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Computing like it’s 1999

One of my recent “science fair” projects has been trying to get an older ASUS EeePC 900A netbook configured to a usable state. This was one of the first really practical netbooks with a 1st generation Intel ATOM processor with 1GB of Memory and one of very first practical SSD cards for file storage with 4GB of space. Not the most capable of machines from a hardware standpoint. ASUS shipped the machine with a rather hacked-up lightweight Linux distro. Sadly, the distribution they selected wasn’t one of the mainstream distributions like Debian, Ubuntu, or Fedora. This meant that you didn’t have access to a lot of the stuff that you need to work in an academic environment like my workplace. So, you say “Big deal, just install the NetBook Remix of Ubuntu?” It’s the problem of “Linux… just too darn fat” raising it’s ugly head again. Even the netbook oriented repackages of Ubuntu or Fedora assume a much more capable machine than what the 900A can handle.

That got me thinking: you know the specs on this machine would have been pretty sweet back 10 years ago. So, how would I have configured Linux back around 1999 and would that configuration be useful today. First step: how to setup the OS. GNOME and KDE are right out… And that gets rid of a ton of fat right there. Think about it: how much of what those desktop managers install do you really use in the normal course of business. OK, do we even need X-Windows? Could I really be that “Tech Neanderthal” and just work with text-mode EMACS on a Linux console?

Problem is web browsing. The guys at Google may be onto something with ChromeOS given how much time I spend during the day doing useful stuff in the web browser. However, while you can do a lot stuff using text mode browsers like w3m, a lot of the stuff you want to do just requires a GUI. OK, so we need a X-Windows and, thus, some sort of window manager to go with it. The best solution I’ve found was Fluxbox: it’s lightweight and works well.

Beyond web browsing,everything else that I do in my life I can do from inside EMACS. Writing documents (with AUCTEX and TeXLive), reading and responding to E-mail, manage my day-to-day tasks can all be done using the “editor that thinks it’s an operating system”. So, with the base OS, X/Windows+Fluxbox, Firefox, and GNU Emacs installed, I’ve used up about 80% of the 4GB SSD. Put my /home partition (where user data is stored) on a 4GB flash card in the flash card slot combined with a well-tuned command-line installation of Dropbox and I’m in business.

Of course there are still problems. The hardware is pretty slow, esp. when surfing to graphics-intensive web sites. I have to aggressively manage what files I keep local to the netbook given the available space. Particularly vexing is dealing with the dependency hell that is modern Linux package management. Good example is UI toolkit that I had to install for teaching purposes the other day. For one package, I had to install nearly 40 other dependent packages. It’s getting almost as bad as DLL-hell on Windows.

So, worthy experiment? Yep, I now have a usable travel machine that’s about 3 pounds lighter than the MacBook Pro I use at work. Still saving up to get a MacBook Air, tho’. And it does lend some credence to the thought that the GNOME, KDE, Windows, and Mac OS X folks have gotten complacent about the amount of resources they use when building applications.


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