Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Resurrecting an Aptiva with D*mn Small Linux

And now for a mildly technical post.

The Aptiva was a line of home personal computers that introduced sometime in the mid-1990s. It was a solid line but faced stiff competition from other big-name brands as well as the white box vendors. IBM eventually dropped the Aptiva when it shifted away from the home market. These days, you can find these machines in second-hand computer shops going for under P6,000 for a complete set.

I bought an Aptiva in 1997 at an IBM sale. Slightly more expensive than I would have gotten a clone PC for, it was nevertheless a good purchase at the time. Its processor was a Pentium 200-MMX and it came with 16MB of RAM, a 5GB hard disk, and two USB ports. It was also pre-loaded with Windows and host of licensed software, a relatively fine sound system, and a cool-looking joystick. The case was solidly-built and, in my opinion, was sturdy enought to stop a small caliber bullet.

I shipped the machine to Davao for my sisters to use, where it's been ever since. Over the course of the years, our Aptiva went through changes of hard disk and a memory upgrade to 32MB. But in a world where computers last no more than three years, our Aptiva was shelved in favor of newer and faster computers. We should have sold it when we could, but we didn't. So there it's been, sitting in the corner and gathering dust for the better part of five years.

Finding myself with some time during my extended stay in Davao, I decided to resurrect this old machine. I plugged it in, and surprise! surprise! it still booted into LILO to let me choose between Windows 95 / Red Hat 6.2. However, given my present requirements, the apps simply wouldn't take anymore. I opted to reinstall a newer version of Linux, of course.

Now, what version of Linux could possibly load into a Pentium 200-MMX machine with 32MB of RAM? I first attempted my favorite LiveCD, Slax, but it turns out I couldn't even boot it since it used the newer isolinux system. Besides, it needed 32MB minimum to boot without the GUI.

A little research here and there, and finally, I rediscover D*mn Small Linux (forgive the mild expletive, that's really the name of the distro). At a little over 50MB, DSL is even leaner than Slax, and comes with a syslinux version specifically for older machines. A quick download and burn later and yep, my old Aptiva is running a fairly recent version of Linux.

That's not the end of my experiments, though. Flipping through the application list, I find that DSL includes a PPPoE dialer, which is the same scheme that my sister uses to connect to her Bayantel account. I buy a long cable to snake into her room, fire up the configuration utility, and voila! I'm on the Internet. And now I'm posting to my blog using Mozilla Firefox at a resolution of 1024x768 at 24 colors.

Like, I'll be darned.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not recommending that everybody go out and buy a second-hand Pentium with a ridiculously small amount of memory. This thing isn't exactly blazingly fast, and it has a tendency to keel over if I run too many applications. It's only a 32MB, after all, so I have to keep my eye on the memory meter that sits on the desktop.

But, darnit, it's actually running. And I'm blogging on it.

Seriously scary, man.