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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

By Razvan T. Coloja on March 14, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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When my girlfriend visits me, she has to work on a mini PC while I use my laptop to finish whatever I postponed at the office. Her PC has a 1GHz VIA processor and 128 MB of RAM and runs Ubuntu. You can imagine how slowly it boots, even with Linux installed, and GNOME runs so slowly that it's quite irritating. I didn't want to reformat and install a lightweight Linux distribution like Fluxbuntu because the mini PC doesn't have a CD-ROM drive, and I already had 10GB of data that would have taken a long time to back up. Instead, I found and installed some lightweight software to improve her computing experience.

The problem with speeding up your desktop is that you have to make certain usability compromises. I had to make my girlfriend's desktop fast, yet as user-friendly as the GNOME environment she uses on her own Ubuntu-based computer at home.

I installed iDesk to give her icons on the desktop on top of the Fluxbox desktop environment. The icons are defined through .lnk files located in ~/.idesktop for each application you want to appear on the desktop. For example, to create a shortcut to Firefox, you would create a file with touch ~/.idesktop/firefox.lnk with the following contents:

table Icon Caption: Firefox Command: /usr/bin/firefox Icon: /usr/share/pixmaps/mozilla-firefox.png Width: 48 Height: 48 X: 299 Y: 49 end

The Caption line defines the name of the shortcut as it appears on the screen. Below that, write the full path to the binary and specify an icon (in PNG or XPM format) with a given width and height. X and Y represent the position of the item on the screen. You can leave it as it is, because once started, iDesk allows you to reposition the icons with your mouse and remembers their positions the next time you start the program.

To further configure iDesk, copy a configuration file in your home's root directory with cp /usr/share/idesk/dot.ideskrc ~/.ideskrc. Edit it to change the font type, size, and color, and set transparency, shadow, or a background for the icons.

To make PCManFM and other GTK applications use the Tango icon theme, I created a file named .gtkrc-2.0 in the home directory that contained only the line gtk-icon-theme-name="Tango".

To provide more of a GNOME look, I installed fbpanel from the Ubuntu repositories. It provides a start menu, launch bar, task bar, and system tray. To use it, create a folder called .fbpanel within your home directory and in it place an empty file called default. Paste the contents of the default configuration file into the newly created file and modify it to match your taste. In the Global section of the file change edge = bottom to edge = top if you want a panel similar to the one in GNOME.

Fast apps

I spent several hours looking for fast applications. They also had to look good and have almost the same functions as their default GNOME counterparts. As a file manager I settled for the latest version of PCManFM (0.3.6.1). It has everything a novice user might need, including thumbnail view, tree view, and detailed view modes. When used with the Tango icon theme it resembles Nautilus. PCManFM also has tab support, and it can load a directory with a thousand MP3 files in the blink of an eye.

For image viewing I was ready to go with GPicView. It has a small memory footprint and offers the same functionality as EoG. But then I found Mirage, which consumes approximatively 1% more RAM than GPicView but offers many more options. It's based on PyGTK, has support for thumbnail view (unlike GPicView), can resize and crop images, has a slideshow mode, and provides support for custom actions. You can even define keyboard shortcuts for various actions such as archiving and thumbnail creation.

For video playing I used the default MPlayer with no GUI and set file associations for AVI and MPG files from within PCManFM.

Midori was my first choice for a browser. Firefox works OK, but since I started looking for lightweight applications I wanted to strip down memory usage as much as I could. Midori beat Flock at the memory consumption test, but unfortunately, Midori had no Flash support. Flock is based on Firefox, runs smoothly, and supports extensions. To keep its startup as fast as possible, I installed only the AdBlock Plus extension.

Next came Decibel Audio Player. Decibel is a limited audio player for Linux, based on GTK. It lacks cover preview and doesn't fetch song lyrics from online sites, but it runs fast and plays audio files well. Its major downside is that it doesn't provide a volume button. I solved that problem by installing gvtray, which provides an easy way of controlling the master volume. I also considered using Sonata and Music Player Daemon running in the background.

