In the Depths of the Cloud, Open Source and Proprietary Leviathans Fight to the Death
Jono Bacon Asked Google Home ‘Who Founded Linux?’ You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!
Red Hat's Women in Open Source Award Winners, 2017
Imagine an Android Phone Without Linux Inside
Linus Torvalds Talks to Debian Users
Mozilla Relents, Thunderbird Can Stay
Heed the Prophet Stallman, oh Software Sinners!
June 28th, 2016

When A Computer Is Ready for the Junk Pile

Just because it can be kept running doesn’t mean it hasn’t outlived its usefulness.

The Heart of Linux

A month or so ago on Google Plus a spirited discussion took place on old hardware. Many held the belief that if old hardware can be used, for any reasonable need, it should stay out of the recycle cycle for as long as its able to be used, for any reasonable need. Well yeah…ya think? My organization has been doing this going on eleven years now.

Old Computer Part

To that point, there was a report that a mail server failure in a large business office remained a mystery for two days until someone found an old Pentium II back in the corner of some obscure closet with a burned out power supply. It is reported that the Slackware/Debian/Red Hat machine had been plugging away as a mail server for a number of years, completely unattended. That’s feasible I suppose, but I further suppose that it’s a modern day parable about how open source can indeed, carry the day.

Just because you can make an old system operational, doesn’t mean that you can make it useful.

In one of my posts on the Blog of Helios I included a picture of various hardware pieces assembled to make a working desktop computer system. The picture has evaporated with the machine and hard drive I used way back then, but for historical accuracy, it was made of the following components:

  • Pentium III @ 450 Mhz
  • 1GB RAM
  • 20GB HHD
  • Nvidia Gforce 6200
  • Turtle Beach Montego A3D sound card
  • Stock Ethernet LAN
  • Stock Aopen power supply
  • Stock CD burner
  • Model M keyboard with a rj45 to PS2 adapter
  • TLogitech PS2 track ball

And for the record, I use the Model M and trackball mentioned above as my everyday drivers.

At first, I installed an image of Windows 7 on it, just to see how it ran. While it did boot and run, it was like someone had packed peanut butter into the buckling springs of the Model M. To make it more agonizing, there was at least a three second delay between mouse click and reaction. LibreOffice took 2.5 minutes to load, but again, we’re talking about a computer that’s about to see the turn of a century and running on the max 1GB RAM.

The next operating system was Linux Mint Mate LTS, 12.04. There was no doubt that the Linux install clearly ran much quicker and didn’t see the lags and lows until there were more than two tasks were put into play. Opening a web page and immediately double clicking text to copy produced an uncomfortable lag, and it you didn’t walk away to get something to drink while the computer sorted these tasks out, you were first in line to curse the mothers of all invention.

I finally decided that one of the “lite” distros would need to take the field if this machine was to ever win the ball game. Just for the record, some of us have specific word phobias. Those who remember or watched the TV show “Dead Like Me” will recall that the mother of the “dead” girl absolutely hated the word “moist.” She considered it pornographic. While I don’t associate the word “lite” with adult films, it gives me the feeling I’m not getting what I paid for or what I want. It rings as miserly or stingy. Somehow a “lite” distro is supposed to make an older computer run faster. Well, it does…until you want to actually do something with it.

Case in point: On this computer I set about to do the things I normally do on my other computers. I checked and replied to email, I wrote and edited documents with LibreOffice and I used GIMP to crop, resize and create graphics to be included in my articles and on Google Plus. This is, of course, normal for me, and when I am done working, I watch movies and clips on SMPlayer or VLC, depending on the file type. On occasion, maybe twice a week, I will also edit audio files in Audacity.

I’m not going to bore you with a blow by blow account of how the Pentium III did on all these tasks. Leave it to being rated as poor all the way around. It reminded me of a sprinter, first out of the starting block and quickly outpacing the competitors until the runner hits the first obstacle to hurdle, or if you wish, the first application to engage. It was like going from a smooth, fast clay track to a knee-deep mud pit.

Some of the lags weren’t terminally slow. Stuff like loading fairly graphic-intense websites could be navigated with some patience. And while Gmail could be opened and read, you needed to to choose the option of opening it in “basic view.”

