The Laptop Renovation Project: Decisions, Conclusions and Lessons Learned

As some of you may know, a few weeks ago I posted about my efforts to revive aging laptop hardware. While there is still a bit of work to be done, the bulk of the project is complete, and the rest is simply detail work and optimization for our particular work environment.

For those of you who don’t recall the specifics, I have been dealing with two older Gateway 1.3 GHz Pentium M laptops with 256 MB of RAM and Intel Centrino (TM) mobile technology. They’re each about 6 years old, due for replacement, and not worth further investment of money into things like more memory. (In my work environment, once a machine goes out of warranty, there is great reluctance to invest more money in that machine, they prefer purchase of a new one instead.) That Centrino technology would prove to be something of a thorn in my side, and had a direct influence on some of the decisions I made.

Fortunately, from the end-user side the requirements are fairly straight-forward. The one proprietary application we require is java-based and while it’s a memory hog, I have not encountered any compatibility issues. Additionally, we require a web browser (ideally Firefox, another memory hog) and OpenOffice.org. The biggest challenge was finding an environment which required minimal training. Most of those who will use the laptops are casual Windows users who have had little or no previous experience in a Linux environment, and I wanted to make the transition as painless as possible. Unfortunately, this meant that a certain amount of bloat and eye candy was unavoidable, if only even to make a lean and mean X environment (like Fluxbox) a little softer around the edges. In short, I had to find a way to make the kernel and windowing environment as thin as possible in order to allocate as many system resources as possible to the required applications, but at the same time, I had to make the interface at least somewhat familiar.

Distro Decisions

I received a lot of feedback regarding good, thin distros that would serve my purposes well. I gave several of them a try, and many of the others I researched on Distro Watch. There were numerous viable options there. From a performance perspective, I was very impressed with Damn Small Linux (a.k.a. “DSL”), but the wireless card driver situation was not good: they didn’t support the card natively, recommending NDISwrapper as the best solution. Ugh.

As mentioned previously, my experience with Debian was sorely disappointing, again because of the wireless card issue. After the failures of Debian and DSL, I started digging deeper before testing any more distros, because the wireless card issue (and the ease of dealing with it) was a deal-breaker. While I could certainly take the distro I want and roll my own kernel, I didn’t want to have to deal with that. As a result, I started looking much more closely at Ubuntu and its derivatives, since I had already confirmed that they had built the necessary wireless drivers into the kernel (test laptop 1 was working fine with Xubuntu and Fluxbox.)

At the end of the day, I had to make the call among vanilla Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint and wattOS. I really, really liked what the wattOS team was doing, but there were some elements that weren’t quite ready for prime time. It really looks like a solid project, but it was also obviously still in beta (a status which hasn’t changed recently), so I (reluctantly) crossed them off the list. I can deal with lack of polish, but there were still some bugs on the installation and administrative sides (I can’t remember what they are offhand, but I remember they were somewhat annoying.) Nevertheless, if anyone is in a similar situation, do give them a look. I think they’re on to something. My ultimate decision was for Mint, on the strength of its organization and the fact that it includes some really nifty extra tools (MintUpdate and MintBackup, for instance.) I also took the plunge and replaced Slackware 12.2 with Mint on my desktop computer. I don’t regard Mint as a “compromise” in any way, and fears that it might be a bit too robust for the laptop have not come true, so far.

Next Page: Becoming environmentally-friendly

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5 thoughts on “The Laptop Renovation Project: Decisions, Conclusions and Lessons Learned

  1. That’s pretty funny that you ultimately ended up with a Mint/LXDE solution. This is what I am currently running on my Thinkpad T42, after becoming frustrated with sub-par video playback performance on my custom Debian testing setup. I actually installed the Linux Mint KDE version, and then installed LXDE, as well as Fluxbox, from there. I’m pretty happy with the results, so far. Mint is typically what I recommend to those interested in jumping into the Linux fold, although I have only used it sporadically, myself. They just get it right on so many levels, it’s hard not to like it. I prefer it to the ‘buntus.

    Still playing around with Debian testing on my spare desktop machine at work, however.

    • I agree, Mint is done really well. I’m not regretting that decision at all. And I must admit, it’s gratifying knowing someone else settled on the same (esoteric) combination.

      • Joe, let’s get even more esoteric! I’ve been using Dolphin as my file manager in LXDE, rather than PCMan File Manager. The advantages of Dolphin over PCMan are many: it doesn’t ask me to confirm when I trash/delete something; I’ve mapped my “Forward” and “Back” keys on my Thinkpad to do the same in Dolphin; I can access remote servers (I use a lot of FTP) simply by typing the URL in the location bar, etc. You could do all this with Nautilus, too, but Nautilus has a nasty habit of taking over, in my experience.

        So, I get the low resource requirements of LXDE, but with the superior file management of Dolphin. Dolphin is still not as cool as Konqueror, but it’s working quite well for me.

  2. Pingback: Links 01/11/2009: OggCamp 2009 Coverage, Linux Graphics Survey Starts | Boycott Novell

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