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Etch for Old Hardware

The pool of usable Linux distros for older hardware is shrinking. For at least the rest of this year, it appears you can still install Etch and make it work well. Everyone has their own ideals, and I’m quite sure you can find fault with mine. Still, I’m going to outline what I’ve done, and perhaps you’ll find something useful.

I’ve grown tired of messing with GNOME. While I find the KDE folks have probably lost their way in the pursuit of the 4.x series, you can still get and use KDE 3 for Etch. It’s one of the better manifestations I’ve seen (cf: SUSE, RHEL/CentOS, RedHat-KDE Project, Kubuntu, FreeBSD, and some others) for reasons I’ll probably never understand. BTW, I found GNOME fun and useful until the whole thing changed radically at the beginning of the 2.x series. I realize things like Unicode support matter, but just about everything I’ve experienced from a user perspective has been disappointing. It simply does entirely too much I don’t need, and precious little I actually like. I liked XFce until 4.x came out. For now, KDE 3 simply adheres most closely to my habits and expectations. It also runs pretty zippy fast on my Inspiron 4100.

So in order to get the KDE desktop, using the Etch Netinstall CD, at the boot prompt, I typed in:

install tasks="kde-desktop"

Aside from the basic questions just about every distro installation asks, I left it to run on its own, pulling down the latest over the DSL line. It took about a half-hour. The installer had no trouble setting up this batch of hardware.

The first thing I did was change the default apt-get configuration at /etc/apt/sources.list to read like this (sorry about the wrapping):

#deb cdrom:[Debian GNU/Linux 4.0 r3 _Etch_ - Official i386 NETINST Binary-1 20080218-14:15]/ etch contrib main

deb http://mirror.anl.gov/debian/ etch main contrib non-free
deb-src http://mirror.anl.gov/debian/ etch main contrib non-free

deb http://security.debian.org/ etch/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src http://security.debian.org/ etch/updates main contrib non-free

deb http://www.backports.org/debian etch-backports main contrib non-free
deb http://deb.opera.com/opera etch non-free
deb http://www.debian-multimedia.org etch main

The next step is firing up the KDE Control Center, going to “Appearance & Themes” then “Fonts” and logging into Administrator Mode. I install my collection of favorite TTFs which I always keep on several different media. I like them system wide because it seems to work better in the long run.

In case you are wondering, Opera is my chosen browser suite because it runs much faster on older hardware. On occasion I’m forced to use Iceweasel on some sites. The other reason is primarily how simple it is to add to the interface switches which allow me to turn off cookies, JScript and plugins. Admittedly, Opera is the one browser in Linux most likely to choke on JScript and plugins, but the other reason is obviously a matter of keeping speed of page load, and to a minor degree security, high. Putting those on the bottom browser status bar allows me to quickly choose how I’ll view sites. In general, I keep everything turned off. That includes making use of the default graphics control button already on that bar. Just right-click, select “Customize”, go to the “Buttons” tab, and choose the “Preferences” category from the list on the left. Grab the appropriate checkbox switches with your mouse and drag to the toolbar.

For those who have to know, I turn off graphics most of the time for two reasons: ADD and I’m a prude. It’s easier to add certain sites to my list of those allowed to display graphics. In Opera, it’s the same dialog for cookies; just select the other tabs and select what particular often-used sites are permitted to run. Keeping things turned off for all other sites saves a lot of hassle. For individual graphics, I can still right-click and select “Reload Image” and that one item will display. If I decide the site is harmless after landing there, I can turn graphics on and most will load immediately. If I decide I need JScript and/or plugins, I turn them on, then reload the page.

Finally, I prefer Opera because the built-in password keeper (“Wand”) works on every site for which I choose to use it, ignoring the fields marked at places like Yahoo designed to prevent browsers from remembering passwords. I’m not interested in hand-holding on such security issues; it’s a trade-off I choose for myself because there are way too many places I go requiring login. No one else uses this laptop but me, so it’s about as secure as need be. Enough about Opera.

For multimedia stuff, I apt-get what I need and let it worry about the dependencies. Paying attention to the suggested packages list I can grab stuff I might not know or think about. My choices are mostly dvdcss, libdvdread, win32 codecs, Helix plugin, Sun JRE 6 plugin, Kaffeine plugin (libxine), non-free Flash plugin, and ffmpeg. To save time and bandwidth, I tend to keep a copy of the codecs for use on several machines, until they are updated at Mplayer HQ.

There are a couple of things I would have preferred bundled by default, but had to add them later: Joe (text editor), less and whois (!), and Nedit. I’m sure I’ll find other things missing which surprise me. I’m not interested in why these are excluded by default; I consider plenty of choices by the Debian folks to be wrong-headed. There’s no such thing as the perfect Linux distro because no two users are alike.

The other most-important-thing is the latest kernel from Backports. This is because of my rlt8180-based wifi cards. However, I’m sure there are some other beneficial changes of which I am not aware. In general, older kernels which work tend to be faster, but I can’t tell any difference in this case.

