I have been given my father's old computer, which currently runs Windows 95 and has a 133-MHz processor, a Pentium(r) according to "My Computer". It seems a shame to recycle it when it works so well (considering what it is), so I'd like to load some variant of Unix on it and learn some stuff. I happen to have a copy of "Unix for Dummies" 4th edition (copyright 1998), but it assumes someone has already set up Unix on the computer in question, so I need another source for this step.

There are several existing questions on here about the Unix-on-old-computer thing (typically Linux), except for one major issue: I specifically want a Unix system without a GUI and I cannot for the life of me find simple instructions for getting that. There's people looking for GUIs for their Linux servers and people looking to temporarily remove the GUI, but nothing whatsoever about how to get an old-school, pre-GUI Unix. It's not going to be used as a server, but to pretend I'm in a long-gone decade doing programming, file-editing, etc. on my desktop with just text.

So, what Unix should I use, and how do I get it?

The very fact that I have to ask may mean I'm in over my head, but I have to start somewhere.

P.S. The computer has an ethernet card but I'm fairly certain it has no means of using wifi, so it may remain disconnected from the Internet unless it becomes necessary to connect it.

Edit: It has a CD-ROM drive, as well as a floppy drive, tape drive, and apparently one USB port. 96 MB of RAM. Total capacity of C drive is 1 GB.


10 Answers 10


You can afford to run a GUI without problems, but I would advise against the more recent "desktop environments". For a 133Mhz machine, I also advise against a standard installation of any recent "consumer friendly" distribution, as they tend to have a lot of background services running.

Installing Debian, ArchLinux, Gentoo, BSD should be no problem. Get a "minimal" installation running first, add programs as needed and check out sleek alternatives, in particular for graphical applications. Then XFCE may be a nice GUI for beginners. You can get a more old-style Unix GUI feeling by installing window managers like openstep, afterstep or fvwm2. These don't integrate the "usual desktop tools" like a control panel, they are only frameworks for working with graphical applications, like a browser or pdf reader.

When installing graphical applications, you have to consider that the apps of the KDE or Gnome projects tend to be a bit heavy-weight. For example, the Okular pdf reader is very nice and has IMO the most decent feature set, but it will require you to install several KDE services and libraries, and will start several of these services in background. For your system you should try some smaller alternatives like epdfview or the more old-style xpdf.

The same goes for browsers, mail, chat, etc. There are some very good console-based apps that are even lower on resources, like mutt, slrn, vim/emacs, mpd, links2 etc. But even on your system I would use them from within X, for more convenient multi-tasking.

If you aim for the old-style Linux installation feeling, the BSD installers were surprisingly braindead and primitive the last time I tried (some years ago). Debian is also text-based (but more intelligent), and when selecting a "Minimal" installation it will also just install the most basic things to boot you into a Linux shell, with the option to select and install whatever other programs you need. I still take this approach when installing new servers or desktops, since the standard installations typically install all kinds of junk and are a lot of work for me to clean up again.

PS: In another life I spend a lot of time configuring those extremely flexible old-style Linux/Unix programs, esp. window managers: http://xwinman.org/

  • This is a nice and thorough answer; I'd only add that build from source distributions might not be best suited for these specs. And that mupdf is a wonderful lightweight PDF viewer.
    – sr_
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 11:11
  • Very thorough answer, though like I said in the question, I'm specifically looking for something without a GUI, graphical applications, whatever.
    – Rae
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 17:12
  • I'd add that build from source distributions will be a pain to install unless you build the packages on a faster machine and then transfer only the built results. On Gentoo, for example, you can use emerge -b and emerge -K. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 19:44

No GUI, old machine? NetBSD would be my choice (though the installation is a pain if you're not used to setting everything up yourself). On second thought, FreeBSD 9.0 is much easier to set up and support will be easier to find. It doesn't use too much memory and your arch is probably supported.

  • Accepting. So far FreeBSD 9.0 (i386) seems to be precisely what I requested. I can figure out whatever tweaks I need to make through Google and this stackExchange node.
    – Rae
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 5:23

Try Arch Linux. I normally hesitate to recommend it to beginners, but it certainly fits your requirements and can be made quite small with only the basic packages.


I think a good alternative for that kind of computer is picking a distro that lets you "build" your system. That way you can cherry pick whatever components you need. In that case, I would recommend you Arch Linux or Gentoo.

Imho first one is better because it has pre-compiled packages and binaries (though, you can still use ABS and compile the packages yourself!). The community is awesome and their wiki is probably one of the best that is around the web. You can install it through a usb, cdrom or through the net. It's very lightweight and the base install is reaaaally thin :).

