Xubuntu 8.04 stellar on low-power machines

Xubuntu 8.04 stellar on low-power machines

Summary: I finally had the chance to install Xubuntu 8.04 on a laptop for another of my kids this weekend.


I finally had the chance to install Xubuntu 8.04 on a laptop for another of my kids this weekend. My first attempt to install Xubuntu (Ubuntu running the Xfce interface instead of Gnome and generally considered lighter and faster than other *buntus) on a seriously aging and memory starved computer was a disaster. However, between a video chip that had always stunk (the resolution, image quality, and tracking under Windows was terrible, too) and a mere 64MB of RAM, I think I found some practical limitations for Xubuntu.

I'm sure that some extra fiddling and tweaking could have yielded at least a usable system, but the old laptop was a paperweight anyway, so I wasn't going to waste my time. This weekend I turned my attention to a Dell Latitude C400 with 512MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, and a 1GHz Pentium III-M processor. It was running Windows XP Pro, but was nicely loaded down with malware, so I did a clean install of Xubuntu from an alternate installation CD. The alternate installation dispenses with LiveCD capabilities and a graphical installer, but is quite easy to follow.

The full installation took about 40 minutes and picked up all of the hardware (WiFi, video drivers, etc.) without incident. Within another 10 minutes, OpenOffice was installed (Xubuntu only includes Abiword by default since its aim is to very lightweight), as were the proprietary plugins for Java and Flash.

What was most surprising was the performance. Bootup and shutdown were speedy (certainly an improvement over the Windows install, although that install wasn't in the best shape) and applications launched quickly. Xfce is a very streamlined interface and was completely uncluttered. This machine is ideal for the 14-year old who is inheriting it as he needs basic productivity applications and web browsing.

This is where Xubuntu really shines. Will it make that 386 sitting in the corner of your storage room run like a champ? No, although I'm sure some Ubuntu guru could get it running. What it will do is take some very moderate hardware and provide a solid, reliable, and relatively snappy machine for a user with productivity needs or who accesses terminal services.

I have to say I'm curious what Xubuntu would do on higher end hardware. For those of us who multitask too much and are usually bouncing around more applications than we like to admit, this is probably worth another weekend project. It will certainly be my OS of choice that I provide to students looking to hang onto an aging computer system for another couple of years.

Topics: Software, Hardware, Open Source, Operating Systems, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Xubuntu 8.04 on low-power machines

    I plan to load Xubuntu on two old machines -- so thanks for the info. I have had some success putting Puppy on some very old (98) machines. Why don't you try Puppy 3.01 or the latest beta (very good) on the 64MB laptop and let us know if it works?
  • The ultimate stress test :)

    I wanted to play with Hardy Heron at work, but all I had to spare was an ancient wreck of a machine for testing.

    Dell Optiplex Gxa
    Pentium II/233 (yes, Pentium *2*)
    256MB RAM
    Full Ubuntu install

    This is Windows 95 era machine with a 1998 BIOS

    Surprizing, it runs (well, inches along) without any error messages. Of course it's *slow*. Glacial in fact. But it does work. Talk about your OS stress test! (laughing)

    I've done a WUBI install at home on a 2.4Ghz machine with 2GB of RAM and I'm very pleased with the speed, it's faster than my native XP install--of course all I use Linux for is to test for PAWS compatibility...
    • Try Xubuntu, or Vector Linux

      Both of them are a lot nicer than Puppy or DSL, although they also require better/faster hardware then Puppy or DSL. If the machine is still slow, Puppy or DSL should really make it "normal" again; not fast, but more than usable.
    • Now that you've tried Ubuntu.. load up Xubuntu

      on that P2/233.... you'll likely find Xubuntu to perform better.
  • minimum system requirements

    Your first computer did not meet the minimum system requirements for running Xubuntu.


    While the Alternate install CD will run in 64MB of RAM, you need at least 192MB to actually *use* Xubuntu.
  • RE: Xubuntu 8.04 stellar on low-power machines

    I Run Kubuntu on a P3 Compaq, which was bogged down with XP Home. Like your install, loading the alternate CD proved to be faster and easier. From there it was simply a matter of running the package manager to load OpenOffice, Java, and the other video codex needed for other features. Add Amarok to the KDE and you get fantastic internet radio! The usual sites (Fancast.com, NBC.com, SciFi.com, CBS.com, and others) will get you your TV and movie fix.

    The only problem is with sites now using the newer Adobe Player, which seems to be ABC's (and Adobe's) attempt at keeping DRM alive and well. Only it seems that no one wants to port it to Linux. The same is true for a good windows video player.

    For those who want a fast experience on older machines, be sure to load FireFox and Thunderbird, as the KDE interfaces (KMail and Konqueror) both have their problems. Be sure to type "about:config" in the search bar and then go down to the "network.http" section and turn on pipe-lining. Set the number of tasks to 8 or 16. A high value, but it does suck down the web pages faster than you can say WebAccelerator!
  • Did you really need Xubuntu for that?

    I imagine that ancient processor would cause alot of drag when opening and closing programs or doing some sort of graphics manipulations. But I'm running CentOS as a server on a 5+ year old Athlon with 512MB or ram and its snappy. Maybe I'm overestimating the cpu but it seems like a gnome or kde distro should run on this as well.

