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Free software is great, so why not run it on a free PC? Here’s how to get a free PC and configure it with free software to perform many tasks as well as a newly-purchased computer.

Sniffing out a PC

I’ve always had a fondness for used computers. I work on the latest and greatest hardware and software in my professional life, but in my spare time I occasionally gather and configure PCs donated to charity. The fact is, you can do a lot with a mature Pentium. Most businesses and individuals will give them to you free for the asking. You’ll find they’re grateful about it, happy that someone will haul their “obsolete" hardware away. If they only knew...

This is the story of a discarded PC I found while walking my dog, Phoebe Jane. Phoebe likes to sniff garbage (what dog doesn’t on a fine winter’s day!), and so we typically take our walks through the alleys behind houses and condos.

A few weeks ago Phoebe seemed particularly interested in some food scattered behind a garbage bin. I glanced over to see what she was after. And what did I see? A tossed PC. (No, Phoebe, don’t go there!)

I just couldn’t resist. I came back after the walk to pick up the box and take it home. I suppose it’s an odd kind of curiosity—I just had to know what this was and why someone discarded it. I figured it offered some spare parts, if nothing else, always useful when configuring used PCs for charity.

Figure 1: Phoebe sniffing out valuable PCs!Figure 1: Phoebe sniffing out valuable PCs!

When I got it home, I looked over the outside of the machine and determined it was a Dell Pentium III 550MHz. Opening it up showed that all parts were present and appeared intact—except for a missing hard disk. This is common with discarded consumer PCs, and a good omen. Someone likely upgraded to a new machine and took their hard disk with them when they did. This means that all the remaining parts in this machine probably work.

The bad news, lack of a hard disk, is not as serious as it may appear. You can obtain a disk drive in your next pick-up PC. Cannibalize two junked PCs to create one really nice one.

With any used computer, you’ve got to be sure to test all the parts

You can even operate without a hard drive. The SLAX version of the GNU/Linux operating system is a great example of what you can do with a disk-less PC. It’s specifically designed to run from CD disk or USB device only, no hard disk needed. (More on SLAX later.)

In my case, luck smiled on me again the next week. Phoebe Jane just had to chase a squirrel (stupid squirrels, why do they exist!) and as I lunged after her I ran right past... another discarded PC. It turned out to be just what I needed. This one was dis-assembled and partially stripped, but it had the parts I needed—a hard disk and another PC-100 memory stick. Putting this together with my other find, I built one very capable machine, entirely from discards:

  • Pentium III @ 550mhz
  • 448MB memory and 8GB hard disk
  • DVD, writable CD, floppy, and a couple USB ports
  • Keyboard and mouse

Just like you’d buy at the store—monitor sold separately!

Building the parts into a single computer was easy. I use but a single tool, my trusty 2" Swiss Army Knife Classic SD. This US$10 miracle tool has a flat-head screwdriver with a tapered point that fits any screw you’ll encounter in any PC. If you can screw in a lightbulb—and you have patience to tangle with the awkward ways in which parts fit in some PCs—you can build your own PC.

With any used computer, you’ve got to be sure to test all the parts. Go into the boot-up configuration panel and run all the diagnostic tests available. You can access this panel by pressing the Delete key or a PF key when the machine starts. (Most computers show you what key to press during the boot process.)

Boot a LiveCD like Knoppix and run its diagnostics for memory, the disk, and everything else. A LiveCD is an operating system designed to run from CD or DVD disk when you boot the computer from that device. Knoppix is useful for testing machines because it includes many diagnostic tools (even for fixing Windows).

The Ultimate Boot CD takes this concept even further. The sole purpose of this GNU/Linux distribution is to identify and fix PC hardware and software problems. Between UBCD’s tools and its forums, you’ll be able to fix anything that can be fixed. There’s also an Ultimate Boot CD for Windows.

Some machines will boot off the CD drive anytime a CD disk is inserted when the machine starts. Others require you to access the boot configuration panel and set an option to boot off the CD. If the PC is so old it will not boot from the CD, a free product called Smart Boot Manager will give you the flexibility you need to boot from various devices. (Smart Boot Manager is included in the UBCD download.)

