There is no hardware for which a working Linux is not available. Finding the right role for old hardware and the right board and system for a planned role is still complicated.

For a practical presentation, almost each of the following aspects would have deserved its own workshop. This entry-level contribution to productive recycling, upcycling and optimization of old devices and mini-computers is therefore only intended to address the basic and most essential aspects in order to show what is actually still possible with old hardware.

Limitations with very old hardware

From a CPU Pentium III or AMD Athlon and a RAM from 256 MB you will always find a Linux distribution that is appropriate for the hardware.

However, the endeavor to breathe new life into old notebooks and PCs has numerous pitfalls. You should take into account the following obstacles beforehand:

Is the performance (CPU, I / O interfaces) actually sufficient for the intended purpose? This can often only be verified by trial and error. In general, it is not advisable to plan computers that are significantly more than ten years old as a surf station. Even modest Linux browsers like Midori overwhelm old single-core CPUs below one GHz and the graphics adapter.

Can the power consumption of the old device be tolerated for continuous operation? A PC veteran will hardly use less than 60 to 70 watts, notebook oldies are 40 to 45 watts. A lot has happened here in the past decade. With new boards, mini-PCs and netbooks, you get five to a maximum of 20 watts.

What operating noises does the old device make? The question doesn’t matter if the recycling is in a server role in the basement, but in the living room, whirring fans and singing hard drives are definitely out of place.

Old notebooks can easily handle Puppy, Antix, Lubuntu or Xubuntu.
Old notebooks can easily handle Puppy, Antix, Lubuntu or Xubuntu.

What about the bootability of the device? Old computers are often not bootable via USB. If there is no working optical drive then it will definitely be tight. Puppy Linux offers a makeshift solution for the installation, despite the inability of the BIOS to boot from USB (“BootFlash USB Installer”). The Plop boot manager provides USB start-up assistance, provided a DVD drive is available and the computer can initially boot from it.

Which peripherals should be used – and are there drivers for them? Problems with the graphics adapter can usually be corrected using start options such as “Safe Video Mode” or similar. It becomes more difficult and sometimes hopeless when exotic sound cards and WLAN adapters are to be used and replacing the hardware is out of the question, because the motive of recycling is to preserve these components.

What about CPU expansions like MMX, SSE, SSE2? The PAE CPU extension, well known to Linux users (more on this below), is by no means the only hurdle when recycling old computers. Unpleasant surprises can be expected even with oldie-specialized Linux systems: For example, the standard browser (Palemoon) from Puppy Tahr refuses to start without comment if the CPU lacks the SSE2 extension. In the example mentioned, a Midori browser will help, but will not provide an acceptable surfing experience under such and similar circumstances. MMX, SSE, SSE2 and many other CPU properties can be diagnosed well in advance with the HDT analysis program.

The tool shows all hardware components of a computer.
The tool shows all hardware components of a computer.

Conclusion: Even on hardware before and around the turn of the millennium you can certainly still get Linux running (candidates follow below), but it will be difficult to find a meaningful role for it. Internet surfing is almost impossible, and the threshold for a data server is around 512 MB RAM and a CPU speed of one GHz. The NAS system Open Media Vault presented below already demands more (from one GB RAM). Using a veteran as a desktop system only makes sense in a narrowly specialized role – for example as an MP3 player.

Systems for non-PAE CPUs

The following briefly introduced Linux distributions Antix, Puppy Linux and Bodhi Linux are minimalists and are generally suitable for older hardware. If you have a CPU with PAE, simply use the normal variant. PAE is a processor extension and stands for Physical Address Extension: This enables older 32-bit CPUs to address more than four GB of RAM. PAE was introduced in the mid-1990s for the Pentium Pro and AMD Athlon, but until 2005 Intel built mobile processors without PAE (Pentium M, Celeron M). Current Linux systems come with a kernel that requires CPUs with PAE and otherwise does not even boot. The question “PAE or Non-PAE?” Must therefore always be clarified in advance for older devices (regardless of the memory actually installed). The already mentioned HDT also shows the PAE flag.

grep –color pae / proc / cpuinfo

If the output remains empty, the processor has no PAE. For devices without PAE there are the following specialists who bring a non-PAE kernel with them.

