Minimalist Ubuntu

Linux advocates -- and yes, I am one of them -- will claim that their favorite operating system lends new life to old machines. That's true to some degree. I've resurrected an IBM Aptiva with 16MB of RAM using D*mn Small Linux, for example. And really, my default solution for small installations has been either Puppy Linux, DSL, or Slax.

But what about Ubuntu?

The question came about because my aging Thinkpad R50, with 256MB RAM and a Celeron-M processor, just seems ill-equipped to run Ubuntu nowadays. Sure, I still got Hardy Heron on it, but it felt too slow already. I tried my usual solutions but I wasn't happy with the set of software that they came with.

Luckily, a helpful guide to low memory systems came in handy. There are several possible configurations to the guide so let me just summarize the steps and the options I took.

First, I installed Ubuntu 8.04 using the Alternate Install CD. The Alternate Install CD has the option to install a basic command line system. Just press F4 to select this. (I tried using the Server version on my Thinkpad but GRUB wouldn't boot into it -- I believe it has something to do with the PAE extensions not available on the Celeron.) Installation is normally faster because there's less to copy to disk.

After booting into the command-line Ubuntu, I was essentially working with a clean slate. I tested several configurations on virtual machines and decided that the ultra-minimalist OpenBox was what I wanted. Now, apart from this, I also needed a log-in manager, and for that, I chose Slim, the Simple Login Manager.

To install all these components,

sudo apt-get install xorg openbox slim obconf obmenu

(Make sure your repositories are configured properly.)

ObConf and ObMenu, by the way, are additional tools to help configure OpenBox. Otherwise, I would have to go mucking around with text configuration files.

It takes a little while to get all this loaded as it's a few megabytes download. But it's not all that long. Once you load all these, the minimalist Ubuntu is ready.

Finally, the selection of applications that I want to run. For my needs, a web server, word processor, file manager, and Internet messaging is all I need; and so:

sudo apt-get install firefox abiword mc pidgin

and I'm good to go. The added advantage here is that there's nothing else to get in the way of the desktop and so I have full use of my real estate.

The only drawbacks to this minimalist installation are: I haven't got sound configured properly (still working on that, but not a priority); and I lose out on several helpful utilities like automounting of USB and the WiFi manager. These are things I can live without, though, and boy! is everything running so quickly.