For BitTorrent download I installed Deluge. It's low on resources, can be accessed through a Web interface, and can manage download speeds. As a PDF viewer I replaced Acrobat Reader with ePDFView. It loads files quickly, allows you to search through text and zoom in and out, and has a simple interface.

Finally, I wanted to make some of these applications autostart upon entering Fluxbox. To do that, edit the ~/.fluxbox/startup file and add commands followed by an & sign. You can also display wallpaper from here. A stripped-down version of the startup file would look something like this:

# set a background fbsetbg -f ~/.fluxbox/backgrounds/wallpaper.jpg # Turn off beeps: xset -b # autostart applications idesk & fbpanel & gvtray & pidgin & # start Fluxbox and keep a log exec /usr/bin/fluxbox -log ~/.fluxbox/log

There you have it: an Ubuntu distribution with a fast and easy-to-use desktop, thanks to Fluxbox and a bunch of lightweight applications. There are other software packages you can install instead of the resource-hungry applications you may be used to: Claws as an email client, Abiword to edit and read .DOC files, Gnumeric for spreadsheets, Kazehakase as an even lighter Web browser, and Graveman for burning CDs and DVDs.

Razvan T. Coloja has published more than 150 Linux and IT-related articles in print and online magazines. He is an editor for a Romanian magazine and one of the maintainers and editors of www.mylro.org, a Romanian Linux/OSS portal and community.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.1.10] on March 14, 2008 07:52 PM
Hmm, the only thing wrong with that little PC is the low RAM. Up the RAM to 512MB or beyond and it will Zoooommmm... I know, because I have three of those - two run Linux and one runs WinXP. My Asus Eee PC is even slower at 650MHz, but it has 2GB RAM and 12GB Flash memory and it is quite zippy.

So, add more RAM - you won't regret it and your girlfriend will be happy and then you might get lucky...

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.24.231.100] on March 15, 2008 12:04 AM
There are computers that can't be upgraded anymore. My computer came with 64MB of RAM, I upgraded it to 128MB which is the maximum the mobo can handle.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.171.51.12] on March 14, 2008 08:10 PM
Wow, excellent post.
Thanks for Mirage and Decibel!

If Decibel does not play mp3, install gstreamer ugly plugins.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.244.156.75] on March 14, 2008 08:23 PM
What Panel is that at the top?

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.185.160.3] on March 14, 2008 09:04 PM
You should have read more carefully. It was fbpanel. ;-) http://fbpanel.sourceforge.net/

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 134.84.5.31] on March 14, 2008 08:43 PM
first thing on a low-RAM machine: turn off wallpaper

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.185.160.3] on March 14, 2008 09:01 PM
I don't think Flock would be such a good choice, as it has a whole load of social networking features not needed in a browser. I would recommend using Firefox 3 Beta 4, as it uses Gecko 1.9 and has many, MANY speed & memory improvements. It works much better than FF2, and Adblock Plus is compatible with it as well. :)

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.232.148.98] on March 15, 2008 12:52 PM
I can also suggest opera, as it is my first choice on my p2 366 128mb ram laptop.

Cheers,
http://www.pspport.com

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 207.118.84.87] on March 14, 2008 09:59 PM
One alternative that may be worth checking out is DSL (damn small linux), which can be found here:




http://damnsmalllinux.org/




DSL was designed to run on limited hardware like the machine that the author describes, I know that my VIA box loves it ^_^

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.125.237.234] on March 14, 2008 10:22 PM
fbpanel

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.59.171.84] on March 15, 2008 03:56 AM
I would add xpdf, feh, xmms,rox, conky, dillo, xchat, xarchiver, siag and mtPaint

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.29.171.82] on March 15, 2008 05:09 AM
Some time ago I had some problems with xpdf (it crashed with one PDF file I needed to print). I guess I've tried also epdfview. At the end, I found that "evince" works really well and is not so heavy (well, anything else is lighter than acroread).

