Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Back From A Few Days In Computer Hell + Advances In Green Computing With Linux

Last weekend I lost my desktop system to hardware failure -- the kind of failure not worth repairing. This closely followed a laptop dying as well. I found myself scrambling to make life and work go on with less for now. The end result will probably be that I'll buy two systems in the coming weeks, a small and inexpensive travel system, probably an Asus Eee PC I wanted anyway, and something powerful enough to be a desktop replacement and to allow me to do demos for consulting customers or potential customers.

For right now I'm down to two systems, both laptops, both very long in the tooth. I'm writing this on my five and a half year old vintage veteran Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, with a 1GHz Celeron processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 20GB hard drive. The second system is 10 years old: my one surviving itty bitty Toshiba Libretto SS1010, a system about the size of a paperback book with a 233MHz Pentium MMX processor, just 64MB of RAM, and a minuscule 2.1GB hard drive. I decided to rebuild both with an idea of optimizing for speed. The idea is to use a Linux distribution designed to get the most out of limited hardware. Don't misunderstand me: Vector Linux 5.9 Standard, Xubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04, and Wolvix Hunter 1.1.0 all ran brilliantly on the Satellite. Still, if I'm going to do serious work I want to use as few resources as possible for the desktop and overheard and leave as much as possible for applications, particularly things like OpenOffice and multimedia apps that eat memory.

I decided to play with fire and try out some beta code, particularly Vector Linux Light 5.9 Beta 5. This is the first beta with the new LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment). The previously offered window managers, JWM (still the default) and Fluxbox, are also still included in the iso. There are some bugs which I've dutifully reported as you'd expect in a beta but nothing serious. All in all it works very well and is remarkably close to ready for prime time. Best of all... it's fast on the Satellite. Really fast!

LXDE looks good. Vector Linux has a unique replacement for the HAL daemon called VL-Hot. It doesn't continually poll the hardware bit rather is triggered by udev events. You can choose between VL-Hot and HAL in Vector Linux standard as either will work perfectly well with KDE and Xfce. VL-Hot also works correctly with pcmanfm which is used to control desktop icons in LXDE and in the Vector Linux Light implementation of JWM. Not only is this far less resource intensive than HAL but the fact that it mostly works well on lightweight desktops is truly impressive. This is a huge step forward for those with limited, low end hardware and for green computing in general.

I'll definitely be writing more about LXDE, VL-Hot, and Vector Linux Light in more formal articles and reviews for my blog over on the O'Reilly Linux Dev Center. I just thought a quick, informal posting of my first impressions might be of interest to the more adventurous Linux users out there who like to play around with bleeding edge software. The nice thing is that this is working well enough that it doesn't feel like bleeding edge. I've actually had more problems with the released version of Xubuntu Hardy Heron, but that's another story.

I also have the ancient Libretto running Damn Small Linux for the moment. An installation of Vector Linux Light seemed to go flawlessly but when I rebooted I got a kernel panic. I've seen this before with VL 5.9 and I've reported it as well. I'll be experimenting with a few very small lightweight distros on the box in a dual boot configuration with DSL. What I want is a fairly current 2.6.x kernel and current if lightweight apps, something DSL just doesn't offer. I'll definitely write about what works for me.

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Steven Rosenberg said...

I'm also running a 233MHz/64MB laptop -- a Compaq Armada 7770dmt -- with a smallish (3 GB) hard drive, and it's a bit of a challenge to find an OS that runs well on it with X.

I'm also using DSL mostly. It's the only OS that can kind of, sort of allow me to use Firefox without endless, soul-killing swapping.

Even Debian (with Fluxbox) ran great ... except for Iceweasel.

If I stick to Dillo as a browser, many problems disappear ... but my main goal is running Firefox.

To that end, I'm about to bump the RAM up to the maximum of 144MB. I hope that's enough to make a difference.

Navir said...

Give Puppy Linux a is a beautiful distribution and runs firefox comfortably on my 8 year old desktop..

Caitlyn said...

I will NEVER, ever consider Puppy Linux for anything. First, I have tried it in the past on this laptop and it wouldn't run as I reported here. Since I dared say something less than nice about Puppy Linux, as in specifically reporting that it wouldn't run for me, I was subjected to abuse, attacks, and even a death threat from members of the Puppy Linux community. Others have reported similar incidents (minus the death threat) from the Puppy Linux crowd after posting negative comments online. I consider the Puppy Linux community toxic. I want absolutely nothing to do with that distro.

Steven Rosenberg said...

I don't know if it's Linux or open source in general, or just anything having to do with computers in particular, but it brings the nuts to the surface, to be sure.

With 64 MB, Puppy is not the way to go. DSL is better. Puppy is OK with 128 MB of RAM, but it really likes 256 MB.

Phil said...

How is the EEE coming along? Have you purchased it yet?