I also make a great use of Elinks. The version available is the old series which still suffers from ghost-text on some sites, so I knew I needed the latest 0.12 version. However, getting all that pulled down via apt-get is a boondoggle. I did install build-essential and did the “apt-get build-dep elinks” but knew I wouldn’t get what I really wanted past that. I wanted the Spidermonkey JS support (libmozjs-dev) and had to install that manually. Then I simply pulled down the source package for 0.12pre3 and built manually. This allowed me to add my own options, and avoids the probability of automatic updates and all the tweaking necessary to protect it via apt. Versatility is a Debian virtue.

A couple of final items. Because of my membership in the Brotherhood of the Commandline, I sometimes operate without the GUI. The console is one place Debian shines. This means you need gpm and the Terminus console font. For touchpad use or two-button mouse, make sure you run dpkg reconfigure gpm and on the last page of options, type in “-2″ so you can use the right button to paste on the console. It’s rare to have any other use for the right-click on the console. The Terminus font requires you install console-setup, too. The other item is ensuring your best resolution on the console. The odd-ball sized LCD on my laptop is native 1440×1000, and that’s identified by vga=834. This is added to the proper line in /boot/grub/menu.lst:

# defoptions=vga=834

As the file tells you, don’t remove the “#” character, just run update-grub command after saving your changes.

The very human side of all this is to notice, as we age our habits become more hardened. It’s not a lack of interest in new things, but a lack of interest in chasing them down and trying them out. With each round of trying things out, we realize the latest and greatest may not offer anything we really need. As we become more adept at doing whatever it is we do with computers, there is less and less reason to upgrade. Pretty soon, fixing security holes is about it. As the world, and particularly the Internet, drifts on to newer technologies, I find them more insulting to my intelligence. Most of what has changed since my first use in 1996 is a bunch of stuff catering to folks whose interests are more about entertainment and advertising, and precious little which adds to my ability to learn something useful. That’s the way this messed-up world works, so it’s not as if I can pretend to do anything about it. This is human nature. My choices above are more likely to appeal to aging writers than anyone under 30 with any other interests.

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  1. Yves
    Sunday 3 May 2009 at 11:58 am

    I suggest you to give Kubuntu Jaunty a try. KDE 4.2 and Qt4.5 have seen optimizations which you will notice.

    I run it on an aging Acer Travelmate 8005LMi, and it works quite good, even with moderate desktop effects.

    The hardware-specs are here:

    http://asia.cnet.com/reviews/notebooks/0,39050490,39020001p-0,00.htm

    I even run it in a xinerama setup with 3080×1050 resolution and still it is perfectly usable, although without desktop effects in that case.

  2. Carl Snyder
    Sunday 3 May 2009 at 12:44 pm

    I run Lenny rather than Etch, so I don’t know if LXDE is available in Etch. The reason I mention it, LXDE is a reduced resource display environment in which the menus look a lot like the KDE 3 menus. Lenny from net-install with LXDE has been recommended for older computers. I’m a relative n00b, so take my advice with a large grain of salt, but I have been working with computers since 1975/personal computer since 1980. I am suggesting this mainly for when Etch will not be supported anymore.

  3. miksuh
    Sunday 3 May 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Why did you install Etch instead of Lenny? Lenny is the current stable and Etch is now old stable. Debian 5.0 Lenny was released 2.5 months ago.

  4. miksuh
    Sunday 3 May 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Debian 5.0 Lenny does also have KDE 3 istead of KDE 4. So if you want to use KDE 3 that’s not any reason to use Debian 4.0 Etch.

  5. Sunday 3 May 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you all. I’ll try to explain my choice in reference to your suggestions.

    I’ve tried X/K/Ubuntu and friends, and it’s not for me. The reasons are too numerous to list here.

    Lenny did not work well on this laptop. I tried it; it was painfully slow, and I’m not willing to spend days recompiling a kernel, etc. to make it faster. It would still be slower than Etch.

    I’ve tried KDE 4.x, and I don’t like it at all. As noted in my post, I think it’s going in the wrong direction. I’m sure the KDE folks are not the least interested in what I think; they have shown no interest in the past. Ditto for the X.org product.

    This laptop sports a 1Ghz CPU, half-GB RAM, a weak Radeon M6 (7000), and some 32MB VRAM. I have tried lots of other stuff on this laptop, and nothing works so well as Etch. CentOS 5 comes close, but I managed to break it and I’m not willing to put any more time into that. Etch is a known good OS for this laptop.

  6. kyosan
    Monday 4 May 2009 at 10:13 am

    I’m using Lenny with KDE 3.5 on my wife’s machine (Duron 750 with 512 MB RAM) and it works OK. But I take Ed’s word that Etch works better for him.

    My machine (AMD 64 3600+ X2 with 2GB RAM) has prenty of horsepower for KDE 4.X but I don’t want it on my machine because, like Ed, I don’t like the direction KDE is heading in. So, on my machine, I switched from KDE to Gnome since I’m using Squeeze and it will eventually become KDE 4.X.

  1. Saturday 2 May 2009 at 1:02 pm
  2. Sunday 3 May 2009 at 11:27 am
  3. Monday 4 May 2009 at 5:57 pm
  4. Wednesday 20 May 2009 at 2:54 am

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