Ok, my computer has plenty of RAM, and I don't know if epdfview is ligther than evince, but I would advise you to give evince a try.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.31.233.175] on March 15, 2008 08:10 AM
there is a set of tools to ease creating icons with idesk, called idesk-extras. some distros ship it, i tried getting it into gentoo, but with no success so far :/

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 212.83.79.128] on March 15, 2008 08:15 AM
I realy don 't understand all that work. It is good to do some experience with making you 're own desktop, but there are so many alternatives. With Google you find quickly a alternative like DSL and when hardware doesn 't work good enough like an old laptop buy a other one. You give you're girlfriend a new laptop and spend more time to here. That is realy love instead working 2 weeks about a desktop without update support. In fact you're didn 't do this for your girlfriend, you dit it for youre own. Sorry i don't think you are a hero, but a freak.

Bartamu

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.181.193.27] on March 17, 2008 08:36 AM
When using those lightweight alternative distros one does not have a good selection of software available. That is one reason why I would rather tinker my own desktop than use the software chosen by someone else.

And it is always the right and ecological decision to use old readily available hardware, and not to run and buy some more electronic garbage that will fill your basement before you realise it.

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 210.55.128.254] on March 19, 2008 08:50 PM
@Bartamu -- Yeah totally makes sense... Go drop $500-$1000 on a new desktop that comes with Vista. Awesome! 1Ghz is MORE than adequate for a desktop computer; maybe you're just compensating... Eh? Ehhh?

But I'm just kidding!

Flame on.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 58.182.74.21] on March 15, 2008 08:24 AM
Maybe you can try this <a href="http://www.pyrolinux.com">Linux Distribution</a>. I find it is very useful.

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.99.173] on March 17, 2008 07:11 AM
"Desktop Light" Linux - http://www.delilinux.org/ - would be another distribution for old PC, mainly build for 486 to Pentium 1.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 79.113.87.207] on March 15, 2008 09:55 AM
@Bartamu: you didn't read the article carefully, did you? It was not my intention to be a hero, nor a freak. Read the beginning again.

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 212.83.79.128] on March 15, 2008 11:50 AM
I was joking of course you're not a freak, your write youre article very clear. But sometimes i realy surprised what people doing with software so the can work with old hardware. I had a friend with a old ethernetcard and write there a driver for. After that, i thought i am crazy i have spend 2 weeks to write this driver in C, and a new card cost around 15 euro. So i have learned to see first or the is a other solution. Why did you not buy a new desktop, with dvd etc?

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.55.10.14] on March 15, 2008 11:33 AM
New version of PCManFM will have improved support for desktop icons, so you will be able to ditch iDesk.

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Give Openbox a try

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.166.90.63] on March 15, 2008 12:14 PM
I've been using Fluxbox for a long time, but right now I'm giving Openbox a try. Setting up the right-click menu is a bit more work, but Openbox itself is a tick faster than Fluxbox (I'm testing it in Arch Linux on my dual-core 2GB RAM desktop machine, so I don't think either is held back by the hardware. Openbox is just faster.). And, if you're going to be using fbpanel anyway, you can save the desktop space by only having one task bar/panel and still switch desktops in the pager and applications with the task bar icons. I'm sticking with Fluxbox on my laptop because it's a 12.1 inch screen and I can maximize under the task bar and skip fbpanel and end up with more usable desktop space. And really, try weaning her off desktop icons. You can add all you want to fbpanel and you have a system menu right there, so what good are desktop icons? I haven't used them in years. It also helps people learn better file management, instead of throwing things on the desktop like it's a junk drawer.

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Why concern youself with a backup?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.1.51] on March 15, 2008 01:19 PM
I know this sounds silly, I back up daily anyway. But with a Linux install, I don't format my /home and I haven't lost a file to date. Reinstall till your hearts content.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 79.113.87.207] on March 15, 2008 01:58 PM
@bartamu: I didn't get her a new desktop because all she does is surf the net, read her e-mail and listen to music. She uses her home computer one day per week, has a CD-Writer which she doesn't use and software she doesn't launch. It's not that I don't have the money, but there's no point in buying a new PC just for opening up HTML/PHP pages and starting Amarok faster. :)

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.129.24.121] on March 15, 2008 02:54 PM
Have a look at Puppy Linux - it flies on older PCs....