Running diagnostic tests is important. You never know what you have in a used PC until you test it. Finding a problem now could you save you hours of frustration later.

Should you keep Windows?

Since most people don’t wipe their hard disks when they discard their PCs(!), most used PCs come with Windows installed. You’ll face that classic, timeless question: should you keep Windows? If you do you’ll have an installed operating system with a full set of working drivers for the machine, plus whatever software is already on the hard disk. The software will be age-appropriate. This is critical because Microsoft’s strategy of planned obsolescence means that their newer software doesn’t run on mature machines.

On the downside, you need to run modern security software on any Windows PC you connect to the internet. Up-to-date virus and spyware scanners are an absolute must, as are a firewall and intrusion detector software. You’ll find that these consume processor cycles you just can’t afford to waste on many older machines. Even a Pentium I runs Office 97 or OpenOffice Version 1 just dandy, but add modern security software and you’ve got a snail on your hands.

You need to run modern security software on any Windows PC you connect to the internet

Run GNU/Linux and you circumvent the need for all that security software. Plus GNU/Linux gives you access to the world of free software this magazine covers. Most importantly, the free software community does not subscribe to the notion of planned obsolescence. If you need more resources to run a program than your mature PC has, it will be because the software actually needs current hardware, not because some corporation needs upgrade revenue.

The computer industry has undergone a sea change in the past few years. It’s not just that free software can do anything commercial software can. It’s that most of this free software does not require the latest hardware to run. We have truly entered the “era of free computing".

As we enter 2007, the typical discarded PC is a Pentium II. You’ll encounter more Pentium I’s than you can possibly use, and snag Pentium III’s up to about a gigahertz. The power and capabilities of these “throw-away" computers continue to increase as newer machines come out. As Microsoft Vista’s hardware requirements swamp most PCs purchased before 2006, you’ll be shocked at what the “obsolete" PCs of the future can do.

Mature PCs support a full range of tasks. They can’t handle those that require state-of-the-art resources, such as running current games or Vista. Pentium I’s and some II’s won’t manage broadband web connections as quickly as you’d like. But all of them support a million other functions, from running office suites, email access, educational uses, reading PDF files and e-books, editing presentations, through to keeping your calendar, and playing music. A properly configured Pentium III can perform most tasks a new computer can, as I’ll demonstrate below.

Hardware that is obsolete in Windows World is not obsolete in the real world!

One of the great achievements of the free software movement is that it has disrupted Microsoft’s ability to enforce planned obsolescence. Hardware that is obsolete in Windows World is not obsolete in the real world! Free software and an abundance of mature computers free us all from the expensive, lock-step upgrade cycle of the past.

What to run?

The operating system you choose to run on your new old PC is critical. Operating systems require resources, and you don’t want the OS to consume all the PC’s power. They also determine how easy (or hard) it is to find and install software.

Whether or not you decide to retain Windows, you’ll want to pick a GNU/Linux that is specifically designed to run on mature hardware with limited resources. These GNU/Linux “distros" can help you achieve things you never dreamed possible on the older PCs others discard. DistroWatch provides an extensive list of GNU/Linux distros, and tells where you can download them, and find reviews, and tools.

I recommend trying several LiveCDs to find the Linux that best meets you needs. These allow you to “try them for size" without installing anything on your hard disk. You can also ensure that the operating system recognizes all the computer’s hardware.

Of course, your intended use of your computer drives your decisions. For my Pentium III, I had in mind typical office tasks, such as word processing, spreadsheets, email, and some light web surfing. But the primary use of the machine is to support my professional development. I wanted to install some free software databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL. I also wanted to create a test bed to play around with a wide range of scripting languages (Rexx, Perl, Korn, pdksh, Python, Tcl/Tk, and others).

Several GNU/Linux distros specifically designed for limited-resource computers immediately leapt to mind as ideal for these purposes.

