DeLi Linux trial and review

I have a thing for old, but usable computers. Usable in my case means RJ-45 jack and the ability to run telnet. I have a small collection of classic macs in my closet, and used to run a webserver off of an LCII with a 1.2gb SCSI drive, litterally housed in a Pizza Hut pizza box. It was glorious.

Deli Linux (http://www.delilinux.de/) is sort of my other project at the moment. I got an old Zenith Data Systems 486 laptop from my friend Chris a couple years back, and I’m finally getting around to using it for something. The real trick is getting software that’s compatible with today’s internet to run on it. It actually has windows 95 on it right now, but I’ll be damned if I can find my Win95 floppies to install a proper 3com Eitherlink III network card on it (the soundblaster 16 of the PCMCIA network world). So that leaves me with Linux. Well, the CD-Rom drive isn’t talking to the laptop, so that leaves me with Damn Small Linux, of DeLi linux, short for Desktop Light Linux. Choosing the path less taken, I went with the distro geared towards the grandfathers of the 16 bit generation.

I installed DeLi on an old AMD K6-2 350 and the install went about as well as my install of Ubuntu 6.10. This is still more complicated than it should be, in my opinion; the disc should boot, a message should flash saying “continuing will completely erase your hard drive and it’s contents. press [ente] to continue, otherwise eject the CD now and reboot your computer”. Pressing enter prompts you for your user name and password, and then auto formats/partitions your drive and installs the base install of that flavor of linux. Press F1 for the expert install. Do I really care if my swap partition is 1.5 gigs or 1.2 gigs? 95% of people are installing linux on a single, or at least their primary drive – so why even include this manual step?

Ranting aside, DeLi includes IceWM and Fluxbox. IceWM has all the proper bindings, while Fluxbox still needs some tweaking. Regardless, it runs fantastically well on older hardware. It uses less CPU intensive programs like Abiword (word processor), Dillo (web browser) and PW (office suite) rather than their more resource hungry bigger brothers. The maintainer isn’t completely backwards, he has a depository of more modern apps like Firefox 2.0 for those of you with more than 32mb of RAM.

There’s not much more to say about it, it’s a fully functioning OS that gets the job done, albiet without the glam of a more robust OS. But I can still change the theme, the desktop wallpaper, check my email and all my favorite webcomics/websites, instant message and whatnot. That’s about 90% of what my Powerbook does. Sure, it can’t visit gmail.com, do cool ajax stuff like wordpress, but that’s what email programs and email submission is for. Recycled laptop for the road, full desktop for home and office.

One of the more interesting features is that for such a tiny OS it has a plethora of installation features, such as boot from floppy to boot from the cd, or boot from floppy for network install… or even null modem cable install, for the truly hardcore. I was hoping to boot to a prompt and do the network install, but unfortunately I’m having trouble booting to that point. It looks like I’m going to have to find a 44pin IDE to 40pin (standard) IDE cable and install it from the K6 computer and then swap the drive in. Not as much of a challenge, but it works, I suppose.

I think the issue is that the floppy drive is starting to fail, causing a read error. Once I get DeLi installed though, it shouldn’t be an issue. The computer seems like it might be able to boot from a CF card in the PCMCIA slot, so I might be able to do away with moving parts completely if I play my cards right and buy a card with a good write capacity. The brilliant thing about these older laptops is they’re all 12v, so replacing the batteries isn’t much of an issue at all, nor is finding a power adapter.

Still working on finding a compatible 802.11 b/g/n card, though.

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