A Geek and a Spare Desktop

So, a few weeks ago I pulled my old Windows 7 laptop out of the closet and found out it still worked. (Won’t hold a charge and the battery and DC adapter have already been replaced but it works fine while plugged in.)

I did a clean install of Win 7 Pro with drivers (glad to finally have an excuse to use that back up image), downloaded a metric buttload of updates, installed Chrome, Java, GData, and Minecraft, and gave it to my 8-year-old son. He was ecstatic to be able to play Minecraft with his sister and I got my old Linux desktop back.

The desktop is an old eMachines T5234 32-bit that originally came with Vista (ack!). It didn’t take long for the power supply to crap out, so that got replaced by a much improved unit (a Thermaltake, maybe?), an extra cooling fan was installed, and I maxxed out its RAM to a full 2 gigs (crazy!).

I had used a plethora of Linux distros on it over the years. Over the course of the two years or so my son had it, the desktop had ran Slackware, Fedora (when Chrome started getting wonky), and then CentOS (when Fedora started locking up).

It had been a few years since I had tried to install a modern Linux distro on the machine. This time around, I focused on the LXDE desktop to try to get the most of its limited resources (the aforementioned 2 gigs of RAM, an AMD Athlon 64 dual core, and a NVIDIA GeForce 6150SE chip) and quickly started running into problems: openSUSE had insane video tearing, Fedora had disappearing menu icons, Lubuntu 14.10 was almost stable but Firefox caused massive video tearing when launched. Ditto for Linux Mint with the MATE desktop.

A Debian netinstall with LXDE exhibited the same video problems when I upgraded to Testing. I did a fresh install with Stable and it was, well, stable. However, IceWeasel ESR was sluggish on Facebook and I found myself switching back and forth between Chromium for speed and IceWeasel when I need to use Flash. (Should have checked to see if a pepperflash plugin was available for Chromium.)

I wound up going back to what was already on the desktop when it came back to me: CentOS. No video tearing with the old reliable Gnome 2 desktop (Gnome 3 is an abomination. It’s like the Gnome developers looked at Windows 8 and said, “Pshaw. We can make a desktop suck worse than that. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) and CentOS is as stable as the day as long.

Same blessed problem with Firefox ESR, though – it’s just too sluggish! I tried to find some way to install Chrome but Google isn’t showing the Chromish love to old Linux kernels. A popular user repository installed an old version of Chromium and scripts for pepperflash. Problem was that pepperflash didn’t work.

Which left me with the nuclear option: Arch. This distro’s installation process isn’t as scary as Linux From Scratch or FreeBSD but it’s not for the faint of heart. I had tried to install Arch at some earlier point in this saga but it refused to boot despite having been on the same machine in years past. My problem was likely rooted in trying to preserve my /home partition in the install process to avoid having my old data wiped out. I rsynced my home onto an external hard drive, wound up using GParted to partition the eMachine’s drive to Arch’s liking, and made it through the install process.

After several hours of pain and suffering (most of which involved trying to figure why the flip the USB drives wouldn’t automount), I had a working, lightweight LXDE desktop. It didn’t come with Firefox (Arch doesn’t come with much of anything; you build it yourself) so I installed Chromium and a working (!) pepperflash plugin from the AUR for speedy browsing. And there haven’t been any video issues thus far but it’s only been a few days.

Arch is a bleeding edge, rolling release so maintenance will definitely be required. At this point, however, I’m a happy camper. Everything is working the way it’s supposed to and the old desktop is almost speedy when unburdened by extraneous cruft. (Well, it’s not like I’m using it for video editing.) My digital life is good.

There may be a full write up on my Arch experience in the future. It’s a fun distro but bleeding edginess can sometimes cause kiniption fits. We’ll see how things work out.