Sometime during the last decade, I managed to get a reputation as the guy to whom you can donate your old, dusty computer when you don’t want it any more; and while I must confess that I don’t mind in the least (keep it coming folks – I do have a major weakness for free computer hardware, as well as a profound satisfaction in making “trash” useful again), it’s often a challenge to actually make use of a lot of it.
The idea, always in the back of my head, is to use a combination of spare parts, technical know-how, and a whole heap of open-source goodness to turn these doorstops into something useful for a family, child, non-profit, or other deserving individual who can’t afford a computer; simultaneously helping a person in need and keeping a functioning device out of the landfill. That’s the theory.
Making this reality is harder than it sounds; I’m admittedly better at working with tech than connecting with people, especially people who actually need a computer badly enough to use one of my Franken-modded antiques. So here I sit, with a small but growing collection of mostly pristine, fully-functioning computers that are just as capable of computing as they were when they sat next to the box of AOL CDROMS in CompUSA proudly displaying the pipes screensaver beneath signs assuring us they were “Y2K Ready”.
OLD. I mean OLD
I always get a little chuckle when I see someone on a Linux forum proudly talking about how he revitalized his ancient desktop – maybe a Pentium D with only 2 GB of RAM! – using Lubuntu or Xubuntu or somesuch. OK, so, good for them; I guess I’m showing my age, but it’s hard to think of a system less than 7 years old as “ancient”. To me, “ancient” means (at least) a beige box with a floppy drive and turbo button. Remember when the only thing “Giga” was the voltage required to power the flux capacitor?
But nostalgia aside, my real issue is that I’m awash in machines that were all designed for Windows 98; and if my experiences are indicative, the world is itself awash in these machines. They sit in basements, attics, spare bedrooms, and closets all over America, just waiting to be improperly disposed of. In case you weren’t alive or old enough to care 15 years ago when Windows 98 was all the rage, let me give you an idea of the average specs of a Windows 98 computer:
- Processor: Pentium II or AMD K6-2, 350 MHz to 800 MHz
- RAM: PC-100 or PC-133 SDRAM, 64 or 128 Mb on average. Maybe 256 if you’re lucky.
- Hard Drive: 6 Gb to 20 Gb IDE drive, though 4 GB not unheard of.
- Video Chip: 2, 4, or 8 Mb Video card made by someone like SiS, S3, Via, or Matrox who has long since found more profitable pursuits.
- Drives: 3.5″ floppy and a CDROM (non-writer).
Those may seem like laughable specs to some of you kids out there, but I can assure you that great things were done on such machines (and certainly, on much older machines as well) once upon a time. On such machines I made music, discovered the Internet, published newsletters, wrote term papers, learned to code, and wasted untold chunks of life playing Age of Empires.
In 2003 when I started working in tech support, our network (even that late) was about 50% Windows 98 machines. I learned to hate Windows 98 very quickly. I could write books on what I found to hate about Windows 98, but in a nutshell it seemed to me that it had been designed to self-destruct about once every six months if used for anything more than playing solitaire or running Word. I was overjoyed when we finally instituted a policy of “Windows XP or we confiscate your network cable”.
This is probably a large part of the reason I feel compelled, when one of my newly-acquired “treasures” presents the Windows 98 boot-splash, to immediately DBAN the hard drive and install… anything else.
The problem lately has been coming up with an “anything else” whose overall superiority and fitness I can assert with genuine honesty. For all its many, many, many failings in a modern context, Windows 98 (I must admit) does a pretty admirable job of making a Pentium II with 64 Mb of RAM into a usable desktop. There’s no lack of applications out there for it, if you know where to find them. So I swallow my FLOSS-loving pride and start to wonder… maybe I’m doing a disservice to the potential inheritor of this device by removing it? Hrmmm… let’s think logically.
Good things about Windows 98:
- People know how to use it. Well, old people, anyway.
- It runs pretty well on these machines.
- Lots of old-but-still-useful software out there for it.
- It says “Windows” and that seems to make people happy. Or at least not scared.
Bad things about Windows 98:
- Old, dead, unsupported OS. Kind of smells a little bad.
- Once the target of malware authors everywhere, may still be at significant risk.
- No security whatsoever. Like, NONE. Not even a little.
- Comes with old, horrid versions of IE and Outlook Express that users might be tempted to use.
- Can’t update it any more; Windows Update won’t talk to it any more, so you can’t even get it to the level of semi-bug-fixedness that it had in its heyday.
- Requires a license key, which probably got lost with the install media or ripped off the chassis ten years ago.
- It’s Microsoft. OK, sorry, fanboy moment, but Microsoft products (with the exception of Age of Empires sequels and spinoffs) just give me an icky feeling.
- It’s the easy way out…
So I’ve grabbed one of my latest acquisitions – a Compaq Presario 5142 featuring a K6-2 processor, 64 Mb of RAM, and Windows 98 first edition – and I’m off to find a suitable alternative…
Save me, Tux!