Most disappointingly, MP4 and other compact video files seemed to buffer often. Usually buffering is caused by a less than acceptable internet connection, but in this case, neither of the video applications could operate smoothly with this hardware. Since the video files were locally accessed, there were no Internet inadequacies to blame. The chip and the maximum amount of RAM simply wasn’t up to the task.

I could no more saddle our Reglue Kids with this computer than I could bench press their daddy’s Buick. Machines like this would be nothing but a hindrance, plain and simple.

The majority of the computers we are installing for Reglue Kids are now dual core with a minimum of 4GB RAM and a Nvidia GT620 video card. This is the quality of hardware donations coming into Reglue these days. That’s a far cry from the 2003-ish machines we were receiving as late as March of 2015. It was like an immediate shift in received donations. One day they were, uh…resource-challenged, and the next they were dual core bad boys with giggage of RAM.

At times, I feel like a choosy beggar, especially when receiving donations from private individuals. The mom of four, with a minivan and book club on every Tuesday, thinks that the computer that has resided in her closet for nine years is just fine for use today. I don’t say anything. I simply accept the donation as she brings it in the door and I thank her for thinking of us.

So, there you have it. The kids who will walk across the graduation stage next year will be the ones sitting behind the mission control displays at Cape Canaveral. They will design, build and possibly man ships to Mars and Europa. I’m not going to assume that since they are financially challenged they should be grateful for the ancient junk noted above. Those kids need all the advantages they can gain, so if you remember nothing else, just remember this:

Just because you can make an old system operational, doesn’t mean that you can make it useful.

The following two tabs change content below.
Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

16 comments to When A Computer Is Ready for the Junk Pile

  • Mike S.

    @Ken Starks,
    Cool story, and thank you again for working on Reglue.

    I am hopeful that a Raspberry Pi 4 or 5 will offer 2GB of RAM and a dual core processor for $35. That would go a long way towards making useful computing power affordable for more families. Of course, a donated machine with equivalent power is better than a $35 purchase.

  • The question of usefulness is not a closed, self defining term. It depends on context. Useful to whom? Useful for what? For example, is a limited machine which is only an irritant to a power user also useless to a kid in another country that will never see a modern computer but can learn useful skills on a slow, bricky machine? Are there equipment control applications that don’t require running Libre Office and Gimp and Audacity at the same time – or ever?

  • Sorry, but I have to disagree here. I know some outliers (myself included) who did minimal memory testing with Linux boxes with as low as 16 megs. I even know some extreme minimalists who don’t use X11, only text. I can IRC quite comfortably on a P3 with 256 megs of ram running X. I can run a laser printer and make labels on it and do word processing. I’m doing actually work on P3’s. Running mwm or icewm on 256 megs is no problem at all.

  • Randal

    Ken has it backwards….
    The kids sitting behind the displays at Mission Control, NEED the practice on old machines and WITH lag times. How old and upgradeable is the tech on Mars, or Voyager? What is the lag time?

    Some of these old machines with things like Tiny Core and remotely accessing them, and learning how to deal with restrictions, can be a good thing. I agree that I wouldn’t consider these day to day machines for those spoiled by more recent tech, but they still can be educational.

  • tdlam

    Ken,
    I too am involved with a charity that refurbishes computers and laptops for the poor here in the Los Angeles area. We accept any working or not as donations. The minimum we will give out is a P4 2.5 ghz with at least 1 gig ram as they still seem to be able to play youtube and handle the basic computing without too much fuss. Anything less we strip for parts and e-waste the rest.
    Unlike your charity we don’t have much resources and take donations mostly from individuals with occaisional large donations. Both my partner and myself are the only people involved and have a small shop/ lab set up in a section 8 housing complex in north Pasadena. There are times when our inventory slows to a crawl. But even so its always nice to see folks being thankful receiving a refurbished Linux computer. Most are genuinely surprised that the software is not only free but usable as well.
    I honor and admire what you do sir and just wanted to drop you a line to say that you have a kindred spirit here on the west coast.
    God bless.

  • Duncan

    As others have argued, useful is in the eye/mind/finger/net-connection of the user. TFA mentioned a mail server. Other sorts of personal servers including audio client or server (icecast served over the net, or just use it as a player for local audio) should work fine. FWIW, there’s several console music players available, including the very flexible mpd, music player daemon, with oh so many clients, console, gtk, qt, even http, available to control it, that I run here, in part so the music keeps playing when I leave X for some reason or other.

