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.

Another Reason to Drop Windows

FedEx was among many companies disastrously affected by last week’s global ransomware attack. It was completely stupid and unnecessary. The shutdown (a desperate attempt to halt the spread of the attack) caused big dispatch problems for drivers and tracking issues for customers. I did all my documentation on paper yesterday and the package scanner was useless.

A multi-billion dollar company still using WindowsXP (unsupported, even with security updates for most people, although some corporate customers have been able to extend support – for a big fat fee) and that doesn’t even have backups in place?!? There’s no excuse for that. Yesterday’s chaos was completely unnecessary.

Y’know I’m a Linux fanboy and would love to “convert” my company to Linux, but that’s obviously not going to happen. If FedEx is stupid enough to use a long-unsupported legacy Windows OS and not even back their stuff up, they’re sure as heck not gonna be smart enough to take the necessary steps to avoid another hack by switching to Linux or BSD. Maybe they’ll be smart enough to have backups in place, but my experience with the company has demonstrated some particularly foolhardy nonsense at the corporate level.

But the rest of us can learn a lesson from this! Most readers of this blog are just casual, “ordinary” desktop and laptop computer users (students, home users). WindowsXP was the best Windows OS ever! It’s only gotten worse since then, and that’s why a lot of people are still using it. The later versions of Windows got bloated and resource-hungry and kept interrupting users with notifications, updates (always in the middle of writing a term paper or something), and other stuff that demands the users’ immediate attention. A lot of the software that “comes with Windows” isn’t for the user at all, but for the OS! Just to keep it running and stable and reliable. That’s bloatware and hogs even more resources, slowing everything down.

If you’re one of those folks hanging onto WinXP because you have an old computer that still runs it fine, or the newer versions of Windows are confusing and even a little terrifying, take a lesson! Don’t be like FedEx. There are Linux distributions that even technophobes like me can use, that are fully updated and supported, free of bloatware (so it stays out of your way when writing that big ol’ term paper), and that cost nothing to get and install on your computer!

For newbies I really like Linux Lite. It’s made for novices just like Linux Mint and many other “newbie-friendly” Linux distributions, but it works very well on those older machines that ran WinXP so well! I could also recommend LXLE because it’s made for older hardware, but it is not designed for newcomers to Linux. Neither is AntiX (MX), or Salix, and neither are many of the other “lightweight” distros aimed at older computers. Linux Mint is great for novices, but it’s so heavy it doesn’t run well on those perfectly good but modest older computers.

Treat Your Moderate-to-Severe Technophobia With Linux Lite!

I’ve written before on both my own fear of technology, and about Linux Lite. Today I’ll combine both subjects. It all started with a flare-up of my moderate-to-severe technophobia that started last week, triggered by a discussion on Diaspora about systemd, the evil “one ring to rule them all” program manager used by most Linux distros these days. Just click on the systemd tag for a little more about it (but not much – I’m no expert).

But it’s big and intrusive and “does too much.” Some people complain that it’s an attempt to wrest control of Linux from it’s end-users to the developers, maybe more. The interest of so many “big evil corporations” in adopting it has the same familiar red-flag properties that have people running scared of Google and Facebook, using TOR and proxies online and that kinda stuff. Well I guess it just got to me, having gone on for so long.

I mean, it just depends on how you look at it, right? Or maybe…

I had already dumped Google, killed my gmail account, and quit facebook over fear of becoming a commodity for these companies to sell to advertisers and government agencies or whatever. Now, oh my Lord, systemd is threatening even the sacred refuge I fled to for privacy and safety and dignity! I’ve never experienced any issues – that I know of – with systemd as far as functionality. My Linux OS does what I want it to, does it well, and stays out of my way (unlike Microsoft’s OS). But still…

So…. I went and did something really stupid. Please don’t laugh (at least not where I’ll see you or hear you).

Instead of just switching back to Salix, PCLinuxOS, or any number of other systemd-free Linux distros that I have run before (because there’s no Gnome in any of the Slackware derivatives and PCLOS is too resource-hungry), I tried to rid Xubuntu of it’s horrific, demonic, intrusive systemd. I read on how to do it “safely” before I gathered my courage and ventured into the dark, fearful, mysterious netherworld of the command line interface (CLI). I didn’t do so recklessly or without a plan. I checked and double checked, referred to several official and unofficial sources, and proceeded with all deliberate caution.

