Don’t trash you old PC, there is still life in it with Puppy Linux!

( Written by Dr. YN Chow, at 2011-12-31)

The author commenced writing this article using his close to 8-year-old Dell PC with only 512mb RAM. The machine has been limping along under Windows XP for a long time. After yet another crash it was a no brainer for the author to abandon Windows all together and try Linux. This post has been written with the aim of sharing the author’s experience in resurrecting his old PC using a low resource distribution of Linux.  For those looking for a write-up on how different low resource distributions of Linux are evaluated etc. there are many articles out there such as this from TuxRadar. Puppy

For many “switchers” to Linux, Ubuntu with its many useful repositories of software and attractive user interface plus tonnes of support groups is the obvious choice. However, if you have a very old PC with low RAM (and no way of boosting that either there is no slots left or more likely the type of RAM cannot be found any more), Ubuntu will seem to be dragging its feet all the time. In the author’s case, the system seemed to have a habit of hanging if he tried to use more than 3 tabs at a time on Google Chrome and for larger files on LibreOffice, it would take a long time to load. Worse still, he could not do multi-task with 1 browser plus one LibreOffice application being loaded.

It seemed that (only 4 weeks before this post is being written) the most logical thing to do was to retire off this old PC some how. But being frugal (due to his economic situation at present), the author had decided to spend some time learning and experimenting with the low resource Linux distributions to find a solution.

Why Puppy was chosen?

The author remembered that a few months earlier he downloaded and even burnt Live CDs of a few “low footprint” distributions of Linux that included Xubuntu, Puppy Linux, and Siltaz with the view of trying it on the old PC. He had installed Xubuntu into his company’s laptop before, a Dell Vostro 3340 but found that Xubuntu is still very resource hungry. For Puppy Linux and Siltaz, he had managed to load these OS only once and left it at that. The main reason was that he was not able to configure his old Dell PC to match the drivers etc, for various hardware for both distributions. For Siltaz, the deal breaker for adopting it was that: although it was faster to load than the others, the author was not able to install it on a partition to the hard-disk that he had created and to add to this negative point, he could not find the way to configure the display so that the full definition of the LCD screen is displayed. So it seemed to him that the most logical choice to consider was Puppy Linux.

Not An Easy Feat

Despite what most articles have advocated, putting in Linux as an operating system is not an easy feat. You have to have a bit of faith in your own abilities and have done enough cross referencing of articles to gain the confidence. For the author, he had learnt about partitioning of hard-disk much earlier when he had the chance to experiment on this skill using his former employer assigned new laptop (on account that if he messed up, the Recovery DVDs had been made by him earlier to restore everything!). However, for Puppy Linux (and most of the Linux distributions), Live-CDs are the way these can all be tested. Now if you have no idea what is a Live-CD, then this link has what you need. As in most Live-CDs, the boot in session is mainly for you to evaluate if the distribution has what it takes for your usage and you are not able in general to install additional software. However, Puppy Linux is a bit different in that it allows you to run direct from Live-CDs or USB Flash Drive / PenDrive with the ability for you to install software which (if you use a multi-session CD or DVD) can be saved back for the next session. 

The author must admit that he found out about this much later but it was his own fault of having the habit of plunging into testing and not reading up on the application before hand and not the fault of Puppy Linux! When he booted up his old Dell PC using a Puppy Linux Live-CD  which was not multi-session for the first time, he had downloaded and installed a number of software from Puppy Linux’s recommended list. As the Live-CD was not multi-session in nature, the data file (including the downloaded & installed software) had to be saved in the old PC’s hard-disk. Thus when he revisited the old PC to take the plunge to install Puppy Linux on to a partition of the hard-disk, there was a big problem as a crucial file was not to be overwritten. He found out later that this was due to the fact that he did not have full administrator (or “Root” ) access to have the permission to write to the particular file. As the old PC has already had Ubuntu 10.10 installed, he was able to log into the PC in Ubuntu as “Root” and made a few clicks at the correct places and unprotected the trouble causing file. After that, the installer inside the Live-CD of Puppy Linux took over and within less than 10 minutes the entire hard-disk installation of Puppy Linux was done. 