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Re: Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 58.41.127.90] on March 16, 2008 02:24 PM
Sounds to me like she would love an EeePC.. ;)

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Of course, if you could get Ubuntu to support these light-weights with updates... and do a LTS versi

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.226.1.174] on March 15, 2008 03:29 PM
Of course, if you could get Ubuntu to support these light-weights with updates... and do a LTS version...

That would be wonderful... todate, Ubuntu has ignored these old PCs with 128 MB Ram Maximums etc.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.185.160.3] on March 15, 2008 04:03 PM
What's the Fluxbox theme used in the screenshot?

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 202.164.153.230] on March 15, 2008 04:42 PM
Most of the packages you mention are available in Debian.
Why use Ubuntu?

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"[...] I already had 10GB of data that would have taken a long time to back up."

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.246.160.167] on March 15, 2008 05:53 PM
People, making a backup is dead simple. Just add an external hard drive. And run "cp -vr". It's just a few minutes! (And every ten weeks might suffice for you.)

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Re: "[...] I already had 10GB of data that would have taken a long time to back up."

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 127.0.0.1] on March 15, 2008 06:34 PM
I use rsync for mine at work; I keep 14 days of "snapshots" shared and read-only on the network. The "shapshots" are fairly low-impact because rsync has the ability to compare to a baseline dir and make symlinks where files are unchanged. I had to explain that one in great detail to a boss who, when I started sharing the backups on the network, thought we could use all that space I was filling up by "copying the same thing over and over" to do useful things. Turns out that we wouldn't have had enough storage space amongst all our combined hard drive space to do 14 days worth of snapshots...I'd include my Ruby script here--it's pretty simple--but Linux.com doesn't allow HTML formatting in their comments. Bummer. :-(

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0 <- you're gay

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 165.146.30.208] on March 15, 2008 06:22 PM
youre gay

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xtDesk for power users

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.170.56.209] on March 15, 2008 06:53 PM
I know there are complaints about moving away from the crutch of desktop icons. However, there are times that icons work great. For instance if spend most of your time working on 5 spreadsheets and 5 documents. You can set up an icon that left clicking brings up gnumeric, and right clicking will show a list of the 5 spreadsheets, which can be directly opened in gnumeric. The same with an icon for abiword.

xtdesk supports right click launching of programs.

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Run app dialog?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 79.207.158.41] on March 16, 2008 11:29 AM
With your configuration, do you have a way to run an application through a Run App Dialog (ALT+F2) like in GNOME or KDE?

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 79.113.87.207] on March 16, 2008 11:51 AM
Yes: by using fbrun and mapping /usr/bin/fbrun to the Alt+F2 keys.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 91.152.68.190] on March 16, 2008 10:37 PM
Why not just use xubuntu? have it set up for my mom. Runs ok for most stuff she needs on a 400MHz 96MB laptop.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.153.55.67] on March 17, 2008 10:03 AM
that´s nice

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Always tthe girlfriend

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 83.162.36.244] on March 17, 2008 10:42 AM
Nice to search for lightweight apps. But who will maintain this? Your girlfriend? If you are serious, build a new distro for this with some automatic update and repository for apps or burn it to a ROM. Editing a file to add an icon to a desktop, how many people want to waste time with that?
And furthermore, how much memory was saved? how many seconds were won in starting these light weight apps?

