Originally Published: Thursday, 28 September 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Your "Old" 486 & LINUX

Yesterday's technology does not have to be tomorrow's door stop. Through the power of Linux, you can make use of that 486 you have buried in the closet.

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Computers have come a long way since the first IBM PC in 1981. In less time than it takes to age a fine wine, the latest PC processor has become over 200 times faster then its great-grandfather, the 8086. But yesterday's technology does not have to be tomorrow's door stop. Through the power of Linux, you can make use of that 486 you have buried in the closet.

Why Keep The Old Clunker Going?

It seems like forever since a 25 Mhz computer was "cutting edge", but it's not an old wives' tale.

"Back in my day, I used to get pictures of Cindy Margolis using Gopher on a 386DX-16 ... and she was still a fetus!"

That "old" 486 still has lots of life in it. Making it a useful computer keeps it out of a landfill. Remember, your computer is filled with lead and non-biodegradable materials that do nasty things to your local municipality's water table. Plus, a 486 is perfect for many Linux applications that don't require a graphical environment.

So let's list just a few nifty applications for the under-100Mhz computing crowd.

Linux Router Project

The 486 makes a perfect firewall/router/IP-masquerading machine. The Linux Router Project (LRP) has created a GNU/Linux distribution that runs from a single floppy. Even without a hard drive, you can run a full router configuration. This works best with two good network cards and at least 16 MB of memory.

There are a couple of variations of LRP. FreeSCO is Linux based, but is not based on the LRP distribution. FreeSCO has a very nice setup menu, good documentation, and the ability to act as a small-load FTP and Web server. Coyote Linux is based on the LRP distribution, adding a user-friendly disk creation utility and support for PPP over Ethernet (PPPoE) which allows it to work with DSL connections.

WWW: Lynx and Arachne

The web didn't always have pretty pictures and Java-based "punch the monkey" banners. Lynx is one of the original web browsers . . . and it's 100% text based. Believe it or not, most web pages look fine in Lynx. It's good as a tool for up and coming web designers; any page that doesn't load in Lynx isn't worth looking at.

But graphical web browsers don't always require X11. For the past few years, Arachne has been one of the few graphical web browsers for DOS. Now this code has been ported to Linux, running entirely on the SVGAlib graphics library. It's still a beta product, but it has mouse support and displays most graphics formats. It also has a mail program and a graphical file manager.


Perhaps the text-based world of vi and Lynx isn't what you're into . . . not a problem. There are many computer refurbishment charities around the country that would love to take your old computer. No, I'm not kidding.

Computer recyclers like Atlanta's FreeBytes make working computers for charity out of spare bits donated by business and individuals. While not all of the computers end up running GNU/Linux, most of them end up running GPL software (like FreeDOS) or non-Microsoft products (like NewDeal office suite). A needy group gets a working computer, and nasty bits of plastic and lead stay out of the landfill.

A World Of Possibility

Your 486 hasn't become a slower computer ... it's exactly the same speed as the day you bought it. What has changed is the software, developed for the mighty computers of today. By properly selecting the software you use, a 486 computer (or older) can still be a great GNU/Linux platform.

Brian Richardson urges you to dig that old PC out of the closet and put it to good use. If you have a good application for GNU/Linux on an older computer that wasn't listed, e-mail it to brianr@linux.com.

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