Among my more masochistic hobbies: Restoring old computers. This was at one time a very enjoyable pastime. Generally the process yielded surprisingly rewarding experiences and in fact I would share and pass on these refurbished machines to folks who needed something in a pinch. Regrettably I thought little about how time has affected this process until now as I sit and stare blankly at what can/cannot still be done on a Pentium 3, so I sit back and wonder what has happened.
This particular target machine was an old Dell Latitude C510/610 with 512 ram and no real networking on board. I immediately remedied that with an intel pci wifi card and bumped that ram up to 1Gb and started cycling through Linux distributions that might get the best out of the aging hardware. I did tinker with using XP and even Windows 2000 but this was to benchmark the potential write speeds at that 512 Ram and that data is no longer relevant. Those OS were great prior to the browsers dumping support and the few that still support XP are just barely capable on this setup.
The Linux CD Situation
Imagine a worst case scenario where instead of using a USB installer for an operating system or even a DVD you were limited to an actual 700 Mb CD… Yes, we’re doing that on this system, so that means we can try about 35 operating systems and remember this is 32 bit era hardware so that would make this an easy use case for an LXDE or Debian based distro except – once installed those OS do not see the keyboard. Can this be remedied? Yes but lets go with something that doesn’t require that kind of effort. Puppy Linux? Sure but even as it sees wifi it doesn’t see our wifi... I’m not sure why that is but it’s infuriating. Slitaz? No dice it doesn’t see wifi at all. BunsenLabs? No keyboard support as expected. (Debian based) Okay how about something further out there – NetBSD? It looks horrible and doesn’t see wifi even after following the lengthy guide. ReactOS? No wifi support for this card and that’s a shame I was looking forward to writing about that working.
Remember SuseStudio? I wrote distros over there that were perfect for this, but alas those days are gone – as is the website with the construction tools. This would have been a great use case for JEOS with like an ICEWM environment but that simply isn’t on the table. In fact Linux has for the most part drifted away from being focused on refurbishment style distros and 32 bit libs are becoming more obsolete as we speak. Vector and similar distros wont fit a CD, Ubuntu and its variants still support 32 (kind of doesn’t matter without keyboard support) but its becoming clear that old hardware is a niche “We want to phase out mostly.” I understand that, I genuinely do – but #!. (Crunchbang)
This process has me loading Tiny Core Plus – Wary Puppy – and various other small cores – remember it has to be less than 700Mb to fit on the CD and that by itself is an obstacle. It also has to be supported out the box on wifi, keyboard, etc. Actually that is just the criteria at the moment. I’ll probably shift gears and try something else soon enough, but the list of things I didn’t mention here is long. I had a lot of time and was curious.
It has become my opinion that for old hardware to be: “Worth attempting to restore,” you should look for minimum specs of approximately: 2 Core Pentium D or later – 1Gb DDR 2 Ram or better – 20 Gb HDD or better – On board wifi and even that is for minimalist computing or hobby computing. I’m not saying it cannot be done on lower specs. I’m saying it will present more annoying challenges and be far far less rewarding.
I find laptops on Ebay for like $50 that are as new as 2011 and have respectable specs. In no way is it necessary to resign yourself to using antiquated hardware. If you are unable to afford hardware that recent at that price you do not want to try to restore old machines as the ram, wifi card etc cost enough to get a laptop that was better than the target machine.