Monthly Archives: February 2007

The world of Linux browsers

I’ve been using live-CD Linuxes for about a month now, and that means a bunch of new browsers. Besides Firefox, I’ve used SeaMonkey, a Mozilla offshoot that looks a lot like Netscape Communicator, and Konqueror, which doubles as a file manager in KDE-desktop Linux systems.
This is my first day using SeaMonkey with Blogger, and it’s about 95 percent there. I got a warning that Blogger might not save my post, but it did, although it took an extra minute or two.

And when doing HTML links (at least you CAN do them), I get a funny “paste me here” kind of graphic after I hit the chain-link icon. I have to click away from the window to get rid of it, or risk pasting the very icon from the blogger program in my text window … and sometimes my cursor itself disappears in the SeaMonkey window. But it does work. And I love Netscape 4.8 for the Mac, so it’s nice to have a fast version of that venerable platform. For the moment, I’ve given up on downloading POP mail and prefer to use Web interfaces for Yahoo! Mail and the like, so the mail component isn’t that important to me. but as browsers, both SeaMonkey and Konqueror are pretty nice.

Another great, even-smaller browser is Dillo, which doesn’t really play well with CSS-heavy pages, but is so damn light on the system that it’s a pleasure to run.

Dillo and Konqueror are Linux-only, but SeaMonkey is available for Linux, Windows and OS X, so you owe it to yourself to download and try. It’s a great alternative to Firefox, and it loads way, way faster.

You owe it to your geek self to try Linux

I’ve burned and tried about a dozen Linux distributions that run on live CDs, meaning you don’t have to install them on your hard drive until you want to. They boot directly from CD (if your system can handle it). On This Old PC, I had to go into the BIOS settings and change the boot order to look at the CD-ROM drive first, the hard drive second. Actually, it checks the floppy first, but that’s another story. On the newer Dell, I can hit F12 and change the boot drive for that session only, or go into the BIOS and make a permanent change in boot order.

Anyhow, in the month that I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried:

Knoppix (granddaddy of bootable Linuxes)
Ubuntu
Xubuntu
Fluxbuntu
Puppy
Damn Small Linux
Damn Small Linux-n
MepisLite
Zen Walk

Hey, that’s only nine … but it’s still a lot.

So far, my favorites are Puppy Linux and Ubuntu.

Both are wildly popular (Ubuntu being the most popular, according to distrowatch.com) with extremely active user forums — there’s plenty of help available to get started.

The dirty little secret of Linux is that it can be murder to configure your system. They’re called “distributions,” because they include a bunch of applications along with the operating system — and the applications are often “tuned” to the type of hardware the distribution is meant for.

For older, smaller systems, the biggies are DSL and Puppy. But when it comes to actually getting things to work, Puppy has been better. On the Dell, which is newish (only about a year or so old), everything works — sound, Ethernet, printing. At home, I haven’t been able to get my old ISA soundcard to work, or wireless, but I can get Ethernet. So it’s a mixed bag, even for Puppy. With DSL, I’ve had trouble getting even Ethernet on the Dell. But either one of these “small” Linux distros can make an older system come alive again, especially Puppy, which is designed to boot from CD and then run entirely in RAM (preferably 128 MB, better with more — and remember, old RAM is cheap).

I’m going to do my best to make either Puppy or DSL work on This Old PC, but for now, I much prefer Puppy. I can easily save to a Windows directory or a USB flash drive, printer setup is straightforward, as is Ethernet setup. If you’re using DSL (as in Digital Subscriber Line, not Damn Small Linux) for your home connection, you’ll probably get Internet automatically with just about any Linux disc — they’re set up for DHCP.

As I said, Ubuntu is king of the Linux distributions at present, as it is blessed with financial backing from some South African bigwig, a fast-growing user base and a blissfully easy-to-configure front end. I’ve been able to get just about everything working on both the Dell and This Old PC. In fact, I’ve almost got wireless working — it sees the routers, but I’ve yet to actually get Internet through the box. Now Ubuntu is a bit too much for a 333 MHz processor, and there are lighter “flavors” of Ubuntu for older PCs — Xubuntu and Fluxbuntu. I like Xubuntu, especially its Xfce window manager (as opposed to the GNOME used by Ubuntu). But the setup programs are not as easy to use — Ubuntu is much more accommodating. I think I will try Ubuntu with a Xubuntu-like desktop, switching over after installing (yes, you can do that). Then I can switch at will. That and installing the Abiword word processor and SeaMonkey browser (used in Puppy and DSL) to further lighten the load.