Puppy Linux targets mature computers and crams an astounding amount of useful software into its 28MB to 95MB download. Puppy is perfect for older PCs because it runs everything from memory. Different versions require from 128MB to 320MB to run in RAM. After a slow load, Puppy runs like a scalded greyhound. Show it to your friends on an old Pentium II with 256M, for example, and they’ll be amazed at its performance and range of bundled software.

Figure 2: Puppy Linux ScreenFigure 2: Puppy Linux Screen

Puppy boots from almost any device (CD, hard disk, Zip, USB, floppy, network port). You can run it off CD quite effectively and simply use your hard disk to store your system settings and swap file. These fit either in Windows or GNU/Linux disk partitions. This is convenient if you don’t want to touch the disk partitioning.

Another bonus—Puppy life-support features responsive forums where beginners can feel comfortable asking questions. I like this enthusiastic online community and have never felt stupid when asking one of my stupid questions.

No, I’m not high on Puppy just because I walk one. It really is that good!

SLAX is another top candidate for older PCs. It’s a highly configurable GNU/Linux distro based on the venerable Slackware distribution. SLAX runs all the way down to 486s with 32MB of memory, so there aren’t many machines it won’t run on. It includes the comprehensive hardware detection software developed over many years for Slackware.

SLAX is unique in that it was specifically developed for booting from the CD disk or from a USB memory stick or flash drive. (You can install SLAX to disk but this probably isn’t the norm.) I found it trivial to add the software I needed to my SLAX boot CD from the 1,500+ ready-to-load “modules" it offers.

SLAX performs well on older PCs because you can tailor it so easily. It’s especially useful when you have a decent machine but with a small hard disk. Consider it also when you have a large disk but limited free space.

SLAX performs well on older PCs because you can tailor it so easily

What if your goal is to configure that used computer for someone who doesn’t view computers as their hobby? (gasp!) Like parents or family? (oh, okay, I understand now.) Here I recommend one of the lesser-known Linux distributions. BeatrIX runs on just about any old Pentium you can dig up. It features a simple, uncluttered user interface, and includes all the software typical end users need. No tweaking or downloading and installing additional software. BeatrIX can also run from memory for top performance.

BeatrIX is named after its developer’s cat, but Phoebe and I recommend it regardless (well, I do, anyway). Consider BeatrIX if you’re setting up a mature PC for non-techies.

Figure 3: BeatrIX Linux ScreenFigure 3: BeatrIX Linux Screen

I’ve saved one of the best for last—Damn Small Linux is the most popular GNU/Linux for older PCs. DSL is a 50MB download that runs solely from memory with only 128MB. It’s aimed at those who are computer-savvy enough to make the trade-off in ease-of-use required to run really cool tools on limited-resource computers.

While the product is a bit geeky, DSL comes with great support. In addition to their web site, they offer an online forum, a wiki, and a community blog.

DSL is easily extended to include additional tools. You can even run it from within Windows. If you’re willing to invest a bit of time to learn some new things, DSL is a truly great operating system.

Figure 4: Here’s DSL... anything missing?Figure 4: Here’s DSL... anything missing?

Want more know-how?

There’s much more to this subject than one brief article can cover. If you’d like to explore further, I wrote a more detailed article at DesktopLinux describing how I revived a Pentium II-366 laptop. The article includes charts on small GNU/Linux distros and the system resources required for various Windows releases. It tells you where you can download free essential security software for Windows. It also leads you through the process of assessing and configuring old PCs in more detail.

Where do you find a free PC? Just ask friends, family, and co-workers. I guarantee you’ll have a Pentium II in your hands in no time. Max out its memory and install one of the GNU/Linux distros I’ve mentioned, and you’ve got a very useful machine.


Howard Fosdick is an independent DBA consultant who occasionally rebuilds old PCs for relaxation. He recently wrote the first book on free and open source Rexx scripting, The Rexx Programmer’s Reference, and he frequently writes technical papers. He’s especially interested in databases, operating systems, and scripting technologies.