Naturally, we start with Linux, and since every third distro in existence claims to be a “lightweight distro for older computers”, it would seem this is just too easy. The problem is that the vast majority of these distros are basically Debian, Ubuntu, or Arch Linux with a
feature-poor lightweight window manager and Abiword. Not that these are all bad; they’ll make your new hardware fly like an iced cannonball, your last computer run almost-like-new, and your second-hand netbook tolerably usable. But on that double-digits-old beige box from the Clinton administration? Your average Ubuntu respin won’t even boot; even if they do, running modern Xorg on 64 Mb of RAM is miserable.
This is where we have to get into really light distros like Tinycore, Slitaz, and Puppy. I tried these three on the Compaq, and here are the results:
- TinyCore (Coreplus 4.7) boots, and boots fast. It gives me a desktop, and it’s pretty snappy – even running from the CD. Unfortunately it ships with no actual software. This might not be a problem if the system had a network card, so maybe some sort of tinycore-based solution might be the ticket; in the meantime, it’s just nice to know it works.
- Slitaz (v 4.0) has more features, but I couldn’t get X11 to start. Maybe I need the “loram” variety, but I was running out of blank CDs and the Compaq won’t boot from USB.
- Puppy (Wary 5.3) actually booted and gave me a desktop; and unlike the others, it ships with a decent selection of local applications that could actually constitute a useful system out-of-the-box. Now, I’ve never been a Puppy Linux fan for two reasons: (1) I always thought the overall look and feel of the OS and included tools was just ugly, and (2) the whole log-in-as-root thing. However, compared to Windows 98, it seems not so bad in either respect. Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I said it performed better than Windows 98 on the Compaq. Even installed to the hard drive (full install), it was choppy and sluggish; and when I made the mistake of clicking the browser icon (possibly moot because, like I said, no Internet), the system just ground the hard drive for about 5 minutes before I finally gave up and pulled the plug.
Try some Haiku-fu?
Haiku OS, if you haven’t heard of it, is a project designed to recreate BeOS, an OS from the late 90’s that was designed from the ground-up for great multimedia support. Haiku is completely open-source, not in the least bit Linux, and totally designed to be a desktop OS (as opposed to a server, super-computer, phone, embedded device, toaster OS). It’s also pretty fast and lightweight on older systems.
Haiku isn’t really done yet; it lacks a lot of things, though it does have a fairly functional WebKit-based browser, a media player of sorts, an email client, and some games (mostly ported from Linux), so it’s not entirely useless. It’s also compatible with all those BeOS programs you bought back in the day when… oh, you weren’t one of those five people? Pity.
Development is a little slow right now, with alphas being released about once every 12-18 months; I predict it will hit a stable release just as desktop computers are being obsoleted by sentient robots and cybernetic implants. The alphas have been reasonably stable, at least…
I’d like to say I’ve revived the old K6-2 system using Haiku, but so far I can’t even get the disc to boot. I end up with a lot of disc activity, but nothing to show except a set of color bars in the upper left corner of the screen. In fact, this is what I get on pretty much any system of that vintage with Haiku. To be fair, Haiku is still in Alpha, and probably (hopefully?) targets newer and better hardware; but in any case, it doesn’t seem to be an option here.
On the topic of open-source remakes of long-gone desktop operating systems, there is always the possibility of AROS working on these boxes. AROS is a remake of the Amiga operating system, and with a bit of m68k cpu emulation it can run all your classic Amiga software. Icaros is probably the leading distribution of this OS, and I’ve checked it out in the past.
Although the Amiga was a good generation or three before Windows 98 came along, and its pricing made it something of a niche product, access to the Amiga software catalog is still a compelling enough asset. The AROS community has also ported over a number of FOSS projects and produced a few original apps of its own. So AROS could be quite a contender if the performance is comparable.
On the Compaq, the Icaros boot CD started off in a promising way, and brought me to what looked like a desktop at least as quickly as Windows 98 did from hard disk. Unfortunately, what “looked like a desktop” was actually frozen up and not functional, so I couldn’t even get as far as installing it. Perhaps I’ll have to try on some different hardware…
Syllable OS is another FLOSS OS aimed squarely at desktop usage; it takes inspiration from Amiga and BeOS, but is not a recreation of either. It’s a totally new OS with its roots in AtheOS. Its minimum hardware specs are a lowly Pentium I with 32 MB of RAM (!), so it’s clearly a candidate for replacing Windows 98!
Syllable has a live CD, which is (annoyingly) both separate from and a version behind the actual installer CD. I chose the live CD for testing on my K6-2 system; this may have been a mistake, as – while I could boot very quickly to a Syllable desktop – attempting to run just about anything resulted in an unresponsive system.
Syllable may well bear further scrutiny; there’s some promising working being done on it, such as a recent port of Enlightenment Desktop Environment. What leaves me uninspired at the moment is an almost complete lack of actual software for the system. There’s a (WebKit) web browser, of course; and a text editor, some games ported from Linux, and a few random utilities. That’s about it as far as I can tell. Nothing that really screams “Wipe your Hard Drive now and install ME!!”
