’m working on

Sizzle, pop, clickety

The dial is a thermometer. The gauge doesn’t show degrees, but whatever. The speaker is covered by a collander-type slotted spoon.

Okay, okay, it’s not really an old computer. It’s Steampunk!

Antique-looking awesomeness.

PCLinuxOS Mini Xfce Edition

I have been writing about why I jumped from Ubuntu-derived Linux Lite to PCLinuxOS. Linux Lite – with addition of a vitally important safety feature from the awesome and venerable Ralphy’s own repository – is by far the best newbie-friendly distro for older hardware I have ever had the pleasure to use. Just one issue: It’s “daemon possessed.”

And I don’t mean it’s administered by a Ferengi starship commander, either. A daemon is a program that runs in the background. Every decent operating system has daemons, or it would hardly be useful for us ordinary mortals. But this one particular daemon, named systemd, is a dangerous, invasive, “supervisory” one that does more than just initialize programs and applications and allocate the proper resources to them. It oversees, overrules, overextends, and keeps a record of every process. It has many security vulnerabilities and other issues that sent me fleeing away, at least until it can be tamed and put on a leash or something, if ever.

I wanted a Linux distribution that was not only not possessed by that evil daemon, but also beginner-friendly and technophobe-friendly. Salix would have sufficed in the first department, but not really in the second. A little more research and I re-discovered PCLinuxOS. There’s a nice community Xfce edition with lots of extra stuff in it that I actually don’t need or want, but that is true of every newbie-friendly Linux mixture. I found a “Xfce mini” edition, put together by the revered and praiseworthy Ika, a long-time member of the very loyal and enthusiastic PCLOS community. I installed it today on the old laptop and just wanted to describe the experience a little, for the benefit of any readers who are looking to escape the systemd threat without losing the simplicity and “friendliness” of wonderful Linux distros like Mint, the ‘buntu family, LXLE, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, and many more built from Ubuntu. For them, if they have decent hardware that isn’t more than a couple of years old, there is the flagship KDE edition of PCLinuxOS. It has it all! I prefer the lightweight, infinitely configurable, and super-simple Xfce desktop. It’s the default desktop of Linux Lite, and also the default desktop of several Linux distributions meant for use by children! So it’s not complicated, but it’s powerful, simple, and nimble on older hardware. The Xfce flavor of PCLinuxOS is available in two different forms: The standard one is basically kinda sorta PCLinuxOS with Xfce tied on. The “mini” Xfce version has few installed applications, just enough to run it and then install the software you really want and prefer to use. It uses Synaptic Package Manager (yeah, you read that right, Synaptic, even though it’s not Debian or Ubuntu-based) to update and install software from a vast, hyooooge, very extensive repository! It even has Seamonkey! Cool, no adding PPAs and all that high-risk nonsense. LXLE has like six or eight added PPAs besides Ubuntu’s, just to get the latest versions of LibreOffice, to make Seamonkey available to their users, and the latest daily builds of other popular software. That’s nice, but the more PPAs you add to an Ubuntu-based OS, the greater the risk of something breaking when installed and/or updated. My other complaint with Ubuntu-based distros is the inexplicable presence of beta software in a distro intended for novice users! I just think that is unconscionable. Systemd, by the way, is beta quality even if it’s not billed that way.

Okay, end of lecture on why I switched (and why others should, in my opinion). Now the good part.

The Xfce Mini Live USB cranked right up and ran fast and responsively in Live mode. Installation may be unfamiliar to folks who are used to the Ubuntu-based stuff, but it’s pretty easy. Clicking on the “install PCLinuxOS” icon brings up a nice step-by-step set of instructions. The DrakLive installer uses GParted, but helps the user along. BACK UP ALL YOUR STUFF to an external media first!

I don’t do the dual-boot thing, and I didn’t install PCLOS alongside another distro. So I chose “custom partitioning.”

A swap partition, traditionally about 2X your computer’s RAM. I gave “/” 20 Gigabytes of space on my HDD, and all the rest of the drive is “/home.”
WORD OF CAUTION: If you already have a /home directory on the drive that you used with a different distro, format that sucker! “Foreign” settings and stuff will definitely interfere with PCLinuxOS default settings. Keep your documents, pictures, videos, browser / email profiles etc on external media to use after installation.