Phoebe Jane is a full-time Wheaton terrier who enjoys sniffing, walking, and running in the snow. She believes squirrels have their place (for chasing!) but wonders why, why, would anyone ever own a cat?

Phoebe relaxing after a tough dayPhoebe relaxing after a tough day


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Thanks for the article. Gotta love Phoebe!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Free Software is good and all that, but a properly configured Win2K installation (preferrable configured with nLite) is still faster. And it doesn't require firewall or virus software if you close all the open ports and do not download suspicious files. I've installed Puppy Linux and Win2K on two machines and in both cases Windows interface felt snappier and more responsive. Also, Windows didn't consume as much memory as the Linux distributions.

However, if you plan to use it as a no monitor home server, than I'd recommend going with Damn Small Linux.

Robert Pogson's picture

If you want a P I to be snappy, give it a 100 mb/s NIC and boot it from a Linux terminal server (an AMD64 with lots of resources will do nicely ;-) Such a client can do everything except show full screen video at high resolution and a bunch of them can run at the same time from one server.

The idea that "it ('2000) doesn't require firewall or virus software if you close all the open ports and do not download suspicious files." is really quite strange. What is closing those ports if not a firewall? Semantics. How can you avoid downloading suspicious files when they could look like an image on a webpage and have pleasant names like fuzzy.jpg? Look what happened with the .ANI and others. Are you going to scan the files personally before passing them to IE? What a joke. Sure 2000 is better than some of the stuff out there but there is no way unmaintained software from MSFT will do anything faster than Linux except install malware.

The last time I worked with '2000 server, it needed rebooting so often the secretary knew how to do it. My Linux servers have always outperformed any Windows box I have had around to compare. They move more data per second on the same hardware, answer DHCP calls sooner, handle more simultaneous users and processes, cache files better, fragment discs less and I never have seen one crash from software I have installed and tested.

A fanboy once told me he had a '2000 server that never crashed. He said he had set it up well and never changed anything on it. It crashed several times in the period I worked there when I sent print jobs through it.

A problem is an opportunity.

Anonymous visitor's picture

My name is Darrell I am one of the co-founders of Vector Linux(1989). We from the beginning set out to support legacy or older hardware we have a solution to everything starting with a 486 to a Pentium III. I am surprised you missed us !! As that is and always has been our Trademark. We include a Live CD version as well.
Maybe let the folks know....

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

That should be would help people find your distribution if you included the correct URL.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

My grandmother, parents and children wouldn't know what you are talking about. But they can use Ubuntu without getting viruses or spyware. Furthermore, Ubuntu doesn't get slower little by little, day after day like their old Windows installations did. In fact, now that they now how to use the auto-update feature, it gets faster and better little by little, day after day.

Despite what many still claim, you don't have to be a geek to use GNU/Linux and you get safety and security as features "out of the box". And while you also don't need to be a geek to use Windows you do need to be one to get safety and security with it.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I know exactly what you mean. I've had PII, PIII, and P4's i've put back into service using Linux that have even suprized me. I've had very good luck turnning a pIII 600 into a media/education center for my kids.

I picked up a Celron 1.7 with 256 Meg Ram at the local thrift store, picked up a nother 256 used ram chip from my local comp store and for $35 bucks I have a totally rockin machine that runs rings around most win boxes with real P4 processors in them. It's made a great download box and secondary computer for family/guests.

This is one of the best things about free software...i can run modern software on mature machines and get the top performance out of them. I don't have to risk them to adware/spyware and I can use them in anyway I see fit without 'babying' them along or trying to close them to the outside world. Best of all, I don't have to worry about rather I have a legal licence to run the OS or not...I just choose the best OS/Programs for the job and off I go.