Contrary to popular belief, DOS is not dead! The FreeDOS project has kept it going, creating a 100% open-source DOS fully compatible with the MSDOS 6.x. The main distribution even ships with a load of software (much of it ported from *nix, like Emacs and Vim) as well as the OpenGEM desktop environment – a desktop famously shipped with the Atari ST, which is great [for understanding why Atari failed in the desktop computing market]. There are a few projects aiming to give FreeDOS a more attractive and modern GUI, such as LightDOS and DOSCore; but none of them appear to be distributing a stable product just yet.
Full DOS compatibility gives you the ability to run the virtual treasure trove of classic DOS games and… and… er… whatever else you can think of that might make resurrecting DOS worthwhile.
But just think – if we could give these machines a DOS kernel and a decently familiar desktop environment that didn’t look 8-bit, we’d almost have… oh nuts.. Windows 98. Except without the Windows compatibility part. But at least it’d be open source?
Odds and ends…
This is certainly not the end of the list of small desktop operating systems, so here’s a few more potential candidates that I haven’t gotten around to yet, or probably won’t get around to until there’s a major project update:
- Minix, BSD, Darwin, and other unix-likes: Some of these systems promise to be faster and smaller than Linux, but so far they all involve a far more complex install and offer a subset of the desktop-oriented stuff for Linux. When I’m in the mood to learn yet another packaging-system-that-we-assure-you-is-better-than-APT, and when I see anything that indicates these systems might perform better that Linux on teenage hardware, I’ll get around to testing some of them.
- Your favorite lightweight Linux: Yeah, there are more than three lightweight Linux distributions out there; I could spend a million years testing them all. If you can tell me that you genuinely revived a Windows 98 machine – not a Pentium 4 with 1 Gb of RAM, or even an Athlon with 512 Mb, but a real honest-to-Jakers Windows 98 machine – with distro XYZ, please let me know.
- Menuet and KolibriOS: these two OS, one is a fork of the other, are both written in assembly and fit on a floppy. They’re brilliantly fast, surprisingly nice for their size, and utterly devoid of any useful applications that would make them worth running for more than the time it takes to admire how much can be done in 1.44 megabytes if only developers didn’t need silly nonsense like high-level languages.
- Android for x86: Now this might be something, if it could work on such old hardware and run android apps. People could use that. I haven’t had a chance to test it, but it seems the downloadable ISOs are hardware-specific. Not sure I’m committed enough to compile the OS for K6-2.
- ReactOS: This would be an interesting choice, if it were more stable and developed. ReactOS is aiming to be a fully Windows-compatible OS, so this would take care of the software catalog issue. Not sure if it promises performance on old hardware at this point, though.
What have we learned today, kids?
The goal of my quest was to find an operating system compelling enough to install over Windows 98 on old hardware, bringing the potential owner of the system both into the twenty-first century and the world of open source software. While working alternatives exist, nothing has yet raised its hand and twisted in its seat like a third-grader who needs a bathroom break to say “hey, install this!”. Even so, there are some valuable insights to be gained from this experience:
- Desktops are easy. Applications are hard.: Building an OS that will boot to a desktop on old hardware is apparently quite doable for free software developers. Stocking said OS with genuinely useful applications is, on the other hand, a monumental work that typically takes many developers many years. Making these useful applications run on minimal hardware is even more monumental.
- Hardware support is the bane of all alternative OS: It’s not just Linux, folks; any time you run [Not Windows] on a machine designed for Windows, hardware support becomes a problem.
- Everyone has a WebKit browser: Basically, you’re not an OS if you don’t.
- We used to be a lot more patient: I said Windows 98 ran admirably on this old hardware, but that’s only in comparison to other (more modern) things I’ve tried. Truthfully, it amazes me how slow it is to boot and launch large programs. It brought back vague recollections of recording some tracks years back at a friend’s studio running Cubase on a Pentium II with Windows 98; every so often the system would lock and we’d have to reboot, which meant coffee break time (I don’t mean “refill your mug and get back to work” coffee break; more like, “start brewing a pot of coffee, have a nice chat while it brewed, pour everyone a cup, make tea for the guy who didn’t drink coffee, let the guy who didn’t drink coffee or tea run to the quickie-mart for a coke, drink beverages while having a nice chat, take bathroom breaks, and then go back and find the computer was almost done booting” coffee break).
- Computers actually are doing more for us: You know those people who say things like “Computers are a zillion times more powerful now but don’t run any faster or do any more than they used to”? Those people are wrong. It turns out that at some point between the time you were jammin’ Stone Temple Pilots in your Doc Martins and the time you were watching American Idol in your Snuggie, your computer started managing your collection of 20 megapixel photos and 320 kbps MP3 files, rendering media-rich web pages, and playing full-screen 1080p movies from Hulu. Somewhere along the way, you started expecting it to boot in under a minute and load programs in under two seconds. It turns out that “using a computer” has steadily been redefined as a task that requires some major computing horsepower, and those old systems – even running the OS they were designed for – can’t keep up.
Even with all these unfortunate realities, I still have to believe there is a way to make these systems useful to somebody. I still see some possibilities, at least for a machine with more than the average amount of RAM. The really truly exciting options still seem a little beyond the horizon, but perhaps someday, before their disks lock up and capacitors corrode, these machines may find a way to be useful again. Your ideas are welcome…