Linux on hardware of the last century

I own an old HP Omnibook 4150B. The device must be assembled around 1999. And it still works. And as a hobby I’m regularly trying out recent linux distributions on it – just to see what you still can expect from such a device. Maybe this is useful for someone.

Mint 12 on Omnibook 4150BSpecs

The impressive hardware of this laptop is as follows:

  • CPU: Pentium 3 650 MHz
  • RAM: 368 MB (maximal)
  • HD: 40 GB (upgraded from 18 GB – limited because it has just an IDE port)
  • Display: 1024×768
  • Ports: 1 USB 1.1 – some old serial stuff – very importand: cardbus slot
  • Network: no wifi, even no ethernet

What works

I can say – everything. Obviously you won’t get any 3d acceleration out of it. But despite of this, all the hardware works flawlessly. It cannot shutdown properly however, you have to do it manually. Restart is possible. This machine does not know ACPI – just APM. It can only boot from harddisk and cdrom – not from usb.

Moreover I did some tests of the power conumption of this laptop. It is slower than later laptops, but I cannot say that it burns much more power. I measured a power consumption around 15 watts when idle. Current laptops can get below that of course, but the power saving itself is no reason to use a new laptop.

Constraints

So, what is the problem on such a device? Nearly everything.

The CPUs speed is limited. It can still do work – but don’t try to do several tasks at the same time. The system lags then.

Another big restriction is the memory. 384 MB is enough to load a desktop environment – but that’s it. You have nothing left for applications. Not good. And even a modern web browser is usually consuming more than this. So you must be really careful with this.

The harddisk is another story. It’s not just the transfer speed, that slows down the system. It’s mainly the access time. With the old 18 Gigabyte harddisk you had to wait half of a second until it starts to transfer the requested data. So there was a small pause if you open a menu. With the newer 40 Gigabyte it was better. However, even that harddisk is old. And as this laptop only can access IDE disk, you are very limited in choice here. You can’t get much faster.

Without any network connectivity, you have to use the cardbus slot to connect to the web. An absolute must! The bad thing is, the cardbus slot is blocked then and can’t be used for anything else.

Possible applications

So what can you do with such an device? You don’t have much of an option. The usual answer may be some kind of a server.

You may put some services on it – but your router hardware would do it probably similarly fast and with a smaller power drain. Theoretically you can use the machine as a file server – or a NAS system. It would be probably able to do it with enough speed. But here you are limited to the machines old interfaces.

You can only connect it to a network if you put a network card in the PCMCIA slot. But as soon as you do that, you are limited to the build in harddisk drive – and you won’t get big and cheap IDE harddisks. You can of course connect a USB disk – but as this machine has only low speed USB its not a good option. 100 kb/s is not what you want as a transfer rate.

You can connect faster if you use an esata or usb card in the pcmcia slot. However, then you would have no way to connect to the network. Maybe an interesting setup would be to use a USB 2.0 replicator card, connect a USB disk to it AND some usb network device. Missing hardware for that, I do not know whether that works.

What you can do it with is using it as a workstation. That’s possible. May be as an spare system in your household, for children or people that really need a computer.

Distributions

You can probably put any 32-bit linux distribution on this device – unless it does not deny installation because of the low RAM. There are many distributions like puppy or DSL aimed at old computers – they are no choice for me. I want to use the applications I know from my normal system. Moreover one application of such a laptop is to give it away to someone which has no computer. And as such person are probably no command line geeks, you need a really user friendly distribution. That limits the choices further. What is slackware or arch based, surely they are good distributions but they can put challenges to grandmothers and grandfathers. And I don’t want to spend hours preparing the device.

So what I want for it is something with the friendliness of ubuntu, but really really leightweight. I ended up with Linux Mint LXDE edition. Ubuntu LXDE might work too – but as the time of writing this Mint 12 does a ten time friendlier LXDE desktop then any other distribution I have seen.