Free software opens the doors to many 'obsolete' systems. It's like adding a fresh coat of paint to an old peice of furniture. It's amazing how much better it looks afterwards.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Nice no One throws a computer here.. in the junk yard, they will even use a Pentium I, they can earn them about 100$ for nothing ;)

By the way, try -- Zenwalk, , a derivative of Slax.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

A very good article, especially when there is no hard drive; or when a person wants to keep the Windows OS already there, and not do any partitioning. There is a bit of fiddling around to get a session up and running from a cold start, but it's actually not too bad: The LiveCD goes into the CDRom drive, and if the CDRom drive is not bootable, a Smart Boot Manager floppy goes into the diskette drive. A USB pen-drive will save one's configuration settings and personal files. And does anybody really care that this fiddling-around looks unprofessional? I doubt it! Since Puppy, Slax and Damn Small are running in RAM, a person is done fiddling once the Linux has loaded. That's not the case, of course, with e.g. Knoppix, which has to reference the CD as work progresses. The only additional fiddling one might want to do with Puppy, Slax or Damn Small is have a swap file on the hard drive (if there is a hard drive). A swap partition would of course require partitioning.

But eventually, a person may want to do an actual installation of Linux onto the hard drive. It's not really clear from their respective web sites if Puppy, Slax or Damn Small truly lend themselves to a full (Unix-type) installation. See Mark Gjerde's article «Less Buzz More Fizz» at Newsforge (comments section). I've assembled Mr Gjerde's several articles into a single PDF at zumGlockenturm . Mr Gjerde likes Grml Linux.

Even if Puppy, Slax or Damn Small can be successfully installed, it's not clear if the package add-ons work the same way as they do from LiveCD. Slax packages for example do seem specifically designed for the LiveCD mode. For a true Unix-type install onto hard drive, I've concluded it's better to go with a distro that's designed to be installed rather than one where hard-drive installation is a feature. For an actual installation of Linux onto a PII or PIII, good candidates besides Grml include Fluxbuntu (see Distrowatch) and Absolute Linux (not on Distrowatch).



Jeffery Hudson's picture

Forgot I could log in and make comments with my own name. :)

Puppy, DSL, and other 'memory' distros are great for troubleshooting and other maintence things, but I really do think this article is talking about making a great working desktop with a full featured distro.

I've been able to turn Celron 600's into full service media centers with ubuntu and MEPISlite. They are fast, useful and do any basic task I place before them. For the older PII's you can use xubunut (or other xfce distros) and still have a speedy internet/email/wordprocessing machine. That's the point of this article. Taking 'legacy' hardware and showing people that with a bit of FOSS you can turn that 'outdated' throwaway box into a great computer with modern software on it.

Robert Pogson's picture

One reason I favour using old boxes as thin clients of newer machines is that they are slower. An installation on a newish machine is limited by the speed of the CD drive or the network interface, not the CPU. The old machines may have a 4X CD, a 10 mb/s NIC and ATA33 IDE interface. A 12 minute installation of a full CD distro can take 2.5 hours on an old machine. The mini distros really help but a thin client is still better.

Any place you need more than one machine, buy something cheap (in keeping with the theme of the article) and new to be a Linux terminal server. Install a second NIC if you want to be a firewall, too. Install Debian, K12LTSP, EdUbuntu, or something + LTSP and configure it to boot thin clients by PXE or etherboot. The old machines can slurp up a boot floppy (< 20 kb) loader and boot from the server from files cached in RAM on the server limited only by the 100 mb/s connection for speed. It takes less than a second to transfer the kernel image and initrd over and a few seconds to boot. I have seen P III with that other OS take a minute to boot from hard disk (spin up time, seeks plus more stuff to load), but as a thin client, boot in 20 s.

From then on the user of the old clunker is running on the new machine and the old thing is only dealing with clicks and pix. It really is startling to see. People who are used to running on the old machine should be warned to avoid whiplash and other neck injuries. I am writing this from a PIII 500 MHz and I cannot tell the difference between this and running on the server itself. I have three seats on this one server and it could handle 30 if I had the equipment to connect. see Linux Terminal Server in FSM.

A problem is an opportunity.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In response to various comments above, it should be noted that the distros mentioned in this article install easily enough to hard disk. All include menu selections specifically for this purpose.

