Sunday, February 17, 2008

Installing Ubuntu(s) on a Windows 98-era Laptop

My friend told me that his laptop wasn't working, and asked if I would fix it for him. As usual, I didn't make any promises other than that I would do my best. He also gave me two other machines which he said were significantly older and which I could have if I could find a use for them. This conversation was last week sometime, and I'd been too busy for most of the week to even boot them up.
It turns out that all three are from roughly the same time period. The specs are as follows:
  1. A Pentium II PE 300 MHz with 128MB RAM and a 4GB drive, running Windows 2000
  2. A Pentium III 500MHz with 128MB and a 12GB drive, running Windows ME
  3. One with identical specs as #2, but a different manufacturer and a 10GB drive, running Windows ME
He, of course, was using #1 thinkning it was the best of the three. He's not computer literate. It was immediately obvious that WinXP wouldn't run decently, barely skating by on the recommended minimums. Keeping EOL'ed products like Win2000 or ... gulp ... WinME is also a really bad idea. I set about finding something for him. He volunteered that he was open to Ubuntu, which I had installed on some mutual friends' computers.

To make the process easier for me (this wasn't paid, afterall), I went through my stack of CDs to see what I had. Ubuntu 6.06.1 seemed promising, but I couldn't get around the 256MB limit with the desktop version. Installing a minimal installation from a server CD worked, but Xubuntu was still too heavy for the old laptop. I fired up VirtualBox and ran my myriad of test images in 128MB to see what worked. I made a decision to go with either gOS or the Linpus Lite edition for UMPCs. They looked light and easy enough for him to get his head around. I started a download of Linpus and torrented gOS 2.0.

Then I broke out the three machines to see which one would likely work well. I soon found out that my choices were more limited than I thought. Machine #2 had had the LAN jack ripped out of the case. Machine #3 didn't have a working CD drive. Both of them were too old to boot from USB or the network, and I didn't have any way to make a boot floppy. Machine #1 is his, I guess, and I'll take the other two to SE Asia and have someone fix them for a couple bucks. I may even be able to find extra memory for them. 256MB will make them useful kitchen computers. If I can't get the RAM, I'll probably install a minimal distro, connect to via wireless, and use an X Session from another computer.

Anyway, back on topic. The Linpus download was entirely too slow for me, and it hasn't finished yet. gOS, however, finished in under half an hour, so I ran out to get some CDs and burned a copy. While the CD took a long time to boot, it eventually made it, and I started the installation. I switched over to TTY1 to make sure that the swap partition from the server disk install was being used, and there is where I ran into my first problem. The laptop BIOS was programmed to use CTRL-ALT-F# as some kind of display toggle, so I couldn't get back to the X session on F7. Instead, the display would zoom. Reboot and retry.

The second time everything looked fine until the apt mirror update, where the installation stalled for some time. Attempts to restart Ubiquity werre failing, but killing a bunch of processes helped, and I started again. Finally, after several hours, the system was installed and ready to go.

Impressions: The interface is remarkably responsive for such an old machine. There are animated transitions between workspaces and the bar on the bottom works fairly well. The displayed fonts are gorgeous when compared to the pixelated crap that was displayed on the Windows desktop. Firefox takes forever to start, but Windows 2000 wasn't very responsive, either. Once FF starts, it works for everything but flash video -- either the video card or the processor can't keep up. Video is extremely choppy at about a frame per second.

There are several things, though, that just don't work. Some of the links in the bar go to nowhere. The home page for FF is a modified Google search, but searches from there fail with a permission error from Google. The file manger is crap. Finally, CDs appear to mount, but this is an illusion. They are mysteriously unmounted seconds after you open a file manager window. These problems (including the 20 sec start time for FF) are illustrated in the crappy video below.

Overall, I can't give it to my friend this way. I'll be searching for something else. Fluxbox is not an option. Linpus is supposed to work on 128MB. I'll try that next. After that, it's Icebuntu.


  1. Perhaps look into Puppy Linux or AntiX. They aren't as pretty as those you may be used to, but they should perform much better on that old hardware.

  2. How about eLive? If he doesn't mind single-user go with Puppy or one of its many derivatives.

  3. I'm at this very moment writing this comment with a similar machine to those you'd post about.

    I've a lot of experience with old-hardware and Linux and IMO the best election is Debian.

    Debian Etch + XFCE is a winner configuration.

    P.S. You can install Debian using netinstall for a minimun installation.

  4. Thanks for all the suggestions. My first choice is an Ubuntu derivative. This is an Ubuntu blog, you know, but if those all fail, I'll use whatever I can to get the three running well enough to use.

    I'm going to Panthip Plaza #2 today to have the two nicer lappies repaired.


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