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Laptop for Grandma - Low-RAM operating systems
Continuing my series on a [Laptop for Grandma], I thought I would pursue some of the "low-RAM" operating system choices. Grandma's Thinkpad R31 has only 384MB of RAM.
All of the ones below are based on Linux. For those who aren't familiar with installing or running the Linux operating system, here are some helpful tips:
Most Linux distributors allow you to download an ISO file for free. These can be either (a) burned to a CD, (b) burned to a DVD, or (c) written to a USB memory stick.
The ISO can be either a "LiveCD/LiveDVD" version, an installation program, or a combination of the two. The "Live" version allows you to boot up and try out the operating system without modifying the contents of your hard drive. Windows and Mac OS users can try out Linux without impact to their existing environment. Some Linux distributions offer both a full LiveCD+Installer version, as well as an alternate text-based Installer-only version. The latter often requires less RAM to use.
When installing, it is best to have the laptop plugged in to an electrical outlet, and hard-wired to the internet in case it needs to download the latest drivers for your particular hardware.
A CD can hold only 700MB. Many of the newer Linux distributions exceed that, requiring a DVD or USB stick instead. If your laptop has an older optical drive, it may not be able to read DVD media. Some older optical drives can only read CD's, not burn them. In my case, I burned the CDs on another machine, and then used them on grandma's Thinkpad R31.
To avoid burning "a set of coasters" when trying out multiple choices, consider using rewriteable optical media, or the USB option. If you don't like it, you can re-use for something else.
The program [Unetbootin] can take most ISO files and write them to a bootable USB stick. On my Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 laptop, I had to also install p7zip and p7zip-plugins first.
The BIOS on some older machines, like my grandma's Thinkpad R31, cannot boot from USB. The [PLoP Boot Manager] allows you to first boot from floppy or CD-ROM, and then allows you to boot from the USB. This worked great on my grandma's system. The PLoP Boot Manager is also available on the [Ultimate Boot CD].
While I am a big fan of SUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, these all require more RAM than available on grandma's laptop. Here are some Low-RAM alternatives I tried:
Damn Small Linux 4.11 RC2
The Damn Small Linux [DSL] project was dormant since 2008, but has a fresh new release for 2012. This baby can run in as little 16MB or RAM! If you have 128MB of RAM or more, the OS can run entirely from RAM, providing much faster performance.
Of course, there are always trade-offs, and in this case, apps were chosen for their size and memory footprint, not necessarily for their user-friendliness and eye candy. For example, the xMMS plays MP3 music, but I did not find it as friendly as iTunes or Rhythmbox.
Boot time is fast. From hitting the power-on button to playing the first note of MP3 music was about 1 minute.
Installing DSL Linux on the hard drive converts it into a Debian distribution, which then allows more options for applications.
Next up was [MacPup]. The latest version is 529, based on Pupply Linux 5.2.60 Precise, compatible with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin. While traditional Puppy Linux clutters the screen with apps, the MacPup tries to have the look-and-feel of the MacOS by having a launcher tray at the bottom center of the screen.
Both MacPup and Puppy Linux can run in very small amounts of RAM and disk space. Like DSL above, you can opt to run MacPup entirely in 128MB of RAM. Unfortunately, the trade-off is a lack of application choices.
Installation to the hard drive was quite involved, certainly not for the beginner. First, you have to use Gparted to partition the disk. I created a 19GB (sda1) for my files, and 700MB (sda5) for swap. I had troubles with "ext4" file system, so re-formatted to "ext3". Second, you have to copy the files over from the LiveCD using the "Puppy Universal Installer". Third, you have to set up the Bootloader. Grub didn't work, so I installed Grub4Dos instead.
The music app is called "Alsa Player", and I was able to drag the icon into the startup tray. time-to-first-note was just over 1 minute. Fast, but not as "simple-to-use" as I would like.
SliTaz 4.0 claims to be able to run in as little as 48MB of RAM and 100MB of disk space. Time-to-first-note was similar to MacPup, but I didn't care for the TazPanel for setup, and the TazPkg for installing a limited set of software packages. I could not get Wi-Fi working at all on SliTaz, and just gave up trying.
All three of these ran on grandma's Thinkpad R31, and all three could play MP3 music. However, I was concerned that they were not as simple to use as grandma would like, and I would be concerned the amount of time and effort I might have to spend if things go wrong.