Now tell the installer what bootloader and device you want to use. The default is Grub on the hard drive.

Now the magic happens!

Ohhhh, it’s wonderful! The entire process from start to finish took under 10 minutes on my laptop. My only issue was that I needed to use my little non-proprietary USB wifi dongle to get an internet connection. That’s common with the stupid Broadcom wireless hardware in Dell computers. Not a show-stopper really, just a minor annoyance. Easily fixed after installation. On a desktop with a wired internet connection, no issue at all.

Then reboot when it’s finished, but do not remove the Live media (USB or DVD) until prompted to do so.

On first boot, you’ll choose your root password and set up a user (with a different password – this ain’t Ubuntu!). Log in and enjoy!

The mini Xfce version has enough to get you going. First thing: Update! You can do it when prompted to, but on the mini you’ll want to open Synaptic and choose your favorite apps. I install Seamonkey, ddCopy, xournal, Faenza icon set, and a few other favorites. LibreOffice isn’t included in the mini version, so install it from Synaptic if you want it. GParted and ddCopy do what Mintstick did in Linux Lite (and Mint), so I’m comfortable with that. This is a truly customized mixture, and the cool thing is, you can use MyLiveCD to roll your own custom-made, just-the-way-you-want-it iso to install on another computer. It does what Systemback did (and by the way, Systemback is about to lose it’s maintainer, so it may not be available in the next LTS releases of Ubuntu and it’s derivatives).

I’m just enjoying this so much, and I feel so much better to have exorcised the systemd daemon from my OS.

Plan A After All

Plan B was going to be to leave my laptop on Linux Lite, just so I could have the easy, simple, clickable USB utilities I enjoyed in Linux Lite (borrowed from Linux Mint and adapted for Linux Lite by the Great and Venerable “Ralphy,” of unlockforus.com fame).

Since then, however, I have found that GParted can quickly – but not quite as simply – format any USB drive in a few clicks, and an app in the PCLinuxOS repositories called “ddCopy” performs the other function I relied on Mintstick for. So….

Plan A will work after all! Next post I’ll write about the newest Xfce “mini” edition of PCLinuxOS, when I install it on the old laptop.

Happy Canada Day (belated, it was July 1st) to my Canadian readers and happy Independence Day to my US readers!

Best Mozilla Replacement

I’ve written two previous posts about replacing Mozilla software with alternative e-mail and web browsing software, out of protest for two things:

First was the (I know, this is old news, you don’t hafta tell me it was “a long time ago”) company’s firing of a it’s CEO for daring to express a politically incorrect opinion, and second is the extreme bloat and resource hunger of the later versions of Mozilla’s flagship browser, Firefox.

Wellllll, dontchya know, my old favorite, Seamonkey, is an independent project, no longer developed by the politically-correct bloatmasters. This is actually old news too, but I’m a slow learner I guess. Thunderbird is also an independent and separate project now as well, although for the time being both projects have agreements with Mozilla for hosting and some legal stuff.

So I’m a Seamonkey fanboy again!

I guess by the time I finally decided to act on my convictions, Seamonkey and Thunderbird had already been independent projects. Duh.

But like I said, I’m a slow learner.

More PCLinuxOS Awesomeness

It’s not just the bestest, most wonderfulest, and awesomeful Linux distro in the history of ever, it’s even more! It’s free e-mail, free image hosting, chat, the best Linux-related monthly magazine (viewable on the web or downloadable as a PDF). The community is very active, and not just in the forums, but elsewhere contributing to the whole project in a thousand ways. This is truly a community-driven distro – with wonderful perks no other distro offers that I know of.

It’s also, apparently, some kinda well-guarded secret or something. I’m absolutely amaaaaazed that this distro hasn’t been Number One for all this time. But I suspect that a lot of users of other distros who would flee from systemd, commercialism, and corporate disregard for the community, will find there way to PCLinuxOS as I have.