Desktop Environment

The main thing you want from your desktop on this laptop is low memory usage. So the best choice is probably a window manager like fluxbox and so on. Having started up one of them you have around 70 MB of memory used. So there are nearly 300 MB left for your work. However, those boxes are only a choice if you use the system yourself. Grandparents and other people want something more common.

You can of course start KDE (has even very slow desktop effects provided by Xrender, funny but unuseable), Gnome 2 or 3 and so on. They do the job fast enough. Even Gnome 3 does a good work in speed on the device. As long as clicking around on your desktop is all what you want to do. That desktop environments use so much memory, that there is nothing left for applications. So you cannot stick with them. I have not tried XFCE – but there enough reports in the web, that its memory usage is not really below that of gnome, if you do a real comparison. So nothing for this laptop.

What I finally sticked with is LXDE. In Mint it looks very friendly – accessible and understandable enough for grandparents! and I get down to 85 Megabyte of RAM usage with some tweaking – that’s good.

Browsers

The most memory consuming applications I use are browsers. Really, they use much more than office applications. So here you need something fast and memory saving. And I want a modern working one. I mainly evaluated Chromium 15 and Firefox4 (+).

Chrome wins in most benchmarks over Firefox. But not in terms of memory usage. Chromiums memory usage under Linux is crazy. I saw a single tab using 500 Megabyte for its own. Firefox is doing a better job in saving memory, as just has problems freeing it after having used it. A good way to make your firefox fast again is to restart it.

Anyway, having only around 200 Megabyte for the browser left, you are limited in open tabs in both browsers. I’m seeing Firefox do the best job on the old hardware. If you open a page, it appears much faster in Firefox than in Chrome.

Of course you should not use much extensions on firefox as they can increase memory usage. A good choice is flashblock. It always a good thing to save processor power on systems and only load flash if you really want to see it. Its exspecially true on such a slow CPU.

Another extension you may use is Adblock. You don’t want to have CPU cycles burned for flashing promoting animations. And you would expect that it lowers memory usage because all that stuff is not loaded. Strangely enough I observed firefox using MORE memory when running adblock with it. Very strange. See yourself.

Having said that, Firefox is since version 4 clearly the best choice for that old hardware. It may even get faster with each release. Firefox 9 is doing a good job although. I tried a recent version of midori – but I found it to have no advantage over firefox. Neither memory or speed wise.

Applications – What can I do with this

So what work can you do on a PC like this?

Well, most simple office work will do it. Writing text is possible, you can fire up abiword with no problems. Even libreoffice will start and find enough memory for itself. So you can still work on that old hardware – but better just have on active application at the time. If you have more, keep an eye on memory usage.

The most hardest common work today for the laptop. It really stresses all of it. Firefox runs acceptable fast  – as long as you don’t load several tabs at the same time. No good idea.

Having said that, you can browse the web on the old hardware. Pages take some seconds to load. And while you can read the page when it is still loading, the systems becomes laggy as long as the page is loaded. So surfing the web takes longer than usual on this machine.

Update 30.5.2012:

I found a good use case for the laptop. It is perfectly possible to play a mpeg2-video on laptop, that is streamed over WLAN. So it is e.g. completly possible to stream a tv show from a dvb-capable system to this laptop and play it. The CPU is even partly idle when doing that. Additionally it is possible to get dvb-t video from a connected dvb-t usb-stick. So this (and other) old laptops can be turned into a cheap and power saving tv.

Conclusion

The hardware is limited but if you have to work with it, it can still do what you want. The latest linux distributions can still work on the machine. Try that with windows 🙂

However, you will probably only work with such a machine if you are really forced to. You will be probably be more happy with hardware built after 2000.

Update 30.5.2012:

I updated the laptop to Linux Mint 13 based on Ubuntu 12.04. I have the impression that the system got a little faster. I even did a half an hour surfing session reading news pages and the speed of firefox 12 was acceptable. So I got my work done with it.

I noticed a regression though. Currently the apm sleep states suspend and hibernate do not work anymore. It worked with Linux Mint 12. I don’t know what causes this and if it will be fixed.

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