If you want to run a modern system with an old computer you have to compensate some of the missing GHz and megabytes with your own brains. You have to know what you are doing. You have to know what you want your computer to do. Only so you can build a system that is ideal for your needs and your hardware.
This means you have to be ready to learn something about Linux and how it works. It is not rocket science, it is something everyone can do. If you are willing to learn you can realize the full power of Linux.
We are lucky to have a lot of free documentation. There are even many good introductions to Linux. Most of them are published by The Linux Documentation Project. I suggest you first familiarize yourself with the site just to see what kind of documentation there is. Depending on what you already know, select some of the guides where you can learn at least something new. If you are relatively new to Linux, you might start with Gareth Anderson's GNU/Linux Command-Line Tools Summary or Machtelt Garrels' Introduction to Linux - A Hands on Guide
TLDP is not the only free source of information online. The Linux Cookbook has been one of my favourite Linux books since years. Michael Stutz has released the first edition of the book as an HTML edition. Even if it is already several years old, it is very helpful for those willing to work on the command line. In this book, the reader learns about basic command line operations, process management, text processing, customizing the shell prompt, analyzing text, finding text and files and a lot more.
If you want build a custom system and not use some lightweight distribution, you have to study a bit more. One of the sites I have found most useful, is the Gentoo wiki. It has been most helpful also at times when I have used some other distribution. For example, if you want to learn how to customize some lightweight window manager you will probably find all the best tips and tricks there. One good example is the page for tweaking Openbox window manager. Most of the information here can be used with just about any distribution.
Other tips are probably more obvious: If you are using any Debian based distribution, for example Ubuntu, you should study the Debian reference. It has been translated into many languages. Slackware Linux Essentials - The Official Guide To Slackware Linux is similarly useful for those who use a distribution based on Slackware, for example Zenwalk or Vector Linux.
If you read the fine manuals, you will be able to solve most of your problems. If not, you can always ask for help in the Internet forums or IRC channels. But if you have done your homework the others will respect you more and be more helpful than in the case you never bothered to read any documentation. But as you are now reading my blog, you most probably are clever enough to read some official documentation!
Linux runs on old computers, doesn't it? Many people have heard or read that also old computers can run Linux. This is true, but you should not expect to be able to run newest multimedia programs or play 3D games on old hardware. If you just want to read and send email, write a book, browse the Internet, learn to program, or maybe write a book with your computer, read on. Only your imagination can limit the uses of old hardware or modern hardware with low specifications.
Save your money for better uses. You don't have to buy a new computer just to update the operating system. Even computers one can get free or buy for a few euros or dollars can be used to run a modern desktop with lightweight software. Everyone living in the industrial world can afford a used computer for running a free operating system. Thus Linux helps to cross the digital chasm between those who can afford to participate in the modern computerized world and those who cannot.
If your computer is not older than ten years, it definitely can be used as a Linux desktop. You can either use a distribution specifically tailored for older hardware or you can use almost any modern distribution and customize the installation for your needs. You might have to hack some configuration files with a text editor and forget using the latest GNOME or KDE. Use OpenBox or WindowMaker instead. You might even have to install the distribution of your choice in text mode. You might need some help in tweaking your system to run as smoothly as possible.
But it can be done. And you can do it, too!
You can also help to save our environment by using your old computer or by using recycled hardware. Nowadays, computers that have very low power consumption (less than 10 W) are also available. This usually means that their specifications are rather low on modern standards. Information on this site could equally well be used for building a usable desktop on such a box. Using low specs or recycled hardware is truly green computing, a part of modern and sustainable way of living.
Modern low end computers are often used for running Linux. Ultraportable laptops known as netbooks often come with a preinstalled Linux system. Users of this kind of computers can also benefit from reading this blog.
Only you can decide, whether to install Linux on an old computer or to recycle the hardware. Even if you have another, modern desktop computer, you could use the old one with Linux. You could use this as a learning experience: you will learn a lot about how the operating system works. This knowledge can be useful, and learning is always fun!
For information about installing WindowMaker themes, see the end of my previous post on WindowMaker: WindowMaker Themes
Lifehacker has published a nice tutorial on customizing conky, see Customize Conky for Ambient Linux Productivity. Another tutorial for Ubuntu users can be found in Quick Tweaks Gmail+Weather+Beauty right on your Ubuntu desktop. It should, however, be easy to use the tweaks on any other distribution.
My earlier post on conky: Conky is a lightweight system monitor for Linux.