Spooked and Hopeful All At Once

A friend on Diaspora has been asking a lot of questions about systemd lately, and the more he learns and posts about it, the scarier it seems. Not so much for the present, but for the control it takes over everything in the OS (and choice is a big deal for most Linux users, even for simple technophobic “ordinary users” like me). It’s a “supervisor” for all running processes on a Linux system which has it built in (Debian, Red Hat, Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu and all it’s children and grandchildren like Linux Mint, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, Bodhi, and dozens of others). He had asked why systemd requires it’s own password, which I didn’t know about. And like the nice helpful boy I want to be, I searched for the answer to share with him. Here’s a a little of the conversation:

I’m not trying to start a new debate, since I don’t know enough about it to contribute anything except that there are still some great systemd-free Linux OSes around, from AntiX and Devuan (Debian-based) to PCLinuxOS and of course, Slackware (the oldest active Linux distro in existence) and it’s derivatives like Vector Linux and SalixOS. That’s all I can contribute to the debate, but here’s why I’m a little spooked by all this systemd stuff:

Politically arch-conservative, my “default setting” is to completely mistrust the government and big intrusive corporations like Microsoft and Google anyway, but from the conversation above (and about 70 more comments in that thread), it seems almost like systemd is trying to take over Linux! It’s initialized on boot-up even before the kernel for goodnessakes, and has “agents” to coordinate and keep a record of every process. Okay, it’s supposed to make everything better somehow I guess, but keeping a record of everything? This really does sound like the start of a “slippery slope” that is supposed to be the new standard for the most popular Linux desktop and server operating systems.

That’s why I’m spooked.

Now for the hopeful part:

If I jump back to Salix to avoid systemd, I would really miss the cool tools I have with my modified Linux Lite – particularly the tools from this wonderful site maintained by a quiet coder who has adapted stuff from other great Linux distros for Linux Lite and Linux Mint. So just for giggles, I searched for a Slackbuild of MintStick, the supercool USB utility that not only writes iso images to a USB thumbdrive, but also lets you format USB sticks with two mouse clicks. And guess what?! Sure enough, there’s a Slackbuild for that! Updates are never an issue in Salix (fully compatible with Slackware). It’s stability is legendary and “broken after updating” is so rare I’ve never even read any such thread in the Salix forums. Linux Lite is awesome for now – modified with the unlockforus stuff – but it’s future is uncertain.

Perhaps I’ll revisit PCLinuxOS again, too. It’s been probably 2 years or more since I played around with it. But Salix was always awesome, even without any Gnome stuff in it at all (there are plenty of places to find “Gnome for Slack” packages and scripts anyway). I’m not a big fan of Gnome, since it seems they really didn’t listen to the community at all when they came up with Gnome 3 and ended up losing a lot of users to Mint’s fork of Gnome called Cinnamon, and to other desktops like Xfce, LXDE, etc.

Linux is about freedom. Systemd seems a threat to that freedom. But thankfully, it’s easily avoided – for now.

EDIT:  I just finished deleting a few paranoid posts about systemd.  As it turns out, most of the issues I uncovered were two or three years old (before systemd showed up in Ubuntu-LTS-based distros) and have long since been patched.  And now that it is in such widespread use, there are literally thousands of freedom-loving developers, users, testers, and coders to keep an eye on it.  Fear of systemd is not going to rob me of an awesome, simple computer experience.

 

The WWW Sucks! :(

Seriously – why do computers (especially browsers and such) become obselete so darned fast? This video helps explain it.

Thar She Blows!

Bryan Lunduke is at it again. No, this ain’t one of his annual conference presentations – he gave up on those – but an interesting presentations nontheless. There aren’t as many stale geeky insider gags in his latest speech, neither is it about how “Linux Sucks!” but this time he rages against the World Wide Web.

Yes, his presentation is one of his usual roundhouse kicks against all the many negative, stupid and hare brained schemes the industry inflicts on us thru the web but this time there’s no reveal, no turn-around, no hidden gimmick in his presentation.

BlameLunduke

Has our beloved Linux clown grown up? Yes, it appears so! Nevertheless it’s an interesting and rewarding view. Well worth investing almost an hour of your precious time into watching it.

 

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