Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The $5+ Computer

As related in a previous post, my efforts to salvage a 15-year-old laptop computer purchased for $5 at a thrift store were successful.  The Windows 2000 operating system is still quite functional, though a little slow for web browsing.  Still, the project has provided me with some real satisfaction, perhaps similar to that which one might get from putting an antique car back on the road.  For everyday practical use, however, both the jalopy and the computer need some souping up.

The Dell does Linux with a little help.

Another trip to the thrift store turned up a $3 optical mouse with a PS2 connector that frees up the one available USB port.  On ebay I found a floppy drive for 3.5-inch disks for $10 that connects to the computer via the parallel port and provides a way to boot up another operating system, getting around the fact that the old Dell doesn't know how to boot from the USB port.  I burned a copy of  the PLOP boot manager onto a floppy and am able to use that to coax the computer into booting to a linux live system contained on a usb flash drive.

Tiny Core Linux running inside a vbox virtual machine on my desktop

There are several linux live systems available which are compatible with the storage and memory capabilities of old computers.  SliTaz, Porteus and Puppy Linux all run well in small amounts of Random Access Memory (RAM).  However, the smallest -- and in many ways the best, I think -- is Tiny Core Linux which only occupies 10MB of space on a usb stick and unpacks into as little as 48MB of RAM.  The base system loads entirely into memory and is blazingly fast as a result.  The distribution is equipped with a spare, but functional FLWM GUI desktop and the basic linux utilities you need to get started, including ethernet capability.  A huge software repository is available on line and applications or extensions can be downloaded and installed with just a couple mouse clicks.  Saving settings, files and installed extensions, a feature referred to as persistence, is particularly trouble-free in Tiny Core provided you use the Core2usb installer which can be downloaded from the site.

Links 2.8 was tested first in the virtual machine before installing on the live usb system.

Configuring a basic, fully functional Tiny Core system can be accomplished by anyone with only the slightest familiarity with open source software.  Tailoring the system to meet your own requirements will take a little more effort and experience, and likely several fresh starts.  The choice of a web browser, for instance,  is crucial as it tends to occupy a relatively large amount of memory space.  Firefox runs just fine on my slightly newer Compac laptop with a gig of RAM, but the mozilla is kind of a clunky choice for the Dell with just 256MB.  My own choice for a small-footprint browser is Links 2.8, a text-based web viewer with pretty good graphics capabilities.  Links tends to iron out complicated web site designs and present them in single columns; and you aren't going to be viewing any youtube videos of dancing cats with it.  However, most sites will load in a fraction of a second, and it really doesn't take very long to get used to the trade-off.  Links also doesn't set any cookies and will ignore efforts to track you by advertisers.  In fact, I think one is losing very little in the way of useful information by using Links at the great majority of web sites.

$ $ $

My impression is that fully half of what is presented on line is either graphic frills or attempts to manipulate you into buying stuff.  The corollary to that is that half of the money you are spending on hardware and software is buying the privilege of being tracked and deceived.  That said, I should probably point out that I don't do social media of any kind, and I almost never feel the need to click on video links.  So, your mileage may vary from mine.