I don’t care what the experts say. The only Ubuntu-based stuff that is free of systemd and that can function without it, is based on version 12.04 and older. None of those are supported anymore. I not only crippled my operating system, but apparently something I did in my efforts to exorcise the evil systemd demon from my machine seems to have physically damaged it somehow. Every technophobe’s worst case scenario! Push the wrong button and

Poor old Dell Dimension desktop. It served me so well for so many many years! Linux kept that old relic out of the landfill for decades! And then killed it, mercifully fast. No, I killed it, in a fit of technophobic panic over something that I really know too little about to be so worried about. Rest in peace, you trusty old friend. <sniffle>

But I didn’t spend a dime for my new one. An HP all-in-one with a huuuuge 500 GB hard disk drive! It was unresponsive after an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 10. My partner used it to play one of those Windows-based MMPORPGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game) on Windows, and bought a new one to keep playing, and for Skype and other stuff she absolutely has to have for her job… All of which, by the way, will run in WINE on Linux. Now’s my chance to show her just how effective Linux can be as a drop-in replacement for that bloated, expensive OD from Redmond!

So:

I’ve loaded up Linux Lite again, because it has cool tools, Xfce desktop’s simplicity and beauty, and readiness for the tasks I want to demonstrate for my Windows-addicted partner. This new computer is many times more powerful than the noble old relic that preceded it, and I hope it will help me win over one of the most challenging Windows addicts I know.

Stay tuned!

Sticking With Salix!

Well this is certainly unexpected! The first time I tried Salix, it refused to boot after an update, and I was like, “I’m done. I thought ‘borked by an update’ was uniquely a Debian/Ubuntu phenomenon until now. Screw this.”

What an ignorant and impatient fool I was. When an update includes a kernel update, you also have to update your bootloader to load the new kernel. That’s what I did wrong, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own, for not reading the instructions and assuming far too much. Typical, perhaps, of a technophobic user playing with a Slackware derivative for the first time after using almost exclusively Ubuntu-based distros previously. I was used to being spoon-fed and giving the operating system too much automation. Simplicity does not mean “everything happens automagically and you don’t have to do anything but click Okay.” The user is responsible for knowing what the heck he or she is doing!

Salix tells me what my choices might mean during installation and updates, and when it refused to boot after I made a stupid decision, I should have known. Silly spoon-fed Ubuntu user and Slackware rookie.

But y’know what? I think I’m just gonna leave Salix on my old ancient relic desktop computer for good. I’m probably all done messing around with other distros, at least on this particular computer. Here are my reasons:

It’s Slackware-based and fully compatible with it’s parent distro, unlike most of the other Slackware-based “lightweight” distros. This means it has Slackware’s legendary stability and reliability, and ultra-mega-super-duper-uber-long-term support.

It’s super simple! In keeping with the whole Slackware philosophy – and Linux philosophy, for that matter. One application per task. Do one thing and do it well. Stay the heck out of the user’s way.

It’s systemd-free.
I know, before you jump all over me about it, I’ve read all the debates and I think I’ve probably never personally had any issues with systemd, except that even my beloved Xubuntu began to slow down over time (almost like “Windows rot”) and had to be rebooted regularly just to refresh it and dump cache and stuff. It didn’t do that before Ubuntu (and thus Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Mint, and all their derivatives and spin-offs and remixes) adopted systemd, so I wonder if that might be part of the reason. The “one ring to rule them all” feature of systemd is counter to the “do one thing and do it well” principle that has made Linux so awesome to begin with (until recently). I don’t reboot Salix. I don’t need to. Could systemd be the reason? I don’t know, but it sure is nice not to have the gradual loss of speed over time that I experienced with Xubu and other old favorites.

Yeah, he’s talking to systemd.

Salix doesn’t include kernel updates by default. Why should they? The installed kernel works fine, it’s secure, and my computer doesn’t need support for all kindsa features it doesn’t even have. It ain’t broke, no need to fix anything. The only thing I change is the wallpaper occasionally, or fonts and stuff. It’s perfectly boring, as it should be.

My distro-hopper-stopper is Salix.

I haven’t tried it on the laptop yet, but that’s another post for another day.

LXLE on an Ancient Spare Desktop

Her computer is even older than mine, with even less RAM. I thought Puppy Linux or AntiX would be the only choices, since my previous experience with SalixOS was so disappointing. But just for grins and giggles, I put LXLE’s newest 32-bit version, Electra (16.04) on it. It’s Dell Dimension with an ancient Celeron processor and 512 mb of RAM. WindowsXP was brand new when this computer was new (still the best Windows version ever in my opinion).

Maybe Lubuntu would have just as good as LXLE or better, but I have a special fondness for this spin-off, partly because it’s choice of default applications is better, but it offers a downright luxurious experience for most users.

