Computing 2001 Style

I enjoy reading articles and blogs about using older computer hardware to run a modern Linux distro. While I understand the ecological and recycling elements of the debate, I do not much like the idea that old hardware should be thrown away. The challenge is reviving old hardware in a meaningful and useful manner. The sad part of modern computing is the almost all-out dependency and expectation of being connected online 24/7.

The definition of “old” is arbitrary and subjective. I am not referring to the online click-bait trash of “reviving an old computer with Linux.” Such authors offer a common and predictable checklist of potential uses. Rarely do these authors dig deep into actually using an older computer with Linux and report meaningful results of these proposed uses. To worsen the outlook these authors tend to have an odd definition of “old,” often meaning about 5 years of age to no more than 10 years.

I define “old” to mean single core and first generation dual core CPUs with a maximum of 1 GB to 2 GB of RAM. Anything newer or more capable is not “old.”

Sometimes I consider experimenting with such a project. With good reason, for many people the reply to using an old computer is, “Why bother?”

There are caveats with using old computers. Compared to modern hardware they tend to be energy hogs. Often old computers have noisy CPU fans and PATA/IDE hard disks. Typically old computers support a maximum of 10/100 Mbps network speeds. Many severely limit the amount of RAM that can be installed.

Outside of the large scale enterprises, multi-core CPUs were unavailable to most people until about 15 years ago. Single core computers were the norm. Dual core CPUs did not become common until around 2006 to 2007 with Intel Core Duo and AMD Athlon 64 X2.

Sitting on the basement shelf here are three single core systems. Sitting in the corner of the office but occasionally powered on are two AMD dual core systems and one Intel Core Duo system.

One of the single core systems is a circa 1991 486 with 16 MB of RAM. Although responsive and snappy with the original Windows for Workgroups 3.11, the system is not really usable with any modern Linux system.

Of the other two single core systems, one has the maximum supported 256 MB of RAM installed and the other has 448 MB, although expandable to a maximum of 768 MB. In the days when these computers were sold, that amount of RAM was considered more than enough.

Those two latter single core systems have Slackware 14.1 32-bit installed. With PATA disks, booting is notably slower than with any modern system. X and the graphical desktop environment runs okay with certain limitations.

The significant caveat is using a modern web browser is futile. Prepare to scream in frustration. Modern web browsers are horrible memory consumers, which is an indictment of what the world wide web has become. Even when avoiding the bane of the web and using aggressive ad blocking, web browsing on such hardware is a recipe for agony.

Network cards are 10/100 Mbps. That is nominally tolerable in a LAN. For many people those speeds are acceptable for the internet when ISPs do not offer speeds greater than 100 Mbps.

Ignoring web browsing, the single core computers should be usable as basic computers. After all, at one time these systems are all anybody had and what was used daily by millions of people.

Like the word old, “usable” is arbitrary and subjective. Consider that in 2001 many people were not yet online in any meaningful manner. Most computers were being used for purposes outside of modern web browsing. Even today there are occasional stories about people, commonly writers, using old computers with old software that are not connected to any network. Although I long ago have forgotten how to use, I well remember the glory days of using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. I still consider that software one of the best of all time. Such software ran fast on 386 and 486 systems.

The two AMD dual core systems have 4 and 8 GB of RAM installed, along with SATA II disk interfaces and 1 Gbps network cards. The Intel Core Duo system has 6 GB of RAM, SATA II, and 1 Gbps network. All are more palatable than the single core systems and capable of running a modern web browser. The caveat is the two AMD systems have Nvidia GPUs and I much dislike using Nvidia. These three systems do not satisfy the definition of old.

I have tested all three dual core systems in my disaster recovery plan testing. For many years I have not used the single core systems in any meaningful manner.

The question then becomes, “Could these single core systems be useful and productive?” My guess is probably — as long as I do not care about modern web browsing and include sufficient patience. My primary focus with my computers is writing and recording old movies with some TV capture cards.

Because of the severe RAM limitations, rejuvenating the single core systems in any meaningful manner means using a 32-bit operating systems.

From experience I know that installing a Linux distro with less than 512 MB of RAM often is impossible. One trick is temporarily moving the hard disk to a spare system with sufficient RAM and after installing returning the hard disk to the original system. The same approach is not needed to update a distro in-place, but the slow bus and disk speeds would test the patience of many people. Best to move the disk temporarily to a faster system.

Limitations include hard disks. While using a PCI based SATA controller might be possible, mostly forget about installing an SSD because these systems only support PATA disks. That option means hunting for early generation SSDs because newer generation SSDs will not function with a PCI controller.

Important to note is if money is going to be thrown at these old single core systems, then the money might as well be spent on refurbishing a dual core system.

The hardware limitations do not mean using only window managers and avoiding desktop environments, but desktop environments need to be limited to the realm of Xfce, MATE, or Trinity. Forget about running KDE or GNOME.

Could these single core systems support a TV capture card? These systems only support PCI. One of the TV capture cards is PCI but the other is PCIe. My guess is recording probably would succeed but playback likely would introduce stuttering and buffering. While old computers could be used to capture over-the-air (OTA) signals, that was back in the day of analog transmission. OTA TV switched to digital soon after dual core CPUs became popular (2009). I do not know if a digital TV capture card would function acceptably on a single core system.

If all I wanted to do was write and perhaps play solitaire then I suspect the single core relics would suffice.

I have not decided whether to pursue such a project. If I did the goal would be a hobby like diversion project. I think expecting anything more than that is unrealistic.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: General

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