For details see --





Also, check out Mr Pogson's excellent article on using older PCs as thin clients here

ggmiller4's picture
Submitted by ggmiller4 on

Linux works very well for our older pcs. They run fairly quick on them (suprised me) and are stable, too.

Plus you don't get the BSOD like the MS products.

Satchmo's picture
Submitted by Satchmo (not verified) on

My PII 350 has a new life with Debian Etch. It's fast, stable, clean. A properly configured Debian works like a charm on such an old hardware, even with KDE.

aarontw's picture
Submitted by aarontw (not verified) on

I have a dell Dell Insipron 7000, a Pentiun II notebook with 128MB of RAM, 20GB of hardisk, and a DVD drive. Which distro should I install for surf net & play music/movie? I have try DSL, but it will not detech my CD/DVD like my ubuntu on newer PC.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

With that little memory, you'll want to use leaner packages. Like Abiword instead of OpenOffice Writer. Try Debian, it's easy enough to install just the base system and then set up a lightweight window manager and a few basic apps:

apt-get install xorg xfce4 xdm dillo xchat sylpheed xmms nethack-x11

You might prefer fluxbox instead of xfce4 (or install them both and add icewm too). Setting up DVD playback is easy too. Add a line for the Debian multimedia repository to /etc/apt/sources.list and install libdvdcss2 and xine-ui.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The big caveat (that few seem to mention) about running Linux on old hardware is the web browser conudrum. In Linux, there are only two to choose from; Opera 9 or Firefox, and both require a P3 or better and lots of RAM. Meanwhile, IE6 in Windows (especially with Maxthon installed) does everything Opera and Firefox can do, but only uses half the resources. So, for a Pentium I or II machines, you'd be much better off installing
TinyXP. It only uses 48mb of RAM and installs very quickly. Just be sure you have a video driver, because it doesn't include any.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

If you feel that installing a stripped bare* _pirated_ copy of windows is going to do anything good for you, then you deserve the malware beating that's bound to occur.

Linux also comes with video drivers(!) and all kinds of web browsers. Take your disinformation and get out of here.

* bare as in it doesn't even include the ipconfig command

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Tiny XP is not a legal product.

Your posting indicates that you prefer Microsoft products to Linux, so you should respect that company's legal stance on licensing.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Firefox does not require a Pentium III. I have run FF 1.0.6 under DSL on a 120 MHz Pentium I with 48 MB of ram (and a swap partition)! A little sluggish, but usable. I have also used FF 2.0 on a public computer running winXP on 400 MHZ Pentium II. It runs fine.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Just to reply to the false dichotomy of Opera or Firefox, the Gnome project's Epiphany browser uses a heap less RAM than Firefox. Epiphany will run fine on a low memory system where Firefox would begin to become sluggish after 30 minutes or so (especially with multiple tags).

Epiphany has multi-tabs too, as well as tagged bookmarks and retains the Mozilla Gecko rendering engine. It has a bunch of its own plugins including Seahorse (to let you do browser-integrated GPG de/encryption right there in your webmail) and can also use many Firefox-specific plugins. Check it out!

deadcabbit's picture

I have a dirt cheap old Siemens Scenic Pro M6 (P2 Deschutes, 266mhz) installed Debian and log into with ssh. Download manager, torrent leecher, file server, teamspeak communications server, ftp server, LAMP test zone - you name it :) Try beat this with Windows!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

One comment above states that "In Linux, there are only two (browsers) to choose from; Opera 9 or Firefox, and both require a P3 or better and lots of RAM."

Not so. DSL bundles Dillo as its main browser. Dillo requires 420K of RAM.

Mozilla and SeaMonkey are two more widely-popular Linux browsers.

This web site lists over 50 free browsers for Linux. They span the gamut from the fast and light to the powerful and feature-packed.

Browsers are not a resource-consumption issue that should drive your operating system choice.

cato59's picture
Submitted by cato59 on

That is the best idea that I have heard for a long time to
introduce disadvantaged people to Linux

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

While some of the links are dead (, the idea isn't: 1) install from the alternate or server CD for a minimal system, 2) use apt-get to install packages that you'd like (such as an X server, etc. and it will handle dependencies), 3) have a really memory efficient, fast computing experience on minimal hardware, easy updates/access to large repository & learn more about linux!