The author had chosen “Frugal” install which means that the data file and programme files are housed separately from the rest of the system files which means upgrading etc. in future will be an easier task (in his case, because of hard-disk installation, the data files are stored in the partition assigned, SD3).  After installation was completed, you will need to install the required software (almost all are open-source). This will take, depending on your internet speed, anything up to a couple of hours. If you have chosen “Frugal” installation like the author, these files will be installed into your data file partition.  As Puppy Linux is run solely as a RAM-based system (i.e. it is loaded into the memory of your PC), you need to have, as in the author’s case, more than 128 mb of RAM to have the system running at the high speed that it is reputed to be able to achieve. One quirk that the author does not seem to be able to solve till later was the fast pace in which the Personal Storage allocation had been filling up and he had to add on this a few times. Then he learnt that the files downloaded, if not assigned to be stored in the hard-disk, will be stored with the system files and will be loaded onto the RAM each time. Cleaning up of these files freed up lots of available Personal Storage space. In this case, all the old PC’s factory installed hardware were instantly recognized, including the sound systems and external speakers / sub-woofer etc.. But the added on webcam and wi-fi adapter are still not operational even though Puppy Linux seems to recognize the hardware…it could be that the correct drivers have not made it to the distribution! As the author’s ADSL modem and WiFi router both have many RJ45 slots, it was not an issue about linking the old Dell to the Internet, but that also means that he could not move the old Dell too far from these equipment as he had hoped for with the WiFi adapter.

The Pro

  • The old PC has been fully resurrected and runs as fast as the author’s Toshiba T210 which is about 2 years old and just a bit slower than his former employer’s Dell Vostro 3340.
  • You can install Opera to extend the range of web services and apps that you need to run easily.
  • The distribution-issued range of software and applications are extensive enough to let one start operating the old PC right away.
  • Start-up after the initial installation to hard-disk is very fast at around less than 30 seconds as all the system needs to do is to load the itself onto the RAM of the PC.
  • Switching off the old PC is even faster than the time taken for start-up.
  • For those using Frugal installation, upgrading of system files to newer versions though a bit fiddly (you need to download the image file, aka .iso file, mount it or burn it to CD before you can access what you need), is a matter of copy-and-overwrite 4 files.
  • Lots of software are found either in the recommended sites via Puppy Package Manager or from support forum in the form of “pet”.
  • Very easy to install additional software, especially those recommended and downloading via Puppy Linux own utilities.
The Con
  • Firefox 9.0 does not seem to work well (start & stop intermittently) and Google Chrome though being successfully installed, was not able to be run. (Midori which is available from the recommended list of Puppy will perform most of what Firefox and Google Chrome can do)
  • It takes some learning to know where to look for files etc. that is not as easily learnt as in Ubuntu as the File Manager that comes with Puppy Linux is not as user friendly and lacks many of the expected features of the larger Ubuntu system.
  • Software and applications with very heavy resource requirements such as LibreOffice are not able to be accommodated (but there again you already have Abiword and many smaller footprint equivalent office productivity software that either come with the distribution or easily installed from the recommended routes).
  • It takes some effort to learn to use Puppy Linux but like all puppies, once you have trained it well, it will behave and be very faithful to you!
Overall, the author has saved himself lots of unnecessary expenses to replace the old PC with Puppy Linux. The fact that 8-year-old Dell PC is now available to him and his family to do surfing of the internet (yes, his daughter could run all her favourite Youtube videos too) and allows him to do his work on this old PC (using Abiword and web applications such as Google Docs and WordPress) means that there is one less piece of old electronic junk to pollute the Earth, well at least for a good few years yet! He can surely live with the few shortcomings (well for a lean system this is to be expected) which are fully compensated with the continue utilization of the old PC for productive work!

(The author does not proclaim to know much about programming and the only bit of computer programming training he had was in 1985 when he had to learn about programming in BASIC as a part of his Masters degree studies which he had promptly forgotten after the course was over. Thus this post  is less “tech” but more experience sharing in nature. Nevertheless he is very willing to share what he has learnt about Puppy with his readers but not being an IT-trained person, he can provide advice solely based on his experience gained from installing Puppy in his old Dell PC.)