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Icons on a desktop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.85.23.1] on March 17, 2008 12:05 PM
Well, I am using linux for about ten years now and I still do not get where all these people who want icons on their desktops are coming from. :-)

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.30.62] on March 17, 2008 12:16 PM
Nice article, although I use Openbox, gnome-panel (provides much more functionality, which I need in any case, than any other panel I tried) and Swiftfox based on latest build of Firefox 3, more stable and less RAM consuming than Midori. Transmission for BitTorrent.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 217.41.53.124] on March 17, 2008 02:07 PM
Then of course there is the mepis based Antix, which comes with fluxbox and is designed for older pc/laptops with limited hardware... I use it and it just zips long Comes with sylpheed claws and a host of other lightwieght apps
(Toshiba PIII 700 with 192 ram)
Songbird as a player and web-browser in one- lovely

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fbpanel should be replaced by its successor, lxpanel

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 140.129.79.200] on March 17, 2008 03:56 PM
See http://www.gnomefiles.org/app.php/LXPanel for detail.
LXPanel is derived from fbpanel.
While preserving almost all functionality of fbpanel, it comes with much more, and it's actively maintained.
Besides, all configuration can be done through GUI preference dialog, and there is no need to edit the config file.
The memory footprint is still kept small, too.
IMHO using this to replace fbpanel is a better choice.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 140.129.79.200] on March 17, 2008 04:10 PM
The latest version of PCManFM 0.3.9.5 is released with much improvement for the desktop icon support.
Maybe you can give it a try.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.10.65.37] on March 17, 2008 05:04 PM
If you want low-resource audio install mpd + a client (f.e. gmpc). This is very memory friendly, you can close the client (and still hear music) when you need the resources for something else. Most of the client, with the right plugins, do provide lyrics, cover art, etc.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 125.60.241.171] on March 18, 2008 02:23 AM
I'm seriously interested, but I'm pretty new to linux and half of the stuff you said just didn't make sense to me XD

anyways, I just remembered my old PC 500MHz, 128RAM and 8 of it was taken by video.
I was running XP on that thing :P

Thinking back, I wonder what it would have been like if I discovered linux ten or so years ago...

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.99.195.98] on March 18, 2008 07:25 AM
well..
how about ratpoison and screen?
music - mpg321 combined with cplay
internet - firefox 3.04b2 & elinks
video- mplayer/vlc player
chat - centericq

~pavan
yarapavan.blogspot.com

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How did you measure the ram consumption?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 200.62.14.213] on March 18, 2008 05:59 PM
Very nice article, tuning the software in that way it's nice for people that feel nostalgic with older hardware and for those (like me) that are sit in a desk attached to their company assigned desktops, running eclipse+tomcat with just 1Gb, killing every suspicious process that shows in ps to grab memory...




Back to the question, how did you do to know and compare the real memory consumption of a process? For example, to know that Mirage uses 1% more ram that GPicView




(PS: Please, excuse my english)

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.207.161.72] on March 19, 2008 01:22 PM
If this sort of thing interests you take a look at Puppy Linux. Small enough to fit on a mini-CD and has a strong and active community for support. Standard issue desktop is JWM and does not come with fluxbox but is easy enough to add.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 137.43.159.237] on March 19, 2008 09:07 PM
Guys, what about xubuntu with lcewm? Use it on an old Dell 733 MHz, works a treat. Tried Enlightenment recently also, really quick.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.75.9.182] on March 20, 2008 05:26 PM
I just installed antix on a Dell pentium laptop (128MB) with no trouble. The cd booted faster than the installed ubuntu. It also recognized and set up the wireless card which I still can't get ubuntu to do.

Katawin

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puppy, puppy, puppy, puppy and puppy

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.183.5.184] on March 20, 2008 06:35 PM
Lots of puppy versions allow all that you need and you can build your own.
Puppy has everything you need for dektop use
And with puppy 3 unleashed you can build your own puppy variant pretty quickly

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 122.162.119.40] on March 21, 2008 12:44 PM
It is obvious that the author, with his background, is familiar with puppylinux and deli-linux. He has just tried to show a way to use Ubuntu with limited resources. There is no point in keeping on spending on hardware just to do simple tasks.

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Building a highly functional desktop with lightweight software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.101.70.73] on March 22, 2008 03:46 PM
Thanks for the article, wbar is lightwieght osx style launcher that looks nice. I use icewm and idesk myself along with rox but will use pcman now. Transmission is also a nice torrent client.

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