Puppy Linux : The Puppy systems offer several variants for old computers if you can be guided from the project page to the downloads and there select an image with the keyword “no-pae”. Since the Puppy family is a bit confusing, we refer to the relevant download page for Puppy Tahr 6.0.2 at distro.biblio.org as an example . All puppy variants (Tahr, Quirky, Slacko) are extremely undemanding. The system only takes 50 to 60 MB with a low RAM capacity; a 400 MHz clock is theoretically sufficient as a CPU.

Puppy Tahr on Notebook Veteran: The minimalist system runs on every oldie.
Puppy Tahr on Notebook Veteran: The minimalist system runs on every oldie.

Puppy starts with a cute and playful desktop, which, however, essentially consists of a simple start menu and numerous desktop starters. The “installation” on the hard drive (Puppy remains a live system there too) and setup are more laborious than you are used to with Ubuntu & Co. However, the English-language information is exemplary everywhere – during installation as in everyday operation. Retrofitting software with the Puppy Package Manager is also easy. Regardless of the brittle operation, Puppy Linux has over ten years of development behind it and is not only the most mature, but also – felt – the fastest minimalist.

Antix : Antix has specialized as a system for old computer recycling and consequently also offers a non-PAE variant . In theory, a Pentium II CPU and 128 MB memory are sufficient for the system. Antix is ​​not a live system like Puppy, but a complete Debian-based system with all customization options after the installation from the live system onto the hard drive. Antix does not look “antique” and can always keep up with Windows versions that run on such hardware. The software is equipped for all everyday tasks, but the package management takes some getting used to: The subsequent installation of software with the “MX package installer” requires some training time.

Antix is ​​a full-fledged desktop system with extensive software.
Antix is ​​a full-fledged desktop system with extensive software.

Bodhi Linux : On Bodhi’s Sourceforge download pageyou will find an ISO image named “bodhi-3.1.0-legacy.iso”. This is relevant for legacy computers without PAE, although clarifying information on this fact is missing at this point. Bodhi supposedly already runs with 128 MB and a 300 MHz CPU. On our test netbook with one GB of RAM, Bodhi only managed 100 MB. Under these relatively lush conditions, the system itself could never measure more than 150 MB, even in continuous operation. With 512 MB or one GB of RAM, Bodhi still has real reserves for applications. The Bodhi desktop “E” (now as a split-off “Moksha desktop”) is an aesthetically pleasing and meticulously adaptable surface that even has playful effects. A global start menu is available at any time with a click on the desktop.

But Bodhi also has disadvantages: A mixed-language system has to be accepted and the pre-installed software must definitely be supplemented. In addition, there are inconsistencies in the countless setting options. The unusual system is only recommended for users who are keen to experiment.

Older devices as a second desktop and server

All old devices from a dual-core and Atom CPU and a GB RAM are ideally suited as a second desktop or as a data and media server. ARM-based smartphones also fall into this category and are particularly flexible due to the built-in components.

Desktop role: When using notebooks and netbooks with the performance characteristics mentioned, the minimalists Puppy & Co. are a light burden. Anyone planning a second desktop as a surf station or as an entry-level device for a PC beginner can install an Antix 15, for example. Such hardware can also handle a somewhat fancier Lubuntu or Xubuntu without any problems . An ideal and economical operating system, which was created for the small displays of netbooks, is also an Android for x86 platform .

Server role: In contrast to old, noisy and power-hungry PCs and notebooks, younger computers and especially netbooks are ideal candidates for a server role in continuous operation. If you want it to be stylish, you can install the x86 version of the Open Media Vault NAS system .

