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Got an old computer in the attic or basement? Or maybe your friends or family or neighbors are about to throw a five- or ten-year-old computer into the trash. Here's how to make it back into a viable, worthwhile computer, while saving both your wallet and the planet.
Save the Zombies!

You're undoubtedly familiar with zombies, dead humans who arise from the grave to wreak havoc on their innocent Sci-fi movie victims. But have you heard of computer zombies? They're the millions of personal computers wasting away in attics, basements and garages across the land. For some reason we don't get around to discarding them to the recycler, yet we don't use them either. What could you do with an old Windows 98 computer, anyway?

The answer to this question is -- nothing. If you need to connect to the Internet, you can't use an old Windows 95 or 98 or ME or NT machine. It just doesn't have the power to sustain the overhead of all the anti-malware software required to connect Windows safely to the Internet. Take an early Pentium III running Windows ME, for example, install modern anti-malware on it, and it'll slow to a crawl. After all, every operation -- reading a file, reading an email, viewing a web page, or downloading a file, consumes cycles as the anti-malware desperately tries to protect its vulnerable Windows host from attack.

There is an answer to this dilemma. Install a light version of Linux, like Puppy Linux, Damn Small Linux, Vector Standard edition, Wolvix Cub, or Xubuntu (or many others I won't mention here). These systems don't have to support the overhead of all those anti-malware cycles. Just turn on the firewall and you're ready for safe surfing. All your machine's processing power and memory will be devoted to the tasks at hand, instead of trying to keep Windows safe and sane.

Breathing Life into a Zombie

What can you do with the Linuxes I've mentioned? If you have a computer with at least a 1 ghz processor and 512 M of memory, most people find few limitations on their activities. You can run almost any Linux distribution, although some may run slower than you'd prefer. And you can perform any task.

Get under 1 ghz or so, and you'll notice that Flash videos (like those on Youtube) won't play as smoothly as on faster equipment. Get down into the P-II range and Flash videos won't flash at all. You'll get sound but no video. For some users this is no problem because video is not a big concern. For others, it's a deal-breaker. This leads me right into a very big disclaimer -- obviously different people run different applications, work with their computers in different ways, and have different expectations. So an article like this can't give you "the answer" because there isn't one answer for everyone. Take what I say as a starting point and find out what works for you through your own experimentation. Feel free to share those experiences with everyone in your comments to this article.

Beyond the processor speed, memory is the other big constraint on older computers. Linuxes like Puppy and Damn Small Linux are designed to run entirely from memory if you have enough of it, and in this way, they can compensate to some degree for slower processors and devices. With current releases, Puppy runs from memory if you have 256M and DSL if you have only 128M. Puppy will boot on a computer with only 128M while DSL requires less than 64M.

Your first task with any older computer (once you have verified that its hardware works!) is to max out the memory. The old 168-pin SDRAM popular in the Pentium III and II eras is very inexpensive in used condition at computer shows or online. And as I've just pointed out, Linux distros that target the low end rely on memory to speed these machines up to acceptable performance.

Different people have different opinions as to which Linux is best for low-end hardware. I offer my own here for the purpose of suggesting a few products that work well on low-end equipment and to discuss what level of hardware resource each requires. The "hardware sweetspot" column in the chart is my own idea of where these operating systems contribute the most. The "recommended system requirements" are taken directly from the product websites --

            --RecommendedSystem Requirements (w/ GUI)--
                     (less is possible)
                    All P-I's and P-II's with under128M
            with 256M

Damn Small Linux runs on really low end equipment -- Pentium I's and Pentium II's with little memory -- and even old 486's. It makes these machines usable for a wide range of tasks. That's rather a miracle, don't you think? The trade-off is that it's a bit too geeky in the user interface for the typical consumer. Only a computerphile or hobbyist is really going to be happy using it. If you're one of them, DSL is an incredible, fun product that resuscitates even the oldest zombies.

