Building Linux on Minimal Hardware

Over the last few days I’ve been doing some experiments in building Linux on outdated hardware. You may have noticed that I don’t like throwing anything away. I have 2 targets in mind; the first is a Compaq iPaq mini-PC with a 20GB hard drive and 256MB of memory, then my ASUS Eee PC 1000 netbook. I’ve also failed to get Ubuntu to boot on a 10 year old iMac, though it runs fine from a Live distro, Debian has a special Mac ISO that I’m hoping might sort out the EFI boot.

The iPaq is of the generation that had USB but won’t boot from it, so I finally got it to work by booting a ‘net install’ Debian CD. It could have been a DVD because I had it upgraded but the box originally only had a CD so I stuck with that. I made some discoveries that I thought were worth sharing to save anyone else who wants to try something similar a few hours.

I chose the ‘non-graphical’ route on the CD because I didn’t think I had enough memory to risk graphics. In a moment of madness, I chose Logical Volumes but got error messages every time I booted, so scrapped that and re-installed. The net install builds a basic system from the CD then goes to the Interwebs for everything else, so you need a working network connection which might be tricky on something like an HP Stream which only has Broadcom WiFI, though it does offer an opportunity to look on a second CD.

Before it goes to the net, it offers a menu of options. By default it chooses ‘Debian Desktop’ - in my circumstances, you don’t want this! It’s Gnome. I learned this the hard way. When I eventually managed to open a terminal, I nuked Gnome and installed LXDE instead. This was the first good news. I’d tried a live Lubuntu on my netbook before. Although I like the Raspberry Pi-style LXDE, it didn’t want the cut-down apps the Lubuntu team chose to go with it. I’m not THAT desperate for memory on the netbook. LXDE on Debian makes choices much more like full Ubuntu. This is probably what I’ll use. Sadly the choices were less good on the iPaq. LibreOffice seems unlikely to happen. I tried Firefox. It may have been even slower than on a Pi.

This was the point I decided to start again. I scrapped LVM and at the menu this time, I scrapped ‘Debian Desktop’ and ‘Print Server’, only choosing to keep the last option which was something like ‘Standard Utilities’. Watching the messages, it seemed to be mostly Python.

I have a very tiny Debian server with a console terminal and it uses far less than 1GB of disk space. It has vi and Python 2 & 3. Maybe it’s time I learned to use Linux properly. Biggest shock: it seems fast enough to work with, without a GUI. I may yet install an optional LXDE but thinking back to when I was forced to do tech support of Windows Servers and we had a GUI running, unused most of the time, on every box in a rack, I’ve realised how much CPU power was being pointlessly wasted. This iPaq was a fairly unpleasant Win XP experience but is fine as a Linux terminal.

I considered an ‘apt install emacs’ but was surprised at how much that wanted to drag in as dependencies. Maybe another day.

Next stage may be a Debian LXDE install on my laptop. I’ve been using Debian Stable. Should I risk Debian Testing on my ‘dev machine’? I sounds slightly more dangerous than Ubuntu.

Now I remember why I moved to Ubuntu: a sensible choice of default apps & consistency. Having liked the LXDE choices the Debian net install gave me, I made a Live stick to try on my netbook - different apps!, including 4 terminal emulators, 1 in Thai. WiFi not working and I’ve lost pointer double-tap to save wrist strain on the Eee’s awful buttons. Maybe it would drag those down off the net if I installed.

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