The Laptop Renovation Project

At my office, we have a pair of old laptops purchased back in 2003 or 2004, which are terribly slow, woefully underpowered and horribly outdated, but which we still use periodically.  In other words, they made a perfect target for an OS makeover.

Anyone who has run Windows XP on a P4 with 256MB of RAM should be able to appreciate just how sluggish these machines are.  So with my boss’s blessing, I gathered the two machines and tried to breathe some new life into them.


Before I continue, it would probably be worth mentioning what I need these laptops to accomplish.  In a nutshell, they need to be able to run a proprietary java-based client, run Firefox and open Excel spreadsheets.  The ability to print to networked printers would be a bonus.  Finally, they are intended for a non-technical group used to working with Windows. We are not interested in any sort of in-depth training, we need an interface that is intuitive and gets people directly where they need to be.

Did I mention these machines are agonizingly slow?  I think that may have been an understatement.  Because this is an experiment, I had the luxury of being able to download and test several liveCDs for various distros, and play around with several window managers.  

Just as a point of reference, the Fedora 11 LiveCD took approximately 20 minutes to boot into a usable state (!), OpenSuSE took about 15, and Ubuntu around 10.  (All of the above had Gnome as the default window manager.)

For me, getting the first laptop done as a functioning proof of concept was a priority. With the help of some of the nifty tutorials located on this site, I ended up installing Xubuntu, then switching to Fluxbox for a window manager with idesk to handle the two desktop icons I really needed (the proprietary client and Firefox.)  While Gnome was marginally less slow than Windows XP Pro, and XFCE was tolerable, the Fluxbox solution was downright snappy.  There are still some quirks to work through, but I’m pleased with the results, and, more importantly, so is my boss.

Tinkerer that I am, though, all that meant was that I had one “production” machine, so now I have the time to experiment with making things even better, which means I’m free to try different distros and see how they stack up.  My first attempt was OpenSuSE.  Just to set the stage a bit, I cut my Linux teeth on Slackware back in the late ’90s.   After that, I got my hands on a “light” version of SuSE and decided to play with that for a bit, and found I liked it.  

But Slack remained my distro of choice.  Anyway, since I was given pretty much free rein to experiment, I decided to have a look-see.

Long story short, that didn’t work out so well.  Did I mention these laptops were excruciatingly slow?  Well, apparently YAST isn’t happy with less than 1 GB of RAM, so I went back to the drawing board.  Trent had mentioned to me that he’d heard good things about Mint, so I pulled down Mint 7 and decided to give it a look.

Next Page: Getting Minty

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27 thoughts on “The Laptop Renovation Project

  1. Nice post, Joe. Yeah, Mint with Gnome is a hog, but there is also a community edition for Mint that uses fluxbox, although the Mint 7 version isn’t out yet.

    http://www.linuxmint.com/edition.php?id=35

    You are correct about Debian — you might try Debian with LXDE. I’m running Debian (testing) Squeeze on my Thinkpad T42 (40GB drive, 512MB RAM, Pentium M 1.7 GHz) and it is very snappy. It would be worth a try.

    • Actually, it sounded like the Fluxbox version of Mint is kind of up in the air right now, and that there wasn’t going to be a new version. Has that changed?

  2. Debian absolutely; probably Lenny if it needs to stay stable and you don’t have technical users who may want odd updates or KDE4. I don’t think Testing or Sid has anything really new for the other desktop environments so adding that unneeded possible-instability (in Sid or Testing) is probably a bad idea.

    If the machines really only need those four apps (proprietary java app, Firefox, OOo, CUPS), I would think a very minimal installation would be possible.

    Sound (ALSA), Wireless (wicd is a great app), and Adobe Flash (from debian-multimedia.org repository) may be appreciated as well.

    • Yeah, I’d go for Lenny on this project, too. I agree on the wicd recommendation — I usually rip out whatever else may be there (knetworkmanager, gnome networkmanager) and use wicd, on whatever distro I may be running at the time.

