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!


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's awfully involved, considering that Puppy Linux and SLiTaz boot right up without all that rigmarole. Of course, Linux Mint 5 Fluxbox CE is *not* these other much-lighter distros, but a fully-featured distro with all kinds of codecs et cetera loaded in. I get the *why* of it -- it's not really intended for ancient computers, but rather to give maximal operability with minimum desktop environment overhead, so it's pretty good for a screaming-fast dualcore you wanna surf youtube with while crunching, oh, protein folding simulations, burning a DVD and hunting for Merseinne primes. (Gosh, I sound smart.) Still, I have a few gripes. Why the Ubuntu 8.04 core when the 8.04.1 is found to be more robust, booting without all the hassles you described on older machines? Why Firefox 3.0.1 when Firefox 3.0.3 is out (and 3.0.1 security is compromised). Hell, why not Midori or some other liter browser (possibly in addition to Firefox, as you have all that extra room on the CD)? And, if you're not making it *minimal* but *effective*, why not v3? I mean, come on, it doesn't even boot on a P II without alot of geek-fu, so why not just bundle a full-featured suite while you're at it? With Fluxbox's RAM footprint supposedly being about 15 MB base as opposed to, say, 350 MB for a full-blown KDE, why not? Of course, I should stop throwing stones, as I haven't built a distro yet....

Shane said...

1. I had no idea of the problems with the 8.04 kernel until Beranger mentioned it on the blog after the release. No one had any problems with it during the ~1 month period of public beta testing. And I don't closely watch launchpad or the ubuntu forums... even on the linuxmint forum, I only browse where I have to.

2. FF 3.0.1 is what was the latest when we had the code freeze. At release there were too many updates available for my liking... but it was either release now or go for another round of public beta testing while everyone else was working on Felicia. FF 3.0.3 is available in the upgrades.

3. FF3 is a fast browser, IMO. If I was going to add another one it would have been Kazahakase. But I just don't see the point. They are a small download away... and besides... DSL comes with FF as standard.

4. Talking about space on the CD... I was aiming for 500MB. I don't believe in filling it up just for the sake of it. I think choosing your apps carefully and making sure they work well is the way to go. Less chances for things not working also.

5. OO 3. This is not in the Hardy repos (AFAIK). Almost everything on this ISO comes from maintained repos. This makes upgrading easier. It is the wiser route. In all, there are only a hand full of apps that are not from maintained repos. Also, Daryna came came with OO. And many said that it was too bulky. Which is why I went with Abiword+Gnumeric.

Software selection happens very early in the making of the distro. I suggest you make your voice heard when we are at that stage for the next release... which should be soon. Also helping to point out flaws during public beta testing would be great.

Right now I think it is time to start work on Felicia. Hopefully, if time permits I will upgrade the kernel.

Anonymous said...

I repair and refurbish pcs from time to time... and the Pentium 2 typically found in the wild max out at about 450-500Mhz.

Pentium 3's went from 450Mhz to 1.3Ghz or so, however most tended to be 700-850Mhz and often with only 128MB ram unless someone added more during their use.

I have a base Xubuntu 8.04.1 install (with some multimedia codecs) on a Pentium 3 at 500Mhz with 256MB ram that I use for travel. A 300Mhz Pentium 2 with 256MB also works for Open Office presentations.

Shane said...

Oh cool! Could you try to install to install this release on one of those machines? At least one of the 256MB RAM ones so you wont have to go through the 'rigmarole' and the 'geek-fu' :P You could be the beta tester I was waiting for! haha...