Friday, October 24, 2008

Linux Mint 5 Fluxbox CE: Will it work on old hardware?

On the 21st October, 2008, Linux Mint 5 Fluxbox CE was released, of which as you may or may not know, I am the maintainer. The most common gripe most people have with this release seems to be that this distribution has higher system requirements than other Fluxbox based ones.

Since I do not have a really old computer to test how well Linux Mint 5 Fluxbox CE will work on such a machine, I devised a test to simulate an old machine using VMware Player. The host machine, my trusty Acer Aspire laptop with AMD Sempron 3000+ prcessor and 768MB DDRAM1 was throttled down to 800MHz (maximum CPU frequency is 1800MHz) so that my simulated machine would have:

  • 800MHz processor (at the most as some of those cycles will be used by the host)
  • 128MB RAM
  • 2.5GB HD formatted as FAT32, without swap
  • CDROM drive
  • Floppy drive
  • Ethernet card
  • Sound card
  • USB controller

This, I think adequately simulates an old Pentium 2 machine with Windows 98. I did manage to successfully install using only the Linux Mint 5 Fluxbox CE CD albeit with a hacked/workaround approach. Here is how I did it.


On booting the Live CD, the boot process went on fine but the desktop did not appear even after some minutes. The only thing visible was the mouse cursor, which moved showing that X had not crashed. Also the CDROM was still reading.


Restart X using Ctrl+Alt+Backspace to kill whatever was hogging resources. Wait for GDM to start and then type some nonsense in the GDM login field to buy 30 seconds before the Live CD user logs in automatically and hogs your RAM.


Switch to the virtual terminal with Ctrl+Alt+F1 where the Live CD user is already logged in.


Become root with sudo -i


Kill GDM with killall gdm


Kill all Live CD user processes that may have remained with pkill -u mint


List existing partitions with fdisk -l


Open the drive for partitioning with fdisk /dev/sda


Delete all existing partitions with d


Create a new partition for swap using n and the following options:

  • select primary partition (p),
  • partition number 1,
  • first cylinder 1,
  • last cylinder or +size: +300M

Create a new partition for your installation using n and the following options:

  • select primary partition (p),
  • partition number 2,
  • first cylinder: default (hit Enter)
  • last cylinder: default (hit Enter)

(You may create a separate partition for /home)


Save and exit with w


Format /dev/sda1 as swap with mkswap /dev/sda1


Reboot with reboot


Now you should have the Live CD environment working.


Close mintUpdate, Wicd tray applet and the volume control to free up some RAM.


Continue the installation as usual except for partitioning where you will have to set it up manually with the second partition mounted at root.


After booting into your newly installed system, you can turn off services that you do not need using System Tools > Services. For really old machines, obvious things to turn off would be Bluetooth and CPU frequency manager. If you want even more control over the services, install sysvconfig. It is a command line tool that gives you more options. But you can break your system if you don't know what you are doing.


You can also edit the applications that are run when you log in. For this you have to edit ~/.fluxbox/startup for each user. Comment out (add # at the beginning of the line) any applications you do not want to run at log in.

After following these steps I had a lighter setup that worked pretty well given the hardware I was trying to simulate. For any real figures one would have to test in on an actual machine. And such a machine is pretty hard to come by nowadays. Is anybody out there willing to test this?

On a better note, I did try to install again on the same setup but with 256MB RAM and no swap partition. Gladly, all went well without a hitch.

I do realize that users should not have to go through these steps in order to install this distribution. I will try to address this issue in the next release... within reasonable limits of course. I hope you enjoy using this edition of Linux Mint!