Message: previous - next
Month: November 2011

From: Darrell Anderson <humanreadable@...>
Date: Wed, 9 Nov 2011 10:30:11 -0800 (PST)
Hi Brian,

Interesting personal history you shared!

As much as I enjoy tinkering with computers, I get very mad when anything gets in my way of being productive. Therefore I am very much in the group of people who see computers being a tool --- the means to an end.

I don't know that I can help. For several years I have sheltered myself in Slackware, which is not known as a "mom and pop" friendly system. Although some time ago I started a series of essays about finding an operating system for older computers, I have not continued that journey. I would like to renew that journey this winter.

A big challenge with what you ask is defining your audience. A basic bell curve more than likely would show most users wanting only the basics. There always will be computer-challenged people who, no matter what anyone does to help, will never understand anything they do or think they want to do. Then there are the power users, both smart and non-smart. The non-smart ones can take anything apart but can't fix their mess. They always call somebody to help.

Mostly though you are focusing on the people in the middle of the bell curve. My struggle is not so much selecting a distro. Even Slackware, if preinstalled and configured by a subject matter expert, can serve the purposes of these people because all of them want basic point-and-click access to applications. The majority of computer users do not care about how everything runs underneath.

The challenge is older hardware can't deal with the modern internet. Back in the mid 1990s a 486 machine running Netscape 3 or 4 had no problem surfing the primarily text based web. Today too many web sites use JavaScript and Flash. Even if those two features are disabled, most older hardware still can't surf the web. The limited RAM and video cards on these old machines can't render a typical web page fast enough to be suitable. Running flash on these old machines is hopeless.

If a user does not need the internet, then the older hardware runs quite well with the traditional apps of yesteryear: word processing, spreadsheets, etc. Anything that requires serious video rendering will bring these old machines to their proverbial knees.

I have Slackware 12.2 and KDE 3.5.10 installed on two such machines: a Pentium I and Pentium II class machine. Startup speeds of any app is slow but tolerable. Using an app is acceptable after the app is started. I can improve desktop speed a bit by using a window manager such as IceWM, but I still need to start and use apps, which tends to be slow. The moment I try to surf the web, even with images disabled in the web browser, the systems show their age immediately.

In short, the problem is not the operating system but the hardware.

I don't know an easy answer. What is the minimum specs that allow surfing the modern internet in an acceptable manner? Are such users willing to accept that they can't watch online videos? Are they willing to accept that a dial-up connection means they can't download videos or receive such videos as email attachments?

Perhaps the answer is to use nothing less than a Pentium III class computer. If I find the time this winter to return to my "old hardware" project, I should find one or two of those types of computers to experiment. The PI and PII machines can't deal with the modern internet. That said, anybody still using dial-up probably never would notice because the connection speed is more of a bottleneck than the computer. I wonder whether I can rig up a way to simulate that kind of connection speed and then test my old hardware.

If we get past the hardware questions, which distro to choose? Any Ubuntu based system, regardless of hardware or desktop environment, will kill any old hardware. That includes Mint. Forget about cloud-based distros such as Peppermint because the hardware and connection speeds used by such people can't deal with the overhead.

Otherwise I probably would stick with a Debian based system because of the size of the repositories for additional software.

Puppy is an interesting possibility and one I wish I had more time to investigate.

Which desktop environment? None of the new desktops will work on older hardware, such as KDE 4 or GNOME 3. Those new desktops require 3D acceleration hardware. That leaves Trinity, Xfce, or LXDE. To me, LXDE remains too experimental and likely would frustrate many mom and pop users. A window manager approach would work, but only if highly customized by a subject matter expert. Regardless of which desktop is chosen, everything would have to be preinstalled.

Therein lies the real problem which no Linux based distro developer has solved: creating a system that mom and pop users with old hardware can use. The Puppy people might be close.

As far as I can tell, the only solution is select a distro and then customize everything. Guess what? At that point you have created your own distro and must face all of the related support headaches of such a project.

Any such project requires serious usability testing. Somebody like you or me can tinker and find a solution. Most mom and pop users can't --- and won't.

I wish I had a simple answer. :)

Thanks for stopping by.