On a PII laptop with 128 Mb ram, I have iceWM running with only 28 Mb used. Wireless networking works via a PC Card. Running AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Claws, it is only using ~75 Mb, with no swap. And its speed is very acceptable.


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hey! You just described exactly how I rebuild old laptops for people :-D

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

From an ethical, efficiency and a security standpoint, one should wipe the contents of the hard drive before using the computer. If you run the exsting nominally windows install, you essentially have introduced a computer for who knows what the history is, what malware is installed, what documents that could be on the computer etc. Also there will most likely be unintented crud running on the machine as well as a fragmented drive. Finally I think you may find, and i admit to not reading the EULA very well, nor do i have a copy to hand (funny that) the windows licence might not be transferable in this manner.

Always wipe the hdd, then put whatever you want back on windows/linux/other.

Anonymous visitor's picture


I just discoverd your wonderful mag because of a post at the forums..

I've donated well onto a hundred and twenty computers with the Xandros 3.02 OCE on them...

Not one has been returned, and, I've had several folks actively contact me to compliment me on the computer and introducing them to the wonderful world of Linux...

I've had the OCE go onto as low as PII 330 mhz but not below 128 mb of ALWAYS found the onboard stuff, and until the supply started drying up, I usually installed an older rage has always found those wonderful old HP printers... 500 to 900 series...but sadly they are going away also... always found the net...with ethernet or dialup... never did the wireless thing with them though...

I standardized on 3.2 gig HDs with another as data drive..even smaller usually :)

I even had one fellow who was developing Alzheimers and he played "cribbage" online...but always got the malware associated with such sites....his wife got one of the computers and he has used it with no problem...sadly he is approaching the end stages but still tries to play....

She said she'll keep the computer, clean and spotless at his "table"... to remind her of better days.....

Sometimes we never REALLY know what will happen when we "cast our bread on the waters"....

I'll donate to the mag today...great mag!

woodsmoke at forums Xandros

Andrew S's picture

I have played around with a lot of older PCs, getting them back together for my own learning purposes and sometimes to perform meaningful work. My rule of thumb now is unless the old PC is a P3 or better, and a server/router isnt needed, it can stay in the bin.

I have a few older machines, but I just don't run them due to their lack of power saving features. Virtualisation with VMWare etc means one can run a virtual server without needing to pay the power costs of running a second PC (including environmental cost).

kevanf1's picture
Submitted by kevanf1 on

Fantastic and thought provoking article, well done. May I suggest another, alternative method of getting hold of what some people think is obsolete computers and parts. Try joining your local Freecycle group and rejoice at the amount of bits you will see offered :-)

The main website address is:

I have personally been given about 10 or so PC's ranging from PII's to PIII's, a very nice server (not got around to actually determining what is under the hood, about 6 printers (lasers and inkjets), optical drives that only needed a firmware update, a load of LS120 disks (useful for small Linux distro's and loads of other bits and pieces. Everytime I go to pick up bits from fellow Freecycle members I take along something like a live Ubuntu/Kubuntu disk and give it in the hope that they will then try Linux.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I realize this is a linux-fan article, and I am writing this from a linux box, but I have found that OpenBSD w/Gnome running on a 600Mhz PIII is a nice setup. Not for newbs, but it definitely makes a highly secure and stable setup for an older PC.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I have found that OpenBSD provides a secure, stable, and fairly responsive solution for these older computers. Not recommended for newbs though.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Am I being filtered on comments? Are they maxed out? Why can't I voice my comments? I'm doing this using Linux and OSS.

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Howard Fosdick's picture


Howard Fosdick is an independent DBA consultant who recently wrote the first book on free and open source Rexx scripting, The Rexx Programmer’s Reference. He frequently writes technical papers and presents at conferences. His primary interests are databases, operating systems, and scripting technologies.