If you are using Linux on an old computer with limited specifications, you should seriously consider using WindowMaker as the window manager. It is very different from most of the other lightweight alternatives. I especially like the way WM uses corners for icons and dock apps, this way I seem to be able to use the limited 1024x768 resolution of my monitor much more efficiently than with the traditional icons on the desktop where they are always hidden behind application windows.
Earlier post about WindowMaker:
I just found a great collection of tutorials for backing up a Linux system. The site Debianhelp is oriented towards Debian, but of course the information given here can be used with just about any Linux system with some tweaking. The tutorials should work fine with Ubuntu. I just hope I would have time for organizing my files, computers and backups into a coherent system...
Those of you who already are using LXDE might be interested in the LXDE blog. It's full of interesting reading for anyone using LXDE.
If you have problems with LXDE, the best place for getting support is the new LXDE Forum. It does not yet have many posts, but that will probably change soon as LXDE becomes more popular.
Now that I'm using my 1 GHz 'Oikos' desktop I've again installed WindowMaker. It's design is very different from most of the other window managers and desktops, as it does not have a panel or a start menu for starting applications. Right-clicking the root window does, however, open a context menu for running applications, opening XTerm, changing the visual appearance of WindowMaker and so on. More functionality can be added by installing and running WindowMaker applets.
1) Default look
WindowMaker's default desktop is probably not the prettiest of all desktops. There are, however, hundreds of different themes that can be used for modifying the simple desktop to become simple, strong and sharp. Freshmeat has an excellent collection of themes for WindowMaker.
2) Aay: A light grey theme
5) PureWM is another light theme.
These light themes are the most usable ones with my old recycled 17" monitor. Your hardware might like some other combinations of colors better, remember to experiment also with themes that are not provided by your distribution. Many more beautiful themes and icon sets can be found in Freshmeat!
Installing a theme is not difficult. They are distributed as .tar.gz packages. Gunzip and tar xvf them in the directory ~/GNUstep/Library/WindowMaker/Themes and you will find the just installed theme by right-clicking the root window (wallpaper), and selecting Appearance, Themes, Theme.
Last time we missed a few important bugs in the translations. I hope this time more people would install the last betas and actively try to inform the respective localization teams for mistakes found. See the Road map for more information about the timetable.
If you are willing to try some less known distribution with less functionality, you certainly will be able to install Linux in just about any old computer you have in your garage or basement. You just have to be ready to learn something new and not expect to get everything running without user intervention.
In Ubuntu discussion forum, the user darreljon has collected an extensive list of lightweight Linux distributions that can be used even with very old computers. Some of the distros are not very current, some of them are still active. Check out the list and you might find a distribution that satisfies your needs.
Unfortunately, at least the desktop with Fluxbox is slightly misconfigured after installation. It provides some eyecandy offered by the OS X like dock wbar that can be used for starting different applications. Some of the applications, however, are not even installed in system. In addition, I don't fully understand the point of using a lightweight desktop environment or a window manager with KDE applications as default applications for e.g. email.
Anyway, Vector Linux provides an easy way to get a fully usable system running on an old computer. I'll return to Vector Linux after I have gathered some more experience with this release.
So I turned of some more unnecessary services and installed OpenBox. As OpenBox does not provide a panel I installed also pypanel. It is pretty useful and customizable enough. As the desktop seemed fast enough for me, I installed Launchy that provides a fast way to start applications without need to use a mouse. Even after these additions, OpenBox is a joy to use.
These tools are capable of lot more than simply outputting the current calendar to the standard output. Just see info gcal and you certainly will learn a lot more about gcal you can remember! I wanted, however, simply get a postscript or pdf calendar to be able to print it and have it on my wall. It took me some time before I realized, that gcal was not, after all, the right tool for the job.
What I needed was pcal. Simple command pcal > calendar.ps did exactly what I wanted: it produced a file with postscript code needed for printing this month's calendar. pcal is of course capable of doing a lot more, man pcal for more information.
Gareth Anderson has written an useful summary of command line GNU/Linux applications. It is organized thematically, so that you can easily find the most useful tools for e.g. controlling processes and services, manipulating text files or working with the file system.
Michael Stutz's The Linux Cookbook: Tips and Techniques for Everyday Use is another good source of information with similar topics. It is a bit old (written in 2001), but the CLI tools don't change as fast as KDE and GNOME applications!
Both of the ebooks are highly recommended reading for all Linux newbies who are not afraid of command line!