  • I've build Gentoo from scratch, while I agree that it's possible to create a small system that way, it's not for the faint of heart :) Haven't worked with Arch Linux before, have to check it out, sounds interesting.
    – Levon
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 8:20
  • You can build Arch from the scratch too, I read it somewhere. Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 14:50
  • 133-MHz processor! Building anything is going to take ages! And with 96 MB of RAM, there are programs that you won't even be able to link! Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 11:41

Do you have a CD ROM drive? And also, what about disk space?

You might want to give the Ubuntu Live CD a try and see how that runs on your hardware, perhaps it will be better than you expect. Linux is not really such a resource hog compared to some other OSes. (Actually, this makes me wonder if you might run into problems with having old hardware .. not in terms of performance, but perhaps compatibility/support for drivers - no telling I guess, you'll just have to try).

One approach you could take is to just install a current distribution and put up with the GUI at the install and setup stage and then just disable the GUI from coming up at startup. For that you could look at the instructions that you mentioned about temporarily disabling the GUI - I'm sure it also contained instructions on re-enabling, which you would just not do :)

That would be my approach if I wanted to do this.

Perhaps you'll find something useful in this earlier discussion: Linux/UNIX for older (Pentium 4) laptop - and some useful links.

Oh, I thought of one more thing. Take a look at distributions aimed at laptops. They tend to be a bit more compact and less demanding in terms of resources (or at least used to be before the latest crop of laptops that seem just as powerful as desktops).

  • Yes to CD-ROM drive, 1 GB disk space (and I've edited the question to contain that information). And, I'll try those things.
    – Rae
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 3:00
  • Ubuntu server edition has a 128 MB minimum RAM requirement. OP has 96 MB of RAM. Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 11:40

As a person who has old very underpowered machines, I have a few suggestions. I think the first concern is whether or not you want to stay in the Linux realm, in which case I would probably recommend Slackware. Though It DOES have a graphical environment, it is not booted into it automatically. You can stay at the command line without a problem, and yet more or less have knowledge that will be relatively easy to translate to other Linux machines as the desire arises. The alternative that I prefer is Freebsd, a completely reliable and powerful alternative. The problem with it is that some of the nomenclature is somewhat specific to the UNIX as opposed the the Linux spheres. (Disc slices, device names, and partitioning are somewhat off putting. Software will be installed in secure but UNIX specific locations.)

I don't think you'll be disappointed with either alternative.

  • FreeBSD indeed.
    – Rae
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 5:25

Debian stable. You can download an installation image from here: http://www.debian.org/releases/squeeze/debian-installer/

A minimal system without GUI is "netinst CD image" (i386).

I suppose you know how to burn an iso image to a CD.

Instructions: http://www.debian.org/releases/stable/i386/index.html.en


My very, very first experiments with Linux were installing an old, old version of RedHat on a 133mhz Packard Bell PC with 56MB of RAM. I've had the Debian netinst CD up and running on an old 233Mhz Biostar motherboard with 128mb of RAM. If you don't select anything with regard to X during the install, when the install completes you will get a text console tty login prompt. Used it as a small server, never installed X or a desktop environment on it.

1GB HDD space is kind of tight for a Debian install, especially when you'll probably be playing around with installing packages. Try to find an old 4GB hard drive somewhere and add that in the mix.

96MB of RAM is ok. Many consumer routers that run Linux do it on 16MB or 32MB of RAM. I think 4MB is still the absolute minimium Linux needs (don't know how useable it is under that constraint though)

Prepare to dust off some ancient PC knowledge if your system has ISA cards you want to get working.


I'd recommend Tiny Core Linux. There are a number of advantages over distributions like Debian Stable, Gentoo, Slackware, Arch:

  • Loads into RAM/swap: With a setup as unstable as an old machine, why not run it from RAM if it's possible? The 1GB drive is going to be very slow for modern programs which assume normal disk throughput.
  • Packages loadable on-demand: Even though it primarily runs in RAM, packages can be loaded on-demand, which means you can use a USB disk to store a set of packages for one purpose, i.e. "web server". This partition would contain the apache2, python and dependencies. The idea is that you can have another disk that contained another set of packages. Depending on what you want to do, you could mount the respective disk. Try doing this on Debian or Slackware! All packages will be installed in /usr or whatever. The package system only exists before installation there. Tiny Core Architecture.
  • Pre-built: Building any modern program on a 133 Mhz processor is going to take ages. You won't even be able to link large programs without swapping.
  • Lower requirements:

    Microcore runs with 28 MB of ram and a i486DX. Tiny Core has a GUI that runs with your system (unlike Debian) even though you don't have to use it!


Maybe you could try installing the server version of Ubuntu, Fedora, or any of the popular distributions out there. The reason I am suggesting this is you could is that most probably you could get every modern CLI to work on your machine. Download Ubuntu from here.

If this fails you could try out lightweight-linux-for old computers. Also if you are not entirely focused on UNIX, you could try out darwin (macOS's open-source parent), FreeDOS...

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .