Making that old PC useful

I’ve recently upgraded my pc with new hardware, and the only thing I didn’t replace was the case. That meant that all I had to do to keep the old hardware useful was dig out an old case somewhere, and rebuild it. By modern standards, it’s a very modest machine, with an AMD Athlon 1800 CPU, 512MB of memory, and a crappy nVidia nForce4 compatible integrated video chip. I’ve been using it as a test machine ever since, something to try the new Ubuntu or Mandriva on.

However, recently it also has been a back-up for my girfriend, when her XP-powered laptop is unavailable, which happens every now and then. The last time, it had to be repaired because it was covered with a mix of candle-wax and diet coke. Don’t ask.

Now, both Mandriva and Ubuntu ran well on that old PC. I set it up to boot into Mandriva automatically, and figured my girlfriend wouldn’t have any problems using Firefox and OpenOffice. I was right, but it was slow. The difference between the old PC and the new one was even more obvious, because on the new, faster one I have Arch Linux installed with Openbox, a guarantee for speed. I realised I had to get off my lazy ass, and spend some time in front of the old box.

Having experienced the lightning speeds of the Arch Linux + Openbox combination on my own PC, I decided that was the way to go. It does take a lot of configuration however, and I wanted the result to be a bit more “friendly” than my own setup (no start button, and no desktop icons). Then I got this brilliant idea to make it look like Windows Vista, both to make it feel familiar, and to make a point: “Look at what Linux can do for you!” πŸ˜‰

But, I hit a snag. Openbox’s fantastic, but doesn’t offer much themeing possibilities. More correctly, it does have a lot of nice themes, but none ressembling other operating systems. After browsing around in the theme files, I figured this was because the buttons in the window decorations (close, maximise etc) have a fixed width and height. In any case, that meant I had to give up my plans to make the PC ressemble Vista, or use another window manager. Upon browsing box-look.org, I found this Vistaish theme, but it’s for IceWM, which I didn’t have any experience with. But hey, the fun’s in the challenge! πŸ˜‰

First of all, I had to get Arch installed. Mandriva remained at one partition, for backup, but Ubuntu had to make room. I grabbed the latest 2008.4rc image from their site, and as usual, installing Arch was fast and easy, especially with the great Beginner’s Guide and Official Install Guide
nearby. Of course, an Arch install is always minimal, so after ten minutes or so, I had a console, but nothing more. Just for fun, I showed Jen I could already browse the web with the links browser, but she wasn’t impressed πŸ˜‰

After I installed xorg and the Nvidia drivers, I was ready to install IceWM. Various guides across the web had warned me that IceWM out of the box is ugly as sin, but the result was still shocking. IceWM has great theme support, and a quick google search provides some great looking desktops, so why this should be the default look I simply can’t understand. Together with the default gtk-theme that Arch provides (Raleigh) when you install some applications, the whole thing looked like the ugly stepsister of Windows 95 (you can click on the images for larger versions).

Obviously, there was room for improvement. I unzipped the Vista theme in the right directory (.icewm/themes), and it was instantly available in the menu. One click later, I got rid of the ugly toolbar, start-button and window decorations. Of course, everything else still looked horrible.

Luckily, gnome-look provides some themes that look like Vista. I thought this one looked best. It needs the murrine theme-engine, but that’s just an install away. While I was installing software anyway, I grabbed gtk-chtheme too. It does just what the name suggests: it’s a gui that lets you preview how a certain gtk theme will look. After unzipping the theme in .themes (obvious, no?), it showed up in gtk-chtheme, and the desktop finally started to look somewhat decent. Except for the icons, because there were none.

The icons could wait, though. I thought the theme looked okay, but I’m not a fan of white text on black panels. I also wasn’t crazy about the bluegreen menubar, so I edited the gtkrc until things looked like this.

Now, the icons. Again, there are lots of Vista-inspired icon themes on gnome-look, but this one has the highest rating. It’s by the same author as the theme, so they go great together. There was one problem where a lot of files were in a subdirectory when they should have been in the main directory, but after I figured that one out, I thought the result looked great.

There was two final things to do: I didn’t have a background yet, and IceWM doesn’t draw icons on the desktop. The first problem was fixed easily once I had found the right command to make a background appear, the second one needed the install and configuration of iDesk. It took some tries, and the default text colour was a horrible kind of green, but after some tweaking I had a “Computer” icon on the desktop. I figured that was enough.

After that, things became easier. There was some additional configuring to do, mainly to get the menu right, provide some launcher icons in the toolbar, and configuring some keyboard shortcuts. After that, I simply installed anything I thought my girlfriend would need. Looking at the end-result, I thought it was well worth the trouble.

Yes, there was some trouble πŸ˜‰ It took three evenings to do what I just typed down, mainly because I hit some snags along the way, and I didn’t want to lose too much sleep. There was no way my girlfriend could have done this on her own, or even the casual linux user. It took lots of tries, much googling, much browsing of linux forums and configuration guides, etc.

So then, why do it? Why jump through so many hoops to make a Linux desktop look like some other operating system, instead of just installing XP or Vista, or even a different, easier Linux distribution? Well, I mentioned the answer at the beginning of this article: speed. While looking like Vista (and I do believe it’s close enough to fool the normal pc user), it behaves nothing like it. Vista wouldn’t even install on this machine. XP would be slow. Easy Linux distributions had been installed on this machine and were underperforming too. Now, the old PC was faster than it had ever been. Yes, it’s been a bitch to set up, but I’m confident I can put anyone in front of this computer, and they wouldn’t have any problem at all using it. I’m rather proud of it, actually πŸ˜‰

I’ll try to back up my claims of speed by comparing boot times etc with those of Jen’s laptop, which has better hardware, and a fresh XP install. I’ll post the results in the next couple of days.

San

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8 Responses to Making that old PC useful

  1. Zhymm says:

    Wow, nice “blow-by-blow” description of all you went through with this project!

    I’ve been intending to give Arch a try (on and old box), just haven’t made the time to have at it. Your missive certainly gives one plenty of incentive to give it a go.

    Thanks.

  2. celettu says:

    Zhymm:

    It’s well worth it. The beauty of Arch that is you can make it just what you want it. There’s no default desktop, so you can just pick one.

    That, and it’s documentation is second to none. The wiki covers almost everything. Also, don’t forget the Beginner’s guide and the Official Install Guide πŸ™‚

    If you do try it, let me know how it went!

  3. nongeekboy says:

    Hey! Great story, you made me say “I must try this arch linux on my old box too (an AMD XP 1800 with 356M RAM :p)”. Thx for the excellent article.

  4. celettu says:

    It’ll run just fine πŸ™‚ To really make a difference, I suggest using a window manager instead of a desktop environment. I only have experience with openbox and icewm, but there are other nice ones out there.

    And if you’re serious about installing Arch, the wiki is your holy land πŸ™‚

  5. nongeekboy says:

    I made it :D. I ‘m starting to love Arch. Thx again for the great article. I installed Icewm (window manager) and PCman (file manager). I had some problems with the graphic card (ATI) but the the Arch wiki helped me a lot. Now I want to make it look like Vista (I have a brother who loves vista, not a girlfriend ). Thx again for the post. When will finish all the tuning (I don’t have enough time for linux) I will post a screenshot with my Arch-Vista looking desktop.

  6. celettu says:

    nongeekboy:

    Oooh, configuring linux can be a neverenderending story. Just USING it, however, is easy as pie πŸ™‚

  7. a1ex says:

    I’d suggest to use PCManFM. Its very lean and has optional support for managing your Desktop Icons and Wallpaper. Which is definately preferable to iDesk if you need them imho.

  8. celettu says:

    a1ex:

    PCManFM is a decent File Manager, but unlike Thunar, it’s not available in Dutch. It’s actually the only reason I don’t use it.

    iDesk only supports launchers, but you can do more with it in terms of transparency and colours.

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