Still, when the going gets tough, it’s off to the forums for long lists of esoteric things to type into a terminal window … and I don’t like it one bit, but that’s often the way with Linux, at least at this point.

I had a pretty good experience with MepisLite, the “lite” version of SimplyMepis, But I tried to load it again, and it wouldn’t work at all … so it’s back to the ‘Buntus and Puppy for now.

So my recommendation is to figure out how to burn your own ISO images to CD (if you have Nero, it will do it, or you can download one of the free Windows add-ons suggested at the various Linux distro Web sites) and start downloading. I’d get Ubuntu, Puppy and DSL and start playing around. The best news source for Linux is Lxer, which will lead you to any number of other sites at which you can keep up with what’s happening in the fast-paced world of Linux, where new distributions crop up like dandelions in spring.

More on eBay laptops — and a good deal elsewhere

The bidding gets furious as the listings come to a close — and all that aside, the overbidding I see (or that I perceive, anyway) is testament to the demand for used laptops, and the fact that people are willing to pay. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of these are legitimate transactions and that there are real buyers with real money behind them.

That said, new laptops generally start at $500 to $600. I can’t see ever paying MORE than that, but the $1,000 laptop is very common. In fact, Apple doesn’t have anything cheaper than that.

One of my favorite places for used gear, Geeks.com, has a good deal on laptops: A Compaq Pentium M 1.4 GHz with 512 MB RAM, 28 GB hard drive, modem and Ethernet, and XP loaded for $389. It’s probably a way better deal than a much older 300 MHz laptop for $200 … but $389 is still more than $100 … $289 more, in fact. Going down to the Pentium III realm, Geeks has a ThinkPad 900 MHz with 128 MB RAM, 20 GB hd, no OS loaded, for $249. That’s more like it … but it’s still not $100. Here’s a Dell with better specs for $279.

I love the way that a $75 purchase suddenly jumps to $100 … then $175 (I’ve seen some good ones at that price) … up to $400 … such is the evil of acquisition, one of the reasons This Old PC and This Old Mac champion making the gear you already have do as much as it can.

Looking for This Old Laptop

I’ve been looking for a used laptop. I’m OK with something in the 233-350 MHz range, and I’m getting nowhere.

That’s because people feel that laptops in this range are worth more than $200. To me, they’re not. $100 is my upper limit, maybe $120 with shipping, but people seem to feel that their 7-or-more-year-old laptop, is worth a lot of money. And judging by what’s going on with eBay, they might be right.

Go here for all laptops on eBay, and here for the IBM ThinkPads I’ve been focusing on (for no good reason other than that they’re supposed to work well under Linux and there seems to be a lot of them). Ideally, I’d like to score something for $75. After all, there’s not a whole lot you can do with a 233 MHz laptop with a 6 GB hard drive, Windows 98 and no built-in Ethernet or wireless … and often not even USB. But there’s quite a market out there. I wish I had a bunch to sell — it’s like printing money.

If you paid $1,000 for your laptop, getting $200 for it 7 years later is a pretty heady feat. You’ll get more if you sell earlier. And the beauty of it is that if you buy one of these $200 laptops, the chances of you turning it around for what you paid for it are very, very good.

I just don’t want to spend more than $100. I’ve even tried Craigslist. You wouldn’t believe how many people are selling a laptop with posts that offer not nearly enough information on what it is they’re selling (not even a model number often) and with prices that are way inflated. I’ve lowballed a few, and most don’t even write back. Are they getting their price? I can’t think they are. All I know is that for laptops, it’s definitely a seller’s market at this point.

One factor is the fact that a laptop is generally one piece (not including the power adapter) and easily shipped … and people just seem to love laptops, even for home use (they take up less space and are less noisy).

If I do succeed in my quest, I will report here …

To build a new PC, or not to build

I’ve been looking into building a new PC lately. I’m fascinated with the mini-ITX form factor – extremely small motherboards and cases (nano-ITX is even smaller), along with low noise, low power consumption and sometimes fanless design – but less fascinated with the prices and performance of such systems.

Today’s “conventional” motherboards are mini-ATX size, which is about 9 by 9 inches. I figured This Old PC’s case couldn’t handle the new motherboards. Well, I popped the hood, and it turns out that This Old PC’s motherboard is ATX-sized. It’s a thin ATX, measuring 7.5 by 12 inches, but it’s ATX nonetheless.

