I have a very old computer.  It is a Dell Optiplex GX50 small form-factor desktop with a 900 MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 10 GB hard drive and no graphics card.  It doesn’t even have USB 2.0.  So not a speed demon but it still works and I wanted to have something usable for the kids to mess around with.

The first thing I did was run Ethernet cable to the computer.  Before that I’d tried to dink around with wifi but was running into one headache after another.  Ethernet is nice and makes everything much more do-able for me.

Second, I upgraded the hard drive.  10 GB will do for a Linux install or even an XP install (I actually had XP on it at one point – ugh) but it gives no room for much else.  My sons like to mess around with their mp3 collection, watch movies and read comics on the computer.  So I needed a bigger hard drive and I cannibalized one from my main desktop system.  Now instead of 10 GB I have 160 GB to work with.

Next, I tried to figure out a good Linux install for this old box.  I’m far from a Linux expert though I am learning and sorta enjoy figuring things out along the way.  I’d used Ubuntu before and I’d read that Xubuntu was made for low-end computers.  Perfect!

Xubuntu installed just fine but it was slower than I liked.  I don’t know enough about the distribution to understand why but things were usable but noticeably slow.  I’ve since read that Xubuntu is “bloated” according to some people.  Anyway, it wasn’t for me.

I tried a couple of other options.  Puppy Linux was amazingly fast but also fairly obtuse.  I couldn’t figure out how to change icons, installing software was confusing and I soon realized it wasn’t going to be viable.  But holy crap it was fast!

I also spent quite a bit of time with Zenwalk which is very nice and almost made a true believer out of me.  Zenwalk is a lightweight distribution based on Slackware (not sure what that means other than it’s different from Debian which Ubuntu is based on) and uses XFCE like Xubuntu.  Here are some of the other features of Zenwalk from their website:

Modern and user-friendly (latest stable software, selected applications)
Fast (optimized for performance capabilities)
Rational (one mainstream application for each task)
Complete (full development/desktop/multimedia environment)
Evolutionary (simple network package management tool – netpkg)

    Sounds good to me so I installed it and used it for about a month.  It was clearly speedier than Xubuntu for me though not as fast as Puppy Linux.  Things were nicely set up and I liked the look and it was easy to configure the way I wanted it.  Simple and nice, just how I wanted things.

    But there were a couple of niggling issues that kept me from completely embracing Zenwalk.  First, I was used to using Synaptic, deb files and even apt-get from the command line.  I don’t understand Slackware and could never figure out how to install software in Zenwalk that wasn’t in their repositories.  Their package manager (netpkg) was fine but if I ventured outside of that I was lost.

    Second, the packages they did have were… odd.  The biggest example is Firefox which they rebranded as Iceweasel.  Something to do with free vs. non-free software, etc.  Fine, no problem.  But for some reason they still hadn’t updated Firefox/Iceweasel to 3.0 nearly two months after it was released.  That didn’t make sense.  Firefox 3 was noticeably faster to me and I couldn’t see a good reason not to upgrade.  In Ubuntu, if the current version of a program wasn’t available in the repositories I could usually find a deb file and install it that way.  I had no clue how to install Firefox 3 in Zenwalk outside of compiling it from source.  And I’m not really a “compile from source” kinda guy.

    Last, Zenwalk was fast but just didn’t seem fast enough.  Youtube videos were never quite smooth like they were in Puppy Linux.  Things seemed a bit “draggy” to me.  It’s subjective, sure.  But I noticed it and I wanted to see if there was a faster option.

    I stumbled across a post somewhere on the internet about installing a minimal command-line only system and then adding only what you wanted or needed.  The end result, apparently, was a very fast yet customized system.  Now that sounded appealing and that’s what I did.

    More on this in part two.