The challenge: Install Linux on a really old laptop. The catch: It has only 32 MB of RAM, no network ports, no CD-ROM, and the floppy drive makes creaking noises. Is it possible? Yes. Is it easy? No. Is is useful? Maybe...
The only thing I do know is that it has 32 MB of RAM, integrated stereo sound and modem, no network card, and no CDROM drive. When it boots, there is no obvious way to enter the BIOS utility. I tried DEL, F8, etc but I figure it doesn't have one.
I wasted hours trying to do the network boot, which I have done before for the machine running this web server (The DELL DVD drive died long ago). I followed the instructions to put the network boot CDROM onto another Linux server, and installed TFTP and a DHCP server. But the ancient Compaq laptop presented a problem.
Normally you could go to http://rom-o-matic.net/ and make a boot floppy, which will boot up, detect the network interface, and then do a network boot (which would start the Ubuntu installer). However, the only network card I had was a PCMCIA 3com card that is supposed to be supported by rom-o-matic. But no matter what I did, etherboot would not detect it and would just sit there dumbly.
It may have been possible to use the PLIP (IP over parallel port networking) option and boot from over the network using a special cable. But I don't have the cable, and such an install is so uncommon, it would be a miracle if it worked at all.
The minimum memory required for installation is 32 MB, so we are in luck. The problem is that the installer enters a "low memory mode" and doesn't load any kernel modules on its own. Instead, it pops up a list and you have to guess what drivers you are going to need. If you are wrong, you can always click "go back" to back up. I went through the four floppy disks that it asked for, and selected anything that looked like IDE (for the hard drive), 3COM, and PCMCIA (for the network card). Actually, at first I didn't select the IDE components. As a result, the installer offered to partition my floppy disk. I went back to add in the hard disk drivers.
Finally, the installer was working. It connected to the network and downloaded and installed the minimum debian distribution. The only changes I made were to the partitioning. Initially, it offered a 90 MB swap partition. That seems small, so I increased it to 400 MB, leaving 1.3 GB of disk space left over for the install.
When the laptop boots up, I get lots of kernel messages about failed I/O operations. However, once it starts everything is okay. I did a surface check using
e2fsck -c but the errors persist.
It turns out that Firefox is a memory pig. It took 15 minutes to start, and it takes up over 100 MB of memory to show a blank window. Ugh!
There isn't a lot of choice of browsers out there. Galeon is part of Gnome, and I definitely didn't want any bloated Gnome packages on my lean but slow machine. Instead, I downloaded the latest version of Opera.
Opera starts in only 10 seconds or so. It's usable, if you don't mind waiting a few seconds between clicks. So Opera wins the browser wars for low-resource machines.