There are hundreds of stories about people who pulled an old Windows 95/98/ME computer out of their basement, put some kind of Linux distro on it, and are in a computing heaven, blissfully unaware of the age of their computer. And you never hear about people pulling the same computer out and saying, “Wow! Windows 95 solves all of my problems! Good bye, modern computing!” Why is Linux so dominant in this category? Here are a few reasons.
- Release date. Microsoft has a finite budget. The portion labeled “OS Development” needs to go to a new OS that will pack in hardware-hungry features. The modern businessman doesn’t give a darn about how much money his computer costs, he just needs the latest and “greatest” software on it. So old computers are stuck with old MS operating systems, which lack the development techniques and consumer needs of 2009. Since Linux either has an infinite or non-existent budget (depending on how you look at it) some people decide to focus on lightweight distributions. 2009 software on a 1995 machine is much better than 1993 software on a 1995 machine. For example, would you rather use Abiword 2.6.8, or MS Word ’97?
- Cost. Linux is free. Windows isn’t. Linux lets you burn bootable .iso’s, Windows doesn’t–if you can’t find your Windows 98 installation disc, it will never get reinstalled. This is pretty straightforward.
- Support. Windows XP, Vista and (soon) 7 have a number of support options, either from Microsoft, local geeks, or internet forums. They’re also too slow. Windows 95, 98 and 2000 are faster, but their support is limited to a few nice people dredging their memories to help you. On the other hand, Linux has tens of thousands of people willing to help you through forums (ubuntuforums.org (which helps you with any distro), linuxquestions.org, SliTaz forums, Puppy forums, DSL forums…) as well as comprehensive documentation and wikis.
- Specialization. Since there’s only supposed to be one main version of Windows in use at a time, by necessity it has to be a Swiss Army knife of an operating system. Linux, on the other hand, has a whole bunch of options. A lot of people are happy with a terminal-only system. Some must have package management, other don’t need it. Some want a themeable desktop with pretty colors, wallpapers and icons. Others would rather have a sparse desktop and use the hardware savings elsewhere. And then you get nutcases power users who make a torrent slave, file/print server or media streamer. Have fun making that without Linux.
- Hardware Support and Variety. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, sometimes hardware just doesn’t work. This problem is also present in Windows: OEMs have no reason to be polite and leave vintage drivers up on their website. Even if they do, making things work in Windows 95 is a nightmare: you have to burn a CD (or sometimes a floppy(!))with the USB drive driver, install that, use the USB drive to transfer hardware for the network card, the sound card, the USB mouse (if it works at all), and any other peripheral. It’s very hit-or-miss, and if you miss, you’re done. And don’t forget there’s no Plug and Play. Install. Reboot. Install. Reboot…aack! It doesn’t work!* With Linux (and especially with Linux on older hardware), the odds are that everything will work as expected on a vanilla install. And if DSL doesn’t recognize it, use Puppy. If that doesn’t work, go with SliTaz. Failing that, install ubuntu-minimal and put Openbox on top of it. If all else fails, maybe Ubuntu GTK 1.2 Remix** will work. I have a network card that works in DSL, Puppy and UGTK1.2R, but not in SliTaz and Ubuntu Server. I hardly care–there’s too many alternatives available to let these things get you down.
So really, there’s no excuse for not putting Linux on your old computer. Try it–you might be surprised by how usable it becomes–after all, your current hardware is probably overpowered.
*Clarification: Installing hardware drivers on an old Windows is guaranteed to be tedious and time-consuming. With Linux, hardware will probably work with the first distro you boot up, and almost certainly with the second or third. I would rather swap CDs (bring a magazine to read in the three minutes it’ll take to boot up), than track down and install individual Windows drivers.
**Clarification #2: UGTK1.2R is the only distro mentioned here that uses GTK 1.2. And note that it’s mentioned as a last resort. Consequently, it’s the only distro on which Abiword 2.6 doesn’t work.