    I recall that my old Athlon 500 MHz (slot-A, IIRC) was the first machine I could play videos on reasonably without interruption, even dragging around the player window it kept playing without issue, tho I imagine it may take icewm or similarly lite to do that with today’s software. The P-III 450 MHz you mention shouldn’t be too far back from that.

    OTOH, particularly in places like here in Phoenix where most of the year you’re paying for energy used twice, once dumping heat into the room, again to pump it out again, and with the far more energy efficient machines like raspberry pi and competitors now widely available, those old machines are very likely simply not worth the energy usage cost, given the more efficient replacements available for $50 or less.

    And of course even if it’s useful and worth the energy cost for some uses, whether it’s worth giving out to kids for general usage is an /entirely/ different question. That’s the argument TFA was arguably making, and I believe I agree with Ken on that.

    Tho in other articles Ken himself has taken issue with the bar placed rather higher, and he has unfortunately lost formerly reliable donating partners as a result. To some extent, then, it must depend on what’s coming in, a point Ken somewhat alluded to himself, saying better stuff is coming in, now, so the minimum bar /can/ be raised, and it /is/ being raised.

  • Robert Glen Fogarty

    There’s always the Indiana Jones option.

    “It belongs in a museum!”

  • CFWhitman

    You could get some use out of that computer with the right distribution and applications. One telling thing, though, is that a Raspberry Pi 3 is easily more powerful.

    I have a Pentium 4 Thinkpad from about 2003 maxxed out to 1GB of RAM with Intel video (a buggy one from that time period; but fortunately, it was compensated for in a kernel patch a few years back) and a hard drive I think I got from somewhere else. With Salix OS and Fluxbox, I can browse the Internet, though some sites are a bit too much if you use Firefox (a less featureful browser won’t attempt to do some of the stuff the site asks), and I can do pretty well with YouTube using SMTube and a video player (even VLC works reasonably well). It can handle Abiword with no problem. So, yes, it’s technically still usable, but really most people who could use it well have more viable hardware laying around (because they’re tech people).

    We have a Pentium III at work running as a Slackware Samba server doing fine at its job, which is to serve as a bridge between old DOS machines running equipment in the plant and our new Windows servers that won’t talk to DOS anymore. It really is easy to forget that the machine even exists. Still, at this point I could probably replace that machine with any version of the Raspberry Pi if it were to die (though I haven’t actually tried, and perhaps I should before it does).

    So, most machines with Pentium or higher processors may have some use, but a lot of people wouldn’t have a personal use for them.

  • CSLewid

    Try running a puppy on it. I currently have a couple of pIII’s running them.

  • CFWhitman

    Incidentally, I find that running the Compton compositor with the right settings (using OpenGL) on old hardware usually improves performance, which might seem counter-intuitive. Apparently it shifts some of the processing load from the CPU to the GPU.

  • Paul

    I parted out a Compaq Presario Laptop with a k-6 II 433 and 192 meg of ram because the case started to disintegrate. It struggled with Puppy but I was able to use it as a display for a usb microscope running AntiX until it fell apart. It was clearly ready for retirement.

  • Unbeknownst

    @Ken

    > The kids who will walk across the graduation stage next year will be the ones sitting behind the mission control displays at Cape Canaveral. They will design, build and possibly man ships to Mars and Europa.

    > Those kids need all the advantages they can gain

    I cannot agree more. We are constantly relaying the baton to a new generation. It starts when they learn to talk, to read, to run, to date a boy or girl, to get a job, to marry… we’re useful to the bitter end. And that’s how it’s supposed to be, I think.

    We need to care about them and they in turn, we hope, will care about our grandsons (and about ourselves, in a selfish view).

    > Just because you can make an old system operational, doesn’t mean that you can make it useful.

    Again, agreed. Operational is like the first step, but then we need to make it usable. That is part of what make things useful — that someone actually can use it. It’s like giving a person a spoon or chopsticks depending on what can be better used.

    But let’s give a look at your example configuration:

    > Pentium III @ 450 Mhz

    This is your major problem. This processor is so slow that it’s probably unfit for most modern graphical applications. From my (limited) experience, I’d say only very limited programs would run on it — like text-mode based ones, or things which can be useful for specific purposes, like a point-of-sale terminal, a retro games PC and other simplistic things.

