DIY

DIY: How to find Linux versions needed for older hardware

Jack Wallen answers a TechRepublic member's question about the requirements needed for running Linux distributions on older hardware.

Read my answer to TechRepublic reader Peter Brazitis's question about Linux hardware, and then please post your suggestions for the member in the discussion.

Q: I loaded Ubuntu 7.04 on an older computer, no problem. However, when I tried to upgrade to Ubuntu 10.04, neither my CD nor DVD drive could read the set-up disk -- and they couldn't read the replacement disk (which I asked for and received) either. Is there a web site I could access that would list the minimal hardware requirements needed to load and run Linux versions? A: I have yet to come across a site that lists the minimum hardware requirements for all Linux distributions. Each distro will list out the minimum requirements to meet the needs of their releases.

For older hardware and newer distributions, the answer to this question is simple, depending upon which route you want to take. If you are looking to stick with Ubuntu, I highly recommend using the Alternative Installer. This is the text-based installer that will get you where you want to go. With older hardware, you will have to avoid using Ubuntu Unity because the graphics most likely will not power the newer desktop. Because of that, I would go with something like Xubuntu or Lubuntu. For really old hardware, consider the likes of Puppy Linux or Damn Small Linux.

Although Linux has always been well known for resurrecting older hardware, some of the distributions are migrating away from that "feature." But even though the major distros (Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, etc.) will not typically install on your older hardware, there will always be distributions that will. And even with those distributions, you are still getting newer kernels and updated software packages -- just not all of the bloat and the resource-needy desktops.

Ask Jack: If you have a DIY question, email it to me, and I'll do my best to answer it. (Read guidelines about submitting DIY questions.)

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

15 comments
alzie
alzie

I resurrected my 12yr old P3 600MHz machine. Trident video w/ SB64awe. I experimented with some of the small disties and settled on Lubuntu (lxde w/ openbox) It works very well. I love messing with the old box. The only hickup i had with the install was that it wouldnt install from the live CD. The cure was beefing up the ram to 512M. No problem with the CD install with a little more room.

pgit
pgit

I've got a bunch of AGP cards that don't fit standard AGP slots. There's an extra separator in some of the slots on a number of P-III era motherboards, the "correct" AGP has only one separator in the slot. Cards with only one break in the connector (per the AGP standard) won't fit in the slots with two blocks in the slot. But cards with two breaks in the connector will run in normal AGP slots having only the one obstacle in the connector. These are the critters I was thinking of. They all hail from the P-III vintage. I have a slew of 'em, some better than the video I'm presently running in various machines. But I just don't come by too many AGP equipped motherboards any more, and when I do it seems they have the 2 break points in the slot. Most of my AGP cards don't have the matching break in the connector. I've always chalked this up to another example of my luck.

FrStephenS
FrStephenS

Running MacPup Linux on a 385 MHz Dell P-II with 384 MB RAM. (But it's true - my Toshiba Pentium laptop ran Win2000 just fine on 96 MB of RAM, but I haven't had luck with anything heavier than Damn Small Linux on it - have hopes for SliTaz, but haven't tried it yet.)

rpnadal08
rpnadal08

Been in the service business you come across all sort of request from customers. Had a very old laptop and the customer wanted Linux installed. After much trying, not even Puppy Linux Seamonkey would work, Windows 2000 pro went in and worked very well. The customer was happy ( even thou he wanted Linux). We are very die hard Linux fans here, but, there are times Linux wont fly

shryko
shryko

I'd suggest they try installing from a USB drive. It sounds like their CD/DVD drive might be older and not support the newer encoding, but USB is somewhat universal in its support (as the standard has been set for so long).

freddiebraza
freddiebraza

I tried loading debian and the track pad does not work.I had to use a usb mouse.

bobp
bobp

There are a number of lesser-known Linux distros that run well on old hardware. Beside Damn Small Linux which runs on ridiculously old hardware (runs OK on 32MB and runs great on 64MB), Puppy Linux and LegacyOS which need 192MB if I remember correctly, there is Swift Linux, Vector Linux, Mepis Antix, etc. www.distrowatch has a search function that lets you specify older hardware and get a list of distros. I just checked and found 30 distros for old computers, 18 of which are actively maintained. A few of the lesser known ones are a little quirky as far as which hardware they will run on. Even Mepis 8.0.x will run OK on 256MB. It is a little slower due to virtual memory use, but functional. It is fun to take something that people think is worthless and make it run well, then give it away.

Slayer_
Slayer_

No longer supports ISA devices. My old computer had no trouble running Ubuntu 8 but it refused to installed the SB16 drivers because it was ISA and it was convinced that there was no such thing. I didn't know much of any other distros at the time so I didn't try any others. I did notice though that, if you don't have a duel core, Ubuntu crawls... It can't seem to multi task. Mandriva did not have this issue when I installed it on an old 1.2 ghz machine, but it hated the 32mb SiS integrated graphics chip. It kept making the screen flicker. And it refused to activate the 3D effects even though that chip has more than enough power to do so.

Slayer_
Slayer_

They never seem to remove drivers. My 4mb ATI Rage1 card still runs in Windows 7 (no Aero obviously) and it by default finds the drivers. I installed Vista for shits and giggles on my old 200mhz machine once, (didn't bother to activate it) and it found all the hardware, including that ISA SB16 card. It even ran, though very slowly. It booted up decently, but once it started launching services, it fell to a crawl, the 256mb of RAM murdered it.

bgilbertson
bgilbertson

I second the distrowatch.com search-excellent. Also narrowing the search to Slackware based or Debian based distros may help. They have a reputation of being more tolerant of older hardware.

pgit
pgit

I know what you mean about SiS, it's not well supported in any Linux distro, you're usually stuck with generic VESA, and of course this means no compositing. One plus for Linux is handling old AGP hardware. I can't find windows drivers for some of those critters any more, but they work out of the box with a number of Linux distributions.

RipVan
RipVan

Ultimate Edition just released a low power version. It's Ubuntu based and I don't like Ubuntu much but I tried a couple of these (Gamers plus two others) and they are really fantastic with every piece of hardware I had and they ran some Windows games and video editing software quite well. I was pleasantly surprised and hope that this lite version is as surprising as what I have experienced so far. You might want to take a look at it. I'll be downloading that later to try on my old Dell 600.

Slayer_
Slayer_

You can still buy AGP video cards. So I don't call that old.

marcdw
marcdw

I can buy PCI video cards, too, but I'm sure they're considered old. Either way if at all possible one should try and go with an nvidia card. My IBM ThinkPad T21, PIII 800MHz, 512MB RAM (permanently docked these past few years) with PNY Quadro NVS 280 PCI, dual monitors, and Slackware 12.2/KDE 3.5 runs very well compared to WinXP on the same machine.