Four things disappointed me this time around. The installer took forever to successfully install this distro, much longer than I’m used to. Notification windows refused to close, slowing it down even more. Whatever, I chalk that up to the computer’s age and lack of resources. But the other three things that bother me this time around are:

Adding a new panel to the bottom is not possible. The panel has to go on the right or left side, period. I don’t think that’s an LXDE thing, since it has always been possible to put a panel anywhere I wished before now. My desktop has a wicked-kewl Xfce panel on the bottom with just launchers, analog clock (unavailable in LXDE) and weather applet (also unavailable in LXDE).

The weather applet is LXLE is unsupported and doesn’t work. I think I read somewhere that it has been forked, and the new one might work, but it isn’t included or listed among available applets for the panel. Not a deal breaker, as the user doesn’t even care about that since she goes to the web for weather and stuff anyway.

Whatever they did to Seamonkey – in my opinion the best web browser – on LXLE rendered it impossible to use on this ancient relic. The visible browser screen takes only a third of the screen and won’t expand to a viewable area. It’s faster than Chromium, which is what I installed after experimenting with Epiphany for a bit. Midori is still buggy and crashy, and Epiphany is just okay. Soooooo… I dropped all the extensive and abundant modifications and reset Seamonkey to the ordinary defaults from Mozilla, and bingo! Zips along faster than Chromium or Firefox, and it’s more reliable than crashy Midori and just-okay Epiphany.

Seamonkey is still the bestest, most wonderfulest and awesomeful internet suite in the history of ever!

I completely disabled screen-blanking, since when it “wakes up from a nap,” it’s all oversized and pixelated. Graphics driver issue, I think. Now set up to auto-detect and never blank the screen.

So LXLE – with modifications and un-doing some of the “improvements,” will probably keep her old relic going for months to come!

Revisiting SalixOS

I’ve gotta say I have absolutely loved Xubuntu – up until anything after 12.04, and LXLE, the brilliantly mixed respin of Lubuntu – up until 14.04. Precise, 12.04, was rock-stable and fairly nimble on this ancient relic I’m still using. I could continue using it through April of next year, but it’s largely unsupported now except for security updates. So I upgraded to Trusty, 14.04. Xubuntu Trusty was too much for this aging dinosaur, halting and slow. So again, LXLE to the rescue. Gorgeous, full-featured, and much faster than Xubu. All was well. Until updates cumulatively made it increasingly buggy. I did a little research and found this interesting article on some changes to 14.04 that were um, unorthodox at least. Among other things, Trusty isn’t using an LTS kernel for an LTS release. They’ve opted for “greater hardware compatibility” by using a more recent kernel, which was updated two or three times on LXLE during my sojourn with it. They’ve got some apps that depend on systemd to work, but systemd isn’t the default init application / process manager. Maybe that’s one of the things that contributed to LXLE’s bugginess after some updates. It became slow, reluctant to boot, and themes got glitchy. Other users of Ubuntu Trusty and derivatives have reported frequent loss of networking (both wired and wireless) after updates. Borked after updating is a frequent complaint, and it always had me walking on eggshells with Ubuntu, and even more so with LXLE’s all-or-nothing way of updating (open Synaptic > Mark all upgrades > Apply).

I wondered if systemd, especially in an updated distro that didn’t ship with it but has a bunch of stuff that depends on it, was part of the problem. I never took a position on the whole systemd debate because as a self-confessed technophobe I never dabbled in that “advanced coder stuff.” Suffice it to say that the debate ignited a bloody war among Linux geeks which has kinda died down a little but still rages in spots, even though all the Big Players (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Gnome, etc) have adopted it. It’s more than just a “initiating” daemon, it’s a process manager also. So it sort of goes against the traditional “do one thing and do it well” rule of GNU/Linux. It’s not “mature” yet, to borrow another Linux cliche, yet it got widely adopted with such speed that bugs are still showing up, and developers are being forced to “fix someone else’ mistakes” by adapting their own projects for systemd. Uncool. So, I looked around for a “systemd-free” Linux distro that might be less buggy with all the changes being forced on users and developers and maintainers. One of them is PCLinuxOS, which I have played with before. I downloaded two of the community remixes, LXDE and Xfce. I made bootable USB keys of each, but both refused to boot. I spent a few hours retrying, but with the same result. Okay, chide me for giving up to easily, but I remind you – I’m a technophobe anyway, remember?

Enter my second choice from the systemd-free list of Linux distros: SalixOS. I’ve played with this one before too, and fled back to Xubuntu when SalixOS suddenly refused to boot one day. But a few things are different this time out. One of them is this cool LiloSetup utility that works in whether in Live mode or installed SalixOS. So I’m prepared now in case the bootloader ever balks again.