Functionally, a slim server system that you set up on the command line and maintain remotely via SSH is usually completely sufficient and at the same time significantly more economical in terms of resource consumption. The first and uncomplicated choice for this use is a Debian system, which is available for download in various versions. If you can do without a Debian Live system to try it out first, download an installer image from www.debian.org/distrib/netinst for the appropriate architecture (i386 or AMD 64). You write this with dd on a USB stick, and after booting on the target device you make all further decisions in the Debian installer. A good alternative to Debian is the Ubuntu server .

Replace old interfaces such as parallel ports or IDE with inexpensive USB adapters.
Replace old interfaces such as parallel ports or IDE with inexpensive USB adapters.
Photo: Amazon

Brief instructions for Samba servers: You only need three things to configure the server via SSH: the IP address of the server, the root password (or in Ubuntu that of the primary user set up during the installation) and an SSH client. On Windows use Putty for this , on Linux this terminal command:

ssh root@[IP-Adresse]

After entering the password you are already on the mini server. Most of the following commands require administrator rights, which you automatically have as “root”. With a user account you have to prefix “sudo”. Then set up at least one normal user:

adduser sepp

So that you can later carry out administrative tasks with this account, add the new account to the sudo group:

usermod -a -G sudo sepp

Then it comes to integrating and releasing the media: Connect the required USB drive (s). The command

blkid -o list

lists all partitions of these drives, which you then mount in the file system using the displayed “device” name – for example:

mkdir /home/sepp/usb1 mount /dev/sda1 /home/sepp/usb1

The content of the partition “/ dev / sda1” is now available in the path “/ home / sepp / usb1”. Now all that remains is to make the drives available in the network. For this you need the Samba component, which comes with

apt-get install samba

is installed quickly or indicates that it already exists. Now give the previously set up user

smbpasswd -a sepp

a Samba password and enter with

net usershare add usb1 /home/sepp/usb1/ "" sepp:f

the data free.

Optimal use of circuit boards

If there is no usable old hardware, but there is a need for expansion in the household, the small board computers are Raspberry& Co. first choice. The now countless Raspberry imitators make the choice a torture. Processor and RAM are not the problem: All boards equipped with dual and quad-core ARM CPUs and one or two GB of RAM achieve about the performance of Intel-based netbooks. However, it is difficult to find the ideal combination of the other input / output components. It is not very helpful when using a server if the drives are read with a fast USB 3.0, but the Ethernet port only allows 100 Mbit / s (Odroid XU3). Conversely, you will find circuit boards and mini-PCs with gigabit power adapters, but these are slowed down by a USB 2.0 (wallboard Dual / Quad or Utilite Pro). In the competition with old hardware, which mostly gets by with USB 2.0 and Fast Ethernet, such boards can certainly keep up.

Odroid U3 with quad-core CPU and two GB of RAM: This board is more expensive, but powerful.
Odroid U3 with quad-core CPU and two GB of RAM: This board is more expensive, but powerful.

With coherent components, the Raspberry Pi 2 is currently one of the first recommendations again (from around 40 euros), as is the Odroid U3 with two GB of RAM (from 80 euros) – provided 100 Mbit Ethernet is sufficient. You are currently looking in vain for a board computer with USB 3.0 and Gigabit Ethernet. If you want this combination, you end up with significantly more expensive Intel NUCs and barebones. A combination of gigabit and Sata interface is more accessible: This is what the Cubox i4 Pro (from 140 euros) offers, which with a Renkforce docking station (from 60 euros) on the eSata port and two or three hard drives is a real top-class NAS upcycling.

With the available operating systems – in contrast to x86-based PCs, notebooks, netbooks – there is not always a large selection of ARM-based boards. This is an important reason why the excellently supported Raspberry is still very popular. A Debian / Ubuntu server system, a media center such as Open Elec (XBMC / Kodi), and often an Android desktop can be found for practically every board. Setting up a board server via SSH does not differ from the procedure outlined above on the x86 platform.

Categories: Knowledgebase

1 Comment

Steve · January 11, 2022 at 6:55 PM

I and my beloved Thinkpad X40 thank you for this!

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