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.
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.
Getting the ISO
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:
But if your’re going to use a laptop and a WiFi connection, there’s a unofficial ISO with builtin firmware available here:
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:
$ sudo umount /dev/sdb
$ sudo dd if=debian-10.2.0-i386-netinst.iso of=/dev/sdb status=progress
Install base system
Boot your PC and press the boot key for the menu:
Don’t install other software, choose only the ‘standard system utilities’
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:
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
$ apt update
$ apt install sudo intel-microcode network-manager
Add the regular user to the sudoers list:
Reboot. Login with your regular user and execute the Network Manager configuration:
Configure WiFi access and then update system :
$ sudo apt update && sudo apt -y full-upgrade && sudo apt -y autoremove
Install the GUI
$ 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
Let’s beautify the GUI.
$ sudo apt install compton
$ sudo apt install pulseaudio pavucontrol pnmixer
Network Manager Applet
$ sudo apt install network-manager-gnome
$ sudo apt install fbpanel plank
This last command will output an error. Don’t worry it’s expected.
Edit .xsession file:
Edit the file “~/.config/fbpanel/default” and change the following lines:
edge = top
width = 100
roundcorners = false
Also, comment the following blocks:
#type = volume
Finally, edit the reboot and shutdown commands to:
name = Reboot
icon = gnome-session-reboot
action = systemctl reboot
name = Shutdown
icon = gnome-session-halt
action = systemctl poweroff
Logout, login. Your desktop it’s starting to take shape:
$ 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.
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.
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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