Puppy Linux is next up the scale. It adds a broader base of applications than Damn Small Linux and is more user-friendly. This comes at the cost of a larger download that weighs in at a tad over 100M (as opposed to DSL's 50M distribution). Puppy performs well on any P-II with 256M, and in all P-III's with 128M or more. Puppy is such a nice mix of apps, user-friendliness, and performance that many people run it on machines that are quite capable of running fuller, higher-end linuxes like Ubuntu or Fedora.

Once you move up to a Pentium III with 256M to 512M of memory, dozens of highly capable Linuxes are available to you. I've had great experiences with Vector Standard Edition and Wolvix Cub. Both offer easy-to-use interfaces, a nice selection of apps that will satisfy most consumers, easy administrative tools, and active online communities.

Xubuntu requires a bit more hardware than the other Linuxes I've listed. It's not really optimized for lower-end hardware, other than that it replaces Ubuntu's Gnome GUI with the lighter XFCE. Xubuntu offers big benefits in its relationship to Ubuntu's huge online community and gigantic free software repository. I volunteer at the computer refurbishing charity Free Geek where Xubuntu is our system of choice.

Puppy Shows What's Possible

As an example of how you can revive a zombie, take Puppy Linux. This is an operating system that adapts well to whatever old hardware you have on hand. It will boot from any bootable device, so you can run it from USB memory stick, old zip drives, Superdisk, network boot, or whatever. It runs off hard disks in several different ways, using a traditional full install or the simpler frugal install, either from within a Linux partition or inside a Windows partition. Some people even run Puppy from CD-R or CD-RW. Puppy will save your session to the writeable disc and allow you to carry over the session to a new disc as your existing one fills up!

This kind of flexibility in booting and device management is key. It's not unusual to find a really good computer consigned to zombie status if it weren't for the lack of a working disk drive or some other part. Puppy adapts to the hardware you have.

Puppy's apps span the gamut of what most people do with their computers. Here's an abbreviated list --

* Perform office tasks with word processors, file and HTML editors, PDF viewers, spreadsheets, and HomeBank finance manager
* Surf the Internet, and read, write, send and manage email
* Play, record, mix, rip and manage music
* Scan in documents and pictures, read camera photographs, alter and manage images and graphics with image and vector editors
* Write your personal blog with PPLOG and the Hiawatha web server, or create your own wiki with DidiWiki
* Telephone, chat, or message via Voice Over IP with Psip, and instant message and chat with Ayttm
* Manage your address book, personal contacts, and daily calendar with Osmo daily organizer
* Read, write, and burn CD's, DVD's, and Blu-ray discs
* Log in to remote computers with telnet and send & receive files
* Manage your files and data with file managers, a file finder, and tools for backup
* Manage your computer and its performance with a strong set of utilities for setup, configuration, and performance monitoring and management

You're free to download and install additional free apps from Puppy's software repository. This is the beauty of it, really. You start with a "base Linux" like Puppy or Damn Small Linux that fits on your old zombie, then add only those extra apps you know you need. This keeps the system small, light, and fast while doing the job you need done.

Performance is what it's all about on the lower-end. And Puppy Linux performs really well. I wrote this article on a 400 mhz Celeron A with 256M. Only last week this old computer was a basement-dwelling zombie, and here it's worked as well for me in writing this article as a much newer machine. Puppy is running entirely from memory so I'm not hampered by the computer's slow CD and disk drives. Web surfing performance is about the same as it would be with almost any single-core computer, since the biggest constraint is my mediocre DSL line. Modern browsers make decent performance possible, like the enhanced Firefox 3.5, and Opera 10 with its new turbo mode. Where the old computer shows its age is when I run into web pages loaded down with video or animation, or sites that continually run javascript. But in writing this article, as in so many daily tasks, none of this is relevant. It's amazing but true -- many people could perform their tasks on an old computer just as happily as they do on their new Windows wallet-killer.

So get your hands on a zombie. Dig it out of the attic or basement. Or pry a free one from neighbors or friends. Dust it off, install a light Linux, and set it to work. Make it into an extra machine for the kids, your secondary computer, a backup machine, or a tool for the garage or workshed. Your bank account and the polluted landfills of the world will thank you.

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