  3. I have been installing Vector Light 6.0… On an old dinosaur (IBM 300GL, that is celeron 496Mhz, with 396 megs of ram…)

    So far, it combines ease of install & speed for older crappy hardware… Plenty of very light apps…

  4. Lenny is a good thought. I’m going to bulldoze the mint install and see what DSL has to offer as well. But I’ll add Lenny to the short list.

    At some point I’ll probably want to go back and rebuild the first laptop so the two are consistent, but I needed one fast and wanted to do one “right.” No reason not to try as much as I can!

  5. Have you tried the WattOS, microwatt version? Sounds like it might suit your needs. Uses Openbox/LXDE for WM. Based on Ubuntu, so lots of repos. Looks promising.

  6. Pingback: The Laptop Renovation Project | Buy It For Less
  7. If you want an unbloated and solid distribution I can point you to Arch Linux. Their philosophy is to build from the bottom up. You have a minimal system installed and then you can add whatever you want with minimal dependencies. Software is up to date and the Arch community has a reputation of being helpful.

    • Yup, Arch is a good way to go, too. My three favorite distros: Debian, Arch, Slackware. I’d go so far to say that, if you’ve got the skills, start with one of these to get to where you need to go, rather than a derivative of one of these. I’m thinking of toying with Gentoo, lately, if only because it’s pretty much “the final frontier” of Linux distros, for me. Well, that and Linux From Scratch. I don’t think I’m ready for that!

  8. I recently bought a an old laptop for 75 dollars. I tried several distros, and the only one that really worked at all was Slackware derived… Vector Linux Light Even Slax didn’t come close. The default desktop is ICEWM, which I never cared for, but this was beautifully set up. I couldn’t really handle running KDE 3, but I was able to install Konqueror and run it ver y successfuly from ICEwm.

    But this story doesn’t end well, either. I knocked the laptop off the table, and shattered the screen after only few weeks. This is why I only use old, cheap hardware. I’m terrible with things.

  9. GNOME is not a window manager. Try openbox with the xfce panel…maximum screen real-estate with minimal RAM usage…~100M with desktop, 10 tabs in FFx and icedove open.

  10. Puppy Linux is fast and runs well on older kit. Have you had a look at Kanotix ? There is a good walkthrough on Kanotix at PC Review.(well a reasonable walkthrough,shoudn’t blow my own trumpet too loudly) :-)

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  12. Personally, I’m a fan of Fluxbox with fbpanel. I ran it on a Thinkpad T42 ( 1.5GB RAM, 40GB HDD, 1.5 GHz ) and currently run it on a slower machine on Debian Testing. I’m sure if you threw something like idesktop or something akin to that together with those two apps, you’d be in the money.

    fbpanel: http://fbpanel.sourceforge.net/

    • Algol, have you tried LXPanel? It’s based originally on FBPanel, but it’s a bit more flexible. I use it with Openbox and I’ve found it quite a bit better than FBPanel as an overall.

      • I can’t say that I’ve tried it. I’ll definitely look into it, though. I don’t know about you but for me, a panel isn’t really a necesity ( I know that a few people don’t like the *boxes because of the lack of panel although I feel that is one of their more endearing qualities since it can return some of the real estate on your screen.

        Thanks for the heads up!

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  14. would have thought you tried the latest version of puppy linux. One of its new features is to be able to use any kind of package from any other distro (its main aim, but currently only allows certain packages)

  15. Pingback: The Laptop Renovation Project: Decisions, Conclusions and Lessons Learned « The Linux Critic
  16. I too resurrected an old dell latitude cpi388 128mb
    went through many of the live cd’s (DSL, suse, puppy,)
    mandriva2007 was the first one that produced a working system although the broadcom 43** wireless was always a problem even with ndiswrapper, I had to reconfigure every boot. mandriva2010 was a disaster. Slackware 11 was perfect even the wireless worked. now it has slackware 13.0 with kde3.5.10.
    there is life in the old dog yet.

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