Linux on a 486


Update 13/5-08:
It is five years since this page was updated and many of the links below are outdated and dead. My current recommendations are Basic Linux if you have a box with 8 MB (or 3 MB if you doesn't use X-windows), and Damn Small Linux if you have 16 MB or more. Another possibility is Puppy Linux (I have not tested this one). If you want to try some of the distros below, I suggest that you start with Pygmy and then Grey Cat.


This started out of curiosity, to see if it is possible to use an old 486 as an X-terminal. This is indeed possible, and as I found out, it is possible to run a lightweight Linux desktop. The PC in question is a no-name 66 MHz 486 with 32 MB memory, a vl-bus Tseng ET4000-W32 display card and two hard disks (250 and 420 MB). I have looked at a few lightweight distributions and applications using this PC:

Monkey Linux
This was my first attempt. Monkey resides on a fat/dos file system and is extracted from 5 diskettes. It comes with kernel 2.0.30, a basic SVGA X server and takes around 30 MB of your disk. The X setup requires some tweaking, in particular you should check that the "HorizSync" keyword in the /etc/XF86Config file corresponds to your monitor. Also dhcpcd is missing, and there seems to be a bug in ftp. Overall, this is a small and nice distribution. You can find some info about Monkey here and how-to install here. You can download Monkey here, here or here.

Dragon Linux 0.8
Next attempt was Dragon Linux version 0.8 which also installs on a fat/dos file system. It comes as a zip archive which is installed from Windows. It is based on Slackware 4.0 and comes with KDE, which was ditched in favour of IceWM – KDE will bring any 486 to its knees. This worked ok for some time until the boot process stopped midway (probably because of my fiddling) after which it was deleted. You may download Dragon here (45 MB), and you can find some additional user experience here and here.

Grey Cat Linux 3.0
Grey Cat comes with X, IceWM, Netscape and a few simple, lightweight X applications. It weighs in as a 12 MB download and may be installed from diskettes. Uncompressing takes 15-20 minutes and it occupies around 63 MB on your dos/win disk (including a 32 MB swap file). Grey Cat is based on Slackware 3.5 – you should be able to extend it by downloading and installing precompiled Slackware packages. Booting is pretty fast, X-windows works ok with 16 MB memory, and may in a pinch be used with only 8 MB (it will be slow, and avoid using Netscape). You can download Grey Cat here, here or here.

Pygmy Linux
Another alternative is Pygmy Linux which comes without X, but it comes with instructions on how to install X and also how to move it to a Linux partition. It is based on Slackware 7.1 – you should be able to extend Pygmy by downloading and installing precompiled Slackware packages. You can download Pygmy here. I may add that Pygmy was installed in another 486 which was used for remote on/off-switching for some Electrohome projectors. It had run without problems for 4-5 years when it was retired in march 2008.

Vector Linux
I tried Vector linux 2.0 (X 3.3.6 version), but it was terribly slow - even in console modus. Maybe it is optimised for pentiums or maybe I did not set it up correctly. And with v1.8 there was some corruption problem with a downloaded file. On the other hand, v2.0 works very well on my P2-266, and since it doesn't come with KDE, it should be well suited for slower pentiums.

Peanut Linux 8.4
This is a step up the ladder as it was installed on a linux partition (you may also install it on a fat/dos file system). Installation is not as simple as with the fat/dos based version as you have to set up a linux partition. Though, if you follow the installation instructions, it shouldn't be too difficult. Peanut comes with KDE as standard, which again was ditched in favour of IceWM. IceWM can be optimised by removing unnecessary entries in the menu-file, and by selecting a light theme (e.g. "nice"). This halved the time for starting X to around 15 seconds. It also seems more responsive, e.g. the "confirm logout" window pops up (almost) instantaneously, whereas for the default Infadel2 theme, it took 4 seconds. The default theme also produced some colour problems. I also deleted all KDE related files in /opt/kde2 which halved the disk requirements to around 110 MB. It is no speed daemon, of course (it takes e.g. around 45 seconds to load Netscape 4.77), but it still hums along with a respectable speed. There is a noticeable slowdown with 16 MB memory.

Browsers

Office applications

Other applications

Conclusions
If you only have 8 MB memory and want X, you may try Grey Cat 3.0. But you really need more memory, at least 16 MB, for X to fly. Currently I am using Peanut and it works pretty well after configuring it for lightweight use. As for the applications:

Links

My name is Knut Backe and you may contact me via e-mail; knut.reitan.backe@ntnu.no. Last updated 11 November 2002. Some updates 13/5-08.