The Laptop Renovation Project

On the previous laptop run, I had fiddled with vanilla Ubuntu for a short time, so I had something of an idea as to how it would look and feel.  With that as my “baseline”, I went ahead and installed Mint, since I had heard it was essentially Ubuntu with some optimizations and a cleaner way of organizing things.  I’m a big fan of things that simplify my life, so I was all in favor of that!

In all fairness, I haven’t really looked “under the hood” that much.  My point of view is pretty much, “having used Ubuntu before, does Mint make it easier for me to do what I need to do, or is it about the same?”  Upon first glance, Mint looked a lot like normal Ubuntu, albeit with a more greenish tinge.  Most things were where I expected them to be, and it only took a brief moment for me to figure out where basic things were (wireless network, sound control, etc.)   So I went ahead and opened the “Menu” menu.

Right off the bat, the interface looked pretty intuitive.  That big “favorites” button includes hotlinks to commonly-used applications (Firefox, Thunderbird, etc.), although I haven’t yet figured out how to change those from the defaults.  (I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out eventually.)  Coming over from a Windows XP environment, the interface was familiar, even if the purpose of the assorted applications wasn’t necessarily intuitive.

Mint does include a handful of its own applications, independently of Ubuntu.  MintUpdate, for instance, is another take on auto-update, but still uses APT as the underlying engine.  The big advantage to MintUpdate is that it provides more detail on what is being updated, and adds a “safety level” setting, so you can decide the relative risk for performing the update.  For instance, the most recent update was rated a “3”, presumably because it’s an outside application from a somewhat reputable source.

MintInstall (aka “Software manager”)  is also worthy of particular note.  It’s another package manager, but the various packages are split into far more intuitive categories.  Additionally, it includes screenshots, thumbnails and community reviews.

So what’s my overall feeling?  I like Mint, I really do.  However, as I mentioned before, these laptops are really, really slow, and Gnome is something of a resource hog.  If I were using a more up-to-date laptop, or had more RAM, Mint would very much be in the mix.  

Unfortunately, the realities of the situation dictate that I have to go lean and mean, and it’s looking like Fluxbox will remain the window manager of choice.  Whether I’ll run Fluxbox on top of this Mint install remains to be seen.  As mentioned previously, the prototype started as a Xubuntu box.

Honestly, I’m still on the fence.  Should I leave my Mint install intact and simply set up Fluxbox as the default WM, or would it be worth walking away and pulling down a minimalist Debian install and going from there?

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.

    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 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.

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  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.


    • 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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