And according to the info stamped in the case, it will accommodate mini-ATX motherboards. So I could pull the Pentium II MMX 333 MHz board, slap in some 3 GHz processor-equipped motherboard for about $60, drop in a half- ($50) or full gigabyte of RAM ($80-90) and a SATA drive ($50) and be off to the literal races. I could keep the current case, power supply, CD drive, keyboard, mouse and monitor, minimizing the environmental impact. I’d hold onto the old motherboard, just in case.

So it’s a minimum of $160. But I’ve already found a new PC, case included, for $139. At 800 MHz, 256 MB RAM and 13.6 GB HD, it’s way underpowered compared to what I listed above, but it’s damn cheap (link here). I suppose I could spec my own “new” system this low and get it for less, say a motherboard for $30 (if I could even find one that low-spec’d). RAM for $20 and HD for $30. That would be about $80 total … so it would be a savings. But it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to put in a new board if I wasn’t going for the 3 GHz speed cushion that’s available for so little today.

And as I’ve learned, XP runs great with 512 MB on a 3 GHz box. I have no complaints about not having a full GB of RAM.

Still, I’m not comfortable about losing This Old PC as a test bed for what an older PC can do. I might just wait and go the mini-ITX route after all. Who wouldn’t love a small PC that’s not a laptop but which makes little or no noise and consumes between 8 and 15 watts of power? Not that people don’t do it all the time with conventional PCs, but this kind of box I’d be comfortable leaving on all the time, given its power-sipping characteristics.

An early morning with This Old PC

You know, this system, running under Windows 2000 and Office 97, isn’t all that bad at all, even with a Pentium II MMX 333 MHz. I suppose having 262 MB of addressable RAM helps (given the context of this system, it’s a lot). Internet Explorer 6 comes up rather quickly, as does Word 97. I’ll have to run Photoshop and see how that does.

I wonder if Open Office 1 or 2 would be as fast as Word. There have been plenty of complaints about OO’s relative sluggishness on first launch. When closed and launched again during the same computing session, the lag in OO is not as pronounced, since some portion of the program must be running in the background. Perhaps OO does the same thing, but only after loaded the first time.

All I know is that Word 97 launches in about 5 seconds and relaunches in 2 seconds on this Windows 2000 box. That is a sweet, sweet situation. My ideal computing environment is one that boots quickly, with applications that launch quickly. I also ALT-TAB between applications frequently… and also want that to happen quickly. It’s one of the reasons I generally prefer IE to Firefox on PC and Safari to Firefox on Mac – if that first load is slow, it harshes my computing mellow, big time.

On the Pentium II box, the 8 GB hard drive (remember when that was big?) only has about 1.5 GB remaining, so the next step in This Old PC’s evolution is stuffing it with a bigger drive, making a bunch of partitions for Windows and a few Linuxes and going from there. The only software I’d lose if I pull the drive, as I don’t have the discs (the computer was passed down, as they say), is the aforementioned Office 97, which includes a full version of Outlook, and Photoshop 5. The rest is shareware or freeware (EditPad, Firefox) or stuff that I actually have discs for.

Quick interruption: It must’ve been around 1990 or ’91. We bought a Dell PC at the big-box membership store than called Price Club (now Costco). I can’t remember how much we paid, but I remember well that it was a 386 SX 25 (25 big Mhz) with something like 8 MB RAM (can’t quite remember), Windows 3.1 and DOS (can’t remember the version). I mention DOS, because in those days, with that kind of “power,” you couldn’t really run Win 3.1. You pretty much had to live in the world of DOS, where applications were lean and really, really mean. Not Word for DOS, but just about everything else. I can’t remember the name of that free dialup program that we used to get on BBSes, but it was pretty sweet. We used it to get on Prodigy, GEnie and even early AOL, also.

… back to our regularly scheduled post:

I wonder how much used copies of Office and Photoshop are going for on eBay these days? I bet you can get a few bucks for the full versions. The moral – if you own software legitimately, keep those discs, boxes and crappy manuals; they could be worth a little something even 10 years down the road.

This Old PC also has Nero 5 (didn’t know until right now) which I could use to make the bootable ISO discs for Linux that I’m churning out like crazy. I do have the Nero disc in my pile – it came with my TDK 32/10/40X CD burner, which I also still have installed. Do you think Nero 5 will run under Windows XP? Reports on the Web are mixed on this. But it would be sweet.

I haven’t really written on This Old PC in awhile, as I am this morning It’s an enjoyable experience. I forgot how much I like Word’s spellcheck on the fly (with the red underlines for potential misspellings). Open Office does it too, but the Daily News’ in-house spellcheck in the paper’s Unisys Hermes system does not.