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I have an old system currently running ubuntu jaunty. The main harware specs are:

  • Processor: AMD Athlon 1,2 GHz
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Graphics: [SiS] 65x/M650/740 (output from lspci)
  • HDD: 40 GB

Now jaunty is very old and it is difficult to install recent software via package manager. Especially some newer lightweight browsers such as surf or luakit are only installable via compiling from source. Moreover the current jaunty installation is not very fast.

Now I want to setup a new fast and stable system where it is easy to install relatively up to date software (i.e. there should be much up to date packages available via a package management system or at least up to date libraries to build things from source without too much pain).

I know that there are some distributions which are designed in particular for old hardware such as puppy linux, or damm small linux etc. However for me those distros seem to have not much support and not many packages in general. So my idea is to install a base system from a major distribution and equip it with lightweight software. (As window manager I want to use xmonad).

I want to do this with a ubuntu alternate installation (ubuntu 12.04 or 12.10 when it is released).

This leads me to some questions:

  • Is it correct that the fact that for example ubuntu 12.04 runs much slower on a 10 year old machine than for example ubuntu 6.04 is mainly due to the desktop environment used?
  • If I do an alternate install with xmonad as window manager and other lightweight software, are there other important factors which end in performance differences between new and old ubuntu versions?
  • What can I do to tweak the ubuntu alternate installation for performance except choosing lightweight hardware, especially a lightweight window manager?
  • Are there any good reasons (concerning performance) to choose another distro (debian, archlinux...) and do the base install with that distro instead of ubuntu alternate?
  • Which file-system should I choose for best performance? Is for such an old system ext2 better than ext3 or ext4 or should I even have a look at something like brtfs?
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5 Answers 5

I have an old notebook which has similar configuration:

-512 MB RAM
-40GB HDD
-Pentium M 1,5GHz
-Intel integrated graphics

I recently installed XUbuntu 12.04 on it.

XUbuntu itself is pretty light. After boot it uses around 250MB and overall performance is decent/good.

However when you start using Firefox (I believe other modern browsers will be similar) you will have a big performance penalty, mostly due to lack of RAM. Depending on amount of tabs and the pages you are browsing, you'll have swapping.

Using Debian/Ubuntu alt you'll have a lot more control over what is installed, you can choose an even lighter desktop/graphic environment. On the other hand, you'll probably have to configure more stuff than with regular Ubuntu. But if you plan to use a browser to view anything but simple HTML pages low on images, sooner or later you'll run out of physical memory. It is, in my experience, what eats up more memory and what degrades performance the most.

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What would you say about my other questions? What file-system did you choose? –  student Jul 13 '12 at 10:59
    
I used the default ext4. I doubt you will see big differences between filesystems unless you are doing some seriously heavy, I/O bound work (audio, video, DB, etc). But I never worried much about that... some more informed people may be able to help you. Perhaps searching for filesystems in UNIX StackExchange you'll find some info. –  Nuno C. Inácio Jul 13 '12 at 13:46

Xubuntu (as mentioned by @Nuno C. Inácio) is a good OS for low-spec machines.

If you want to take your light-weight a step further I would suggest downloading the server edition of Ubuntu and then installing your desktop manager and your file manager by hand. The server edition of Ubuntu is nothing more than a stripped down version of Ubuntu with only the core packages required for the OS, no games, no Unity/gnome/Desktop manager. Thus it will be all in terminal until you have ubuntu to how you want it, but that is the cleanest way to do it. You can apt-get install any desktop manager there, as they are all available in the Ubuntu repository.

Filesystem wise, I would very much like to suggest using btrfs, the reason for this is that it provides block-level checksums. So if your file-system starts failing (as older hard-drives are more likely), you will know ASAP if your files are becoming corrupt. Btrfs also gives you the options to RAID stripe your data across any other size disks (also might I add dynamically). So if you happen to have another drive laying around, you could install that and setup a mirror of your data for that stability your looking for. If btrfs finds corruption on one disk it will automatically grab the correct data from the other disk.

As I said I would like to suggest btrfs, but I believe that ext4 would be your best option. You definitely want the journaling that it provides (btrfs does too, I am just saying as opposed to ext2) and it is slightly faster than btrfs. Btrfs is not up-to-snuff as far as production level goes. It isnt really mature enough to be used in a 'stable' environment.

From a kernel point of view I don't see how a newer version would run slower on older machines. I can understand how the Desktop (Unity) and such would cause it to run slower, but if you strip all that away and install your light-weight items, I think you should be fine (if not better).

Lastly, perhaps you want to take a look at LXDE for a desktop environment: http://lxde.org/

Good luck!

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Ubuntu 12.04 probably runs slower due to the new GUI features (Unity etc...), seeing as you already have a not-very-good video card (SiS). Maybe installing xmonad on Ubuntu will be helpful: try it for yourself.

For more lightweight, your best bet is a system using Debian/Ubuntu Alternate, Slackware, Arch Linux or other distro that gives you more control on what you run on your system. Most of the lightweight software you want is available on Arch's repositories.

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@BruceEdiger An Athlon is i686. –  Renan Jul 5 '12 at 14:01
    
Why do I have more control in debian compared to ubuntu alternate? –  student Jul 5 '12 at 14:14
    
Hmm... I haven't used Ubuntu alternate in quite a while, so I will pass. I believe both will give about the same level of control. –  Renan Jul 5 '12 at 14:16

I would upgrade to 10.04 LTS for now, as we know this will work on your hardware, then you may consider upgrading to 12.04 LTS when it comes out, as the upgrade should be pretty easy.

The best part about upgrading to 10.04 is that you know it is still fully supported and updates are coming out all the time, including some of the latest software.

You may have to change the desktop environment when you do do the upgrade to 12.04 as the latest default DEs (Gnome or KDE) are memory hogs. A lightweight DE may be required then.

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For a lightweight desktop out-of-the-box, try CrunchBang Linux, which is based off of Debian and uses the super-lightweight OpenBox desktop. If you don't mind configuring things yourself, you could always install Ubuntu Server, Debian, ArchLinux, or any other distro that doesn't install a graphical desktop by default and then install and configure the desktop yourself.

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