Debian Buster install in old computer

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Ariga [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Linux is a great solution for giving a new lifeto that old computer you have laying around. I have two old “crones” lying around, an Asus eeePC 701 and a Classmate based laptop, and if you’re reading this article, chances are you have something similar.

Looking for tips about the “best linux distro for old hardware” gives a lot of opinions, how-to’s, and tips about some less common Linux distros good enough for old hardware. I’ve tried some but always felt these were short of what I was after. What I want is my old hardware to run up-to-date programs not a decade old version of some software.

Preparation

Old hardware doesn’t support 64 bit software. My eeePC has a Celeron and the Classmate has an Atom processor. The first step is to choose a distro that supports the i386 architecture and plans to keep supporting it for years to come. My choice is Debian.

To get a minimal install it’s best to use the network install ISO. But there’s a catch. For regular hardware, the official ISO will suffice:

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But if your’re going to use a laptop and a WiFi connection, there’s a unofficial ISO with builtin firmware available here:

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Now burn the ISO to a CD or create a bootable USB stick.

First determine which device with lsblk, unmount it and then dd the ISO into it:

$ lsblk
$ sudo umount /dev/sdb
$ sudo dd if=debian-10.2.0-i386-netinst.iso of=/dev/sdb status=progress

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Install base system

Boot your PC and press the boot key for the menu:

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Boot menu
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Language selection
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Set your location
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Set your keymap
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Choose a hostname
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Set your domain
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Choose a Root password
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Verify Root password
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Set regular user
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Regular username
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Regular user password
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Set timezone
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Partition disk
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Confirm it
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Don’t install other software, choose only the ‘standard system utilities’

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Install grub
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Choose device
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Finish installation

System configuration

Your system is freshly installed, but has no wifi connection. If your connection is wired, jump for the next section. If not, let’s get the wifi working.

I’m assuming you’ve used the unofficial ISO to get the right firmware installed, so all we need to do is connect to the wireless signal.

Login to your new system with Root and determine the wireless interface name:

# ip link

The wireless name should begin with a ‘w’. Also, if the interface should read ‘up’ <BROADCAST.MULTICAST,UP>. If it’s not, set it with:

# ip link set interface up

Now create the wireless config file:

# wpa_passphrase MYSSID passphrase > /etc/wpa_supplicant/myssid.conf

First test it withe the command bellow. It should output a line with “CTRL-EVENT-CONNECTED”:

# wpa_supplicant -i interface -c /etc/wpa_supplicant/example.conf

If the test was sucessfull, run the command into background:

# wpa_supplicant -B -i interface -c /etc/wpa_supplicant/example.conf

Finally, get an IP address for the interface:

# dhclient

Run ip addr and it will output the interface configuration with MAC, IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.

If not logged in already, login with root and edit sources file to include non-free and contrib:

$ nano /etc/apt/sources.list

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APT sources

Now update:

$ apt update
$ apt install sudo intel-microcode network-manager

Add the regular user to the sudoers list:

$ visudo

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Sudoers list

Reboot. Login with your regular user and execute the Network Manager configuration:

$ nmtui

Configure WiFi access and then update system :

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt -y full-upgrade && sudo apt -y autoremove

Install the GUI

Install Openbox:

$ sudo apt install xorg xdm openbox mate-terminal firefox-esr pcmanfm

It’s now time to get everything into place. Let’s start by creating the .xsession file and append exec openbox:

$ echo “exec openbox” > .xsession

Reboot.

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XDM login page
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Openbox

Let’s beautify the GUI.

$ sudo apt install compton

$ sudo apt install pulseaudio pavucontrol pnmixer

$ sudo apt install network-manager-gnome

Config UI

$ sudo apt install fbpanel plank

$ fbpanel

This last command will output an error. Don’t worry it’s expected.

Edit .xsession file:

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~/.xsession

Edit the file “~/.config/fbpanel/default” and change the following lines:

edge = top
width = 100
roundcorners = false

Also, comment the following blocks:

#plugin {
#type = volume
#}

Finally, edit the reboot and shutdown commands to:

item {
name = Reboot
icon = gnome-session-reboot
action = systemctl reboot
}

item {
name = Shutdown
icon = gnome-session-halt
action = systemctl poweroff
}

Logout, login. Your desktop it’s starting to take shape:

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Our desktop

$ sudo apt install feh

$ feh --bg-fill ~/path-to-image/img.jpg

Add “~/.fehbg &” to .xsession to load the background image after reboot.

To configure plank, just press Ctrl + Right click on it.

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Background photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Power Management

If you’re installing into a laptop, add power management to it:

$ sudo apt install xfce4-power-manager xbacklight

Add “xfce4-power-manager &” to .xsession.

xfce4-power-manager should add the screen brightness and volume control.

Conclusion

These are the basic steps to give an old computer a new face. Debian has quite a big repository of software and there’s a great community around it.

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