    Actually, a much better option would be use it as a firewall or fileserver for few users (e.g. in a home setting).

    It’s probably upgradeable, but again the “new” CPU (provided you can find it, that is) will be nothing to write home about.

    > 1GB RAM

    This actually ok, I have one machine working well with LXDE with that amount of memory (but with a much better processor).

    The problem is the speed at which it works. With a feeble processor, one must check what is the Front Side Bus frequency. It may be slow, despite having a good size.

    BTW, that’s a very large amount of memory for such an old machine!

    > 20GB HHD

    Absolutely no problem here. I also have one PC with that hard disk (no, seriously!). In modern days, I’ve been using usb/pen drives and external disks.

    As the trend towards the cloud proves, local disks no longer are that important. And 20GB is enough for most Linuces. (?sp)

    > Nvidia Gforce 6200

    That’s actually great. I’d move that video card to a more powerful machine ASAP. It’s great for most work and can even make possible the simplest, less demanding games like Quake, Quake II, Nexuiz etc. Runs KDE4 like a charm IIRC if one sets OpenGL to version 1.2 as it seems Nouveau requires.

    Just tested it at 1680×1050 with a 720p mp4 video (a car review). Plays smoothly and fault-free. Really great performance — on a CPU no longer supported by Ubuntu, BTW.

    > Turtle Beach Montego A3D sound card

    I don’t know that brand, but if it has a clear sound, an amplifier with couple of good speakers would give a very good sound experience.

    > Stock Ethernet LAN

    What kind? 100 Mbps is ok, 10 Mbps would suck but still be usable for some limited uses. Modern distributions can drive a wi-fi adaptor/dongle and get up to 54, which is good enough even for Youtube.

    > Stock Aopen power supply

    IIRC that was one the best power supplies there is. Of course I was also much better when I was young… :-/

    > Stock CD burner

    Not much useful. But one can use Plop and get an external DVD drive to be able to install any distribution which would work on that computer (hint: not any based on Ubuntu; I’d suggest Salix, which even installs ).

    > Model M keyboard with a rj45 to PS2 adapter

    I really must be misreading that: a keyboard with an Ethernet plug? Oh, well, Model M keyboards are like ancient sword techniques — they really should get back on the mass market, for they were so good… if nothing more, just for the clicking sound.

    It’s two decades with Linux and I still cannot get keyboard sound feedback — which any Android phone can do, no matter however lousy it might be. Dang!

    > TLogitech PS2 track ball

    That’s actually good as pointing device since it allows for a smaller table footprint and helps keep things organized — I suspect it could be good for people with RSI.

    To sum it up, your processor sucks but probably can be used with that 1GB RAM for some dedicated use.

    Some things are great like the Geforce 6200, the Model M and the trackball and might give added capabilities to a PC with a more modern CPU.

  • Unbeknownst

    …I’d suggest Salix, which even installs… from a CD!

    Sometimes I words. :-/

  • RFM

    Besides the energy consumption issues of older computers, modern applications (especially web browsers) mandate newer processors.

    My hand-me-down Gateway laptop, being 32 bit, cannot run current versions of many applications. Likewise, these same apps are often compiled to require SSE2 instruction capability not available (especially in many popular AMD socket A processors).

    Firefox to the rescue (so far)!

  • Unbeknownst

    @RFM

    > My hand-me-down Gateway laptop, being 32 bit, cannot run current versions of many applications.

    What would those be, if you don’t mind me asking?

    I have had good experiences with Mageia; in Salix (the 486 version), it has been even better. I sure use a limited gamut of apps, but so far Firefox and Libreoffice have been ok; on Salix/Slackware, even programs which cause trouble elsewhere behave quite well (e.g. Midori).

    I’ve read today that Qt5 needs SSE2, but any distro can’t compile it with -noSSE2; of course, many won’t go through the trouble…

    Besides Chrome (and derivatives like Opera) what would require 64-bit?

    You didn’t install a 64-bit version of some distro, did you? >:-)

  • Unbeknownst

    I meant:

    I’ve read today that Qt5 needs SSE2, but any distro can compile it with -noSSE2; of course, many won’t go through the trouble…