I refurb older, donated computer models for senior citizens. Most of the units are Pl with 64 or 128 MB of RAM. I need an OS that won't hog the memory. These computers are used primarily for Internet access, email and basic games. We only have dial up available so a simplified browser would be nice too. And did I mention, they need to be free?
Signed: Nick in Hicktown
First, lets assume that these machines get to be used in one of two situations: at individual homes where they're pretty much personal machines and in group homes where they're intended to be shared.
In the personal setting what you need is going to depend a bit on what you have and a bit more on the particular needs of the individual. In most cases, for example, middle aged and older eyes have trouble working with even 1024 x 768 on 15 inch screens. Spread those dots out a bit, and the situation gets better but what this means is most of the time any nickels you've got to put into these machines have to go for bigger screens and matching controllers, not Linux or applications.
There's no problem with big screens and bigger fonts for "lightweight" Linux but there are some issues with other special needs ranging from oversized keyboards and mice to touchscreens and text to speech converters. It's the devil's advice, we know, but some of the machines you get in will have legal licenses for NT 4.0 workstation and, on small machines with older peripherals, this stuff works about as well as anything - so maybe reserve your 128MB machines and those licenses for people with applicable handicaps and bite the bullet on sometimes supporting Windows.
For the more generic home user, I'd suggest standardizing on one "lightweight" distribution like Vector Linux. You can use these to make custom install CDs to leave with the machines that, by default, install your choice of windowing manager, browser, larger fonts, and email client.
For example vectorlinux supports both Fluxbox and ICEwm and the KDE office suite along with both Firefox (for the 128MB units) and Dillo (for the 64MB crowd).
Vectorlinux isn't the only choice and I'm not saying it's any better than the others, but I am saying you should pick one and stick with it because eventually you'll stop doing this - and whoever takes over will have an easier time (meaning that your clients will have an easier time) if you standardized early on.
You can do this for group homes too, but I suspect you'll be better off installing one more or less up to date Linux machine on a faster connection even if that costs money, and then adopting the linux terminal server technologies to run your user workstations as network clients. That will let you attach special purpose hardware (including an NT 4.0 box or two to share the connection via your proxy server) to some user stations, while stealing some memory from them to augment the in-home individual units.
One word: Novell.
Novell has made a lot of its dedication to desktop Linux.
Version 9 of its software includes what it calls a full "productivity suite," which is a generic term for Office (just like photocopy is a generic for Xerox).
The system requirements are (dare I say it) primitive. When was the last time you saw a 266 MHz machine required? Just last month I bought a 2.4 GHz box for about $500.
The base price of just $35 (complete with documentation) is cheap, and even the "upgrade guarantee" and "support" prices are pretty low.
Now, I've written often on my Open Source blog expressing skepticism of Novell's desktop Linux drum-beating. That's mainly based on its past history, when the company was based in Utah. These days it's based in Massachusetts (kind of like Governor Romney, who ran the Salt Lake City Olympics before being elected the Bay State's chief executive).
But what's at risk here? At these prices, it's worth a shot.