    I have my own save-a-laptop project going with an old Compaq thats only reporting 109MB when its supposed to be 128M...I think. It runs well sometimes and drags others. And for some reason the Netgear wireless USB adapter won't plug-n-play as it does on my other laptop. I'm assuming now this could be a USB 2.0 issue??? I think there are some hardware problems that are going to render that one useless.
  • For the 64 MB RAM machine: take DSL or Puppy

    Don't throw away that old machine with 64 MB RAM just yet... Damn Small Linux (DSL) will run just fine on it. Or perhaps even Puppy Linux, but Puppy is a little heavier than DSL.
    • If you like Xfce, great ... but it won't really outperform GNOME

      I've spent a lot of time running GNOME and Xfce in Ubuntu/Xubuntu, Debian and other distros, and I really haven't seen a lot of performance gains -- in Ubuntu, especially -- using Xfce over Ubuntu.

      So if you like Xfce, it's great to use, and Xubuntu does make Xfce very usable. All the GNOME-ish things in Ubuntu are there -- the network manager, Synaptic. And it's the Xfce apps that are responsible for a lot of the quickening of the box: the Thunar file manager and Mousepad text editor. The Xfce media player (whose name escapes me at the moment) is also quite good.

      But you really can't do much of anything with Xfce in 64 MB of RAM. I've run Debian with Xfce in that amount of memory, and it's not exactly pleasant. Puppy runs OK in 64 MB, unless you want to run the Seamonkey browser. If you're OK with the Dillo browser and Abiword, 64 MB of RAM is great. Even in Xfce, you'll be OK, but it's the apps that start to drag you down.

      Only Damn Small Linux -- and the latest version now has an early build of Firefox 2, upgraded from 1.06 -- will allow you to run Firefox in 64 MB of RAM and not want to kill yourself.

      Maybe at 128 MB of RAM you'll see a difference with Xfce, but with 256 MB or more, I think GNOME performs every bit as well as Xfce -- or at least it has in my experience.
      Steven Rosenberg
      • Actually... Xfce DOES run faster than Gnome

        You're probably comparing Xfce to Gnome on a fast machine (like 1Ghz or faster) - and you're unlikely to see a difference.

        Where you really want to test is down in the 300Mhz to 500Mhz range. Do a standard Ubuntu install (that uses Gnome) and then compare with Kubuntu (KDE) and then Xubuntu (Xfce). You'll find that effective speed is (slowest) U -> K -> X (fastest). 'Ubuntu 6.06 level I did side-by-side comparisons with 233Mhz to 300Mhz machines and Gnome was unuseable, KDE worked but was slow, Xfce was fast and workable for Open Office - type of tasks.

        I rebuild/refurbish ex-Windows "doorstops" into useable machines - so I've worked with a few different levels of hardware. Anything below 700Mhz gets Xubuntu.

        My regular business travels I use a couple of laptops: a 500Mhz and the other a 300Mhz and I only expect to run Xubuntu on it - in fact right now upgrading from 6.06 to 8.04 on that 300Mhz laptop.

  • So, tell me...

    Is that fire extinguisher behind you to put out failed linux install conflagrations?
  • RE: Xubuntu 8.04 stellar on low-power machines

    I recently installed Xubuntu 8 on my old laptop - CoMPAQ P3 running at 750 mhz with 12 Gb HDD and 375 Mb RAM.

    It is comparable with Win XP, maybe a tad faster, but certainly no slower.

    The motivation for my change to Linux was simple...

    1) much smaller OS footprint than XP Home.
    2) less HDD space = more apps, better speed
    3) to evaluate a Linux OS which is user-friendly
    4) become accustomed to Linux OS and Apps, with view..
    5) of migrating other Hardware to a Linux OS in second half of 2008.


    Most impressed with Xubuntu (no freezes, crashes, glitches so far). Am now evaluating various Linux software Apps with a view to replacing MS Office and MS Pub, also Adobe Audition. The latter two being my main Apps for Radio Production & Jouornalism work.

    Also using Firefox and Thunderbird - seemless so far.

    On track for the BIG change in 2-3 months I think.
  • Low power machines...

    You can generally install Xubuntu on 300Mhz or faster machines with 128MB ram (if you use the alternate install CD) or 192MB ram if you start from the liveCD.

    When you get a machine that is 500Mhz or faster consider Kubuntu (KDE) or maybe Ubuntu (Gnome) if 700Mhz or better.

    More RAM allows you to have more programs open at once.

    The other thing to look at, if you have a need for computers for several people in a house, is setting up a Linux Terminal Server (LTSP.org) after installing X/K/Ubuntu. Then you can log into the server from anywhere in the house, and the clients are diskless (think quiet/low power) and can be a Pentium 2 with 128MB ram (might get by with P1/200Mhz or better vintage without fixing Kernels) and a PXE network card (or go to "rom-o-matic" for a floppy disk PXE launcher). All programs reside and run on the server (which can be a 700Mhz-1Ghz machine for home use or 2-3Ghz for small business/"classroom").

    I think I have an old link on my blog with a bit more information if you're interested: http://www.privateproductivity.com/blog
  • RE: Xubuntu 8.04 stellar on low-power machines

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