SalixOS 14.1 ships with Xfce4.10 (yeah I know, the new one is 4.12 but y’know what? I don’t care. New isn’t always better) and Linux Kernel 3.10.17 (yep, the LTS kernel, yay!) This superb and simple little distro is based on and fully compatible with Slackware, which is known for it’s rock-solid stability even though some of the software in Slackware-Current is “older.” I guess using Slackware Current is kinda like using Debian Stable. Older, perhaps, but stable. Certainly more stable than Ubuntu or cutting-edge Fedora, except not polluted with systemd. Gnome3 users take note: The Gnome people have decided to make Gnome3 with a bunch of systemd dependencies. Xfce is still good, if you’re trying to avoid systemd.

The repositories are chock full of awesome stuff, including Seamonkey! It’s nice not to have to add a PPA just to get one particular favorite application and keep it updated. There are all kinda of installation options, from bare-bones to full-on ready-to-play; and multiple desktops to choose from (Xfce is the default in the main edition). Software installation is nice and graphical for us technophobic users coming from the Ubuntu family, using GSlapt Package Manager. It looks and acts a lot like Synaptic! And if it ain’t in the repositories, there’s Sourcery, which works for a lot of users but was troublesome for me during my previous flirtation with SalixOS. Perhaps it’s better now. Sourcery compiles packages listed from source code – all from a sweet graphical interface that also looks and acts kinda sorta like Synaptic.

Rather than post screenshots just yet, I would encourage readers who are interested to look into this little-known gem for themselves. I think it’s a great choice for timid technophobic users like me as a “next step” beyond the Ubuntu family and it’s derivatives.

The Last Thing Before Upgrading RAM

I suppose I could “downgrade” my OS to AntiX, a wonderful Debian-based Linux distro intended for ancient, relic hardware like mine. Or maybe LXLE, an Ubuntu derivative intended for older computers. But I just can’t be without my awesome Xfce desktop! My earlier flirtations with LXDE were dismal – at least on any Ubuntu base. It may not be the same on a Debian base, but since Ubuntu is built from Debian I have little reason to think LXDE would be any less buggy on a Debian base than it is – on my computer at least – on even a minimal Ubuntu base.

Xfce is wonderful, simple, and infinitely configurable. Even for a technophobic user like me, it’s easy on the eyes and doesn’t tax much brain power. Besides, I’m in college for goodnessakes, my brain is already being taxed near it’s limits. So I just won’t part with that Xfce desktop. Period, finished, end of story, end of discussion, game over, don’t even think about asking me again!

So I’m lovin’ my MX-14, Debian-Stable, rock-solid. Except when I had to do a little multi-tasking between Iceweasel (Debian-branded Mozilla Firefox) and Icedove (Debian-branded Mozilla Thunderbird). All I wanted to do was copy a URL from an e-mail into a post to a forum. No big deal, right?

So I’ve got Iceweasel open to the page I want to write a post in, and I click to open Icedove so I can copy the link from an e-mail message. And I wait. And wait. And wait. The little round cursor thing spins away, then disappears. No Icedove. It’s not indicated in the tool bar that Icedove is even running, so I click again, and wait some more. I have to quit Iceweasel just to get Icedove to open. The same thing happens when I click on a link in Icedove and waaaaaiiiiiiiiit for Iceweasel to open. They are both set as the default browser and e-mail applications in my Xfce Settings Manager, so that ain’t the problem. Still waiting. Aw, come ONNNNN! “This ain’t Xubuntu, get on with it,” I shout at the monitor as though it gives a damn.

It doesn’t.

Seamonkey (or it’s Debian-branded equivalent, Iceape) does not appear in the regular MX repositories. But in Synaptic I can enable other repositories that offer it. Why Seamonkey? Because the browser and e-mail are integrated; because, Seamonkey uses less RAM than Iceweasel/Firefox; and for me at least, it loads a lot faster than either the separate browser or the separate e-mail client. It uses the same add-ons that I use on Firefox. Win, win. Why not Clawsmail, the ultralight default e-mail client in MX-14? Because you have to use an external editor to compose HTML mail, like this post (I post to WordPress by e-mail)! So I’d be waaaaaaiiiiiiting for a third program to load up on this poor old dinosaur. Old hardware, yeah, but perfectly good if I can solve this problem.

But mark this thread [SOLVED]! It’s Seamonkey to the rescue, and setting it up is as effortless as good ol’ Thunderbird. The interface is familiar to users of previous versions of Thunderbird and Firefox, too. Good ol’ fashioned buttons and stuff, instead of scrolling through menu options. Built from the wonderful old Netscape Internet Suite by the folks at Mozilla, Seamonkey has – for the time being at least – staved off the absolute necessity of adding RAM to this old relic hardware.

But I’m still gonna do it. Because no matter what, I’m not parting with my beloved Xfce desktop environment.