Breathing Life Into An Old Machine

Sadie’s family has an old Gateway desktop in their basement. Up until last Spring, it was the only computer their family had besides Sadie’s college laptop, which was starting to show its age. The desktop was probably purchased before the turn of the century, and it came with the lovely Windows ME operating system. By most accounts, Windows ME was an incredibly botched product that was introduced after the more stable Windows 98 and before Windows XP (2001).

Despite her uncle having reformatted it and fixed it up a few years ago, the computer was in pretty dire circumstances. When it actually booted successfully, the boot process would take over 2 and a half minutes to get to a working desktop. You’d get a BSOD every time you shut down, and the thing generally ran as slow as molasses.

Her dad had mentioned wanting to learn to type, but he didn’t want to risk messing up their new laptop. I thought this would be a perfect job for their old desktop, but I had trouble deciding how to set things up. Things obviously couldn’t stay in their current state. I could get them a copy of Windows XP to put on it, but the machine only had 128 MB of RAM and either a Pentium II or III processor. This also ruled out putting Ubuntu on it, since I doubt that would run any faster or better than Windows ME or XP. I needed something extraordinarily lightweight. As long as it was capable of the basics, we’d be good to go. I even knew of a decent free Linux typing program, Klavaro Touch Typing Tutor.

I had heard of Puppy Linux at various websites around the Internet. I never knew much about it besides that people often mentioned Puppy as a good, lightweight Linux distro. I decided to investigate further only to find that it was exactly what I was looking for. In fact, it’s so lightweight that you can run it completely from RAM if you have more than 256 MB installed, making things incredibly snappy. I downloaded the latest Puppy Linux iso, and burned a copy. I booted from the CD, and after answering a few questions, I was taken to a nice linux desktop. Once I had assured myself that everything was working correctly, I went ahead and installed Puppy, erasing Windows. Puppy’s install wasn’t quite as user-friendly as Ubuntu’s, but I was able to install it without any problems. Linux novices might prefer a more helpful install process. Luckily, there is a decent online manual that should help with pretty much everything.

The real test came when the installation was finished: boot time. Puppy Linux cold-booted in less than 30 seconds on this machine. That was incredible! The desktop is fully functional. It contains a web browser (SeaMonkey), desktop email client (SeaMonkey Mail), word processor (Abiword), spreadsheet editor (Gnumeric), and a lot of other basic applitions pre-installed. They do have a repository for additional applications, but one frustrating thing is that Puppy Linux uses its own package type, the PETget. Using your own package type means that there’s going to be less software available for your system. Fortunately, it looks like there is a compatibility library so that Debian packages can also be installed, which means you can get pretty much any application on Puppy. I was lucky enough to come across someone who had made a PETget for Klavaro, so installing that was a piece of cake.

Puppy Linux uses the JWM window manager, which I had never used before. It’s popular in distros like Puppy because it’s so lightweight and very customizable. I’ll admit that JWM is not much to look at, but it does its job and uses very few resources. The panel along the bottom of the screen has a “(Puppy) Menu” button at the left, a list of windows and virtual desktops in the middle, and a system tray and RAM usage graph on the right. Puppy also comes with many icons on the desktop for popular applications. A nice feature of JWM is that the “Main Menu” (“Puppy Menu”) is actually available from anywhere on the desktop just by right-clicking. One thing that threw me off is that JWM defaults to a single-click destop interface, which was very disorienting for me. I was able to change it to double-click without much trouble.

I will say that the default look of the desktop on Puppy leaves something to be desired. I’m not talking about the window manager either. While it’s nice to have some icons on the desktop, Puppy goes a bit overboard. Plus, some of their descriptions of the applications are not entirely intuitive. Since when is “browse” a good title for your Internet browser icon? There is also a rather stark mountain lake scene as the default wallpaper, which I found terribly distracting.

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Since Sadie’s dad isn’t exactly comfortable with computers, I wanted to make things as easy to use as possible. I cleared off most of the unnecessary icons and only left ones that he’d possibly use. I also made sure they had proper descriptions, like “Internet.” Even navigating the “Puppy Menu” would probably be too much for him. I really wanted to fix things so he’d be able to do everything right from the desktop icons. After organizing and cleaning up the icons and giving the desktop a new wallpaper, things started to look much better. I even looked up how to write a quick “shutdown script” so that I could put a “Shutdown” icon on the desktop. This actually took the most work of anything because I kept doing it wrong, and it would freeze the computer. All-in-all though, I think it turned out very nice.

This just demonstrates one of the great powers of Linux on the desktop. You can use it on everything, from powerful servers and supercomputers to hardware that’s close to 10 years old. You can use it breathe life back into a machine that you stopped using long ago because it wouldn’t work with the next version of Windows. Plus, it’s free! Do you have an old machine lying around that you could use for something? If it’s somewhat modern hardware, try Ubuntu. It’s the best Linux distro out there. If it’s older hardware, I can now recommend Puppy Linux as long as you’re somewhat familiar with Linux. Either way, why not give Linux a try on it, and let that hardware achieve its full potential!