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Linux/BSD replacements for XPians

Chuck(G)

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I've been surveying some of the newer *nix replacement candidates for Windows XP.

I'm trying both the x64 and x32 candidates when possible. As an extreme acid test for backward compatibility, I"m using as my test machine, an old ASUS K8V board with a 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3400 (Socket 754) and 2GB of memory. The video card is a an old Nvidia GeForce 6600 AGP. NIC is whatever is on the motherboard and there's also a Linksys WMP54GS PCI wireless card installed (Broadcom chipset). Hard disks is a Seagate 320GB SATA drive.

Any OS can run like the wind if it's got enough hardware, but how will it do in hardware-limited conditions?

I've various Linuces using the XFCE desktop (Debian, Ubuntu, Mint...) and they all seem to operate pretty much the same once installed in either 64 or 32 bit mode. Ubuntu seems to be the best organized and easiest to use.

I tried FreeBSD 10.0 (x64 only) with some interesting problems. I had the IDE DVD drive cabled with a 40-conductor cable, since the drive doesn't support the faster transfer modes. The Linuces all installed just fine from DVD, but FreeBSD would boot, then die with a SCSI error on the DVD drive. Turns out that it was trying to run the drive in ATA32 mode--the remedy was to use an 80 conductor IDE cable. There were some bizarre messages during startup with my network settings, but eventually the thing got to its feet.

FreeBSD doesn't come with a desktop pre-configured--you have to install X as well as your desktop of choice from the command line. XFCE did come up, but wouldn't recognize my (PS2) mouse, it required some configuration editing to activate the mouse daemon. In general, I found FreeBSD fairly laggy.

Figuring that I might have done something wrong, I next tried PCBSD 10.0. Better, but it got the display driver wrong, so I had to manually select it. Once selected, the familiar XFCE desktop came up and looked like any other XFCE desktop, pretty much. I don't care for Midori as a browser, so I isntalled Firefox. It took forever--almost 45 minutes. I couldn't figure out what took things so long. Once installed, Firefox got to its feet.

I'm writing this on PCBSD right now.

FreeBSD seems not to have drivers for the Linksys/Broadcom WIFI NIC--I could locate inquiries on the Web, but reports of a successful installation. OTOH, the Linuces ran the Linksys card just fine, once you downloaded the firmware for it.

My reaction thus far is that FreeBSD may be an interesting alternative, but it's not as fast as the Debian-kernel Linuces. Quite honestly, I don't think I'd recommend it, particularly for a new user.
 

cr1901

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I completed Linux From Scratch and used that as my secondary OS for 2 years, until I nuked /usr. Since then (December 2013), all mainstream Linux distributions caved into Poettering's systemd bullshit- err, rhetoric. This includes Linux From Scratch getting a systemd-compatible kernel as well, so I would've had to rebuild anyway. Since you like creating your own hard disk controllers from scratch, I can't imagine creating Linux from scratch would be too much of a stretch :). When run at the bare minimum, Linux From Scratch can fit into 10 Megabytes (not including Xorg, of course). My Window manager of choice was FVWM- mainly because it was the one that compiled easiest :p.
 

Caluser2000

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I think Chuck was alluding to something a bit easier to set up. Not something needing hours of tweeking to get up and running. Something a bit like the distro I'm typing this with. 20 minutes installation and another half an hour to get just so.
 
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TNC

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You may want to take a look at Manjaro Linux. It is based off Arch Linux (which is very modular), but with more little helpers like a setup tool and a graphical package manager. Especially on slow hardware Arch based distributions are much faster than Debian / Ubuntu ones. At least my experience.
 

glitch

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My development systems mostly run Arch Linux. I don't mind systemd, it does fix some of the problems with System V init, but it introduces its own as well. You do have to stay on top of updates with Arch.

Straight FreeBSD is restricted to my fileserver, and the only reason for choosing it is ZFS support. I use pfSense on the firewall/router, which is FreeBSD based but you'd hardly know it. I've found hardware support with FreeBSD to be a bit..."interesting." Machines with seemingly vanilla hardware (Intel desktop boards mostly) will have weird problems, like failure to boot the installer from USB, or in one case, failure of the FreeBSD bootloader after the install went fine.

What I'd recommend for people, and what I use on my Asterisk box, utility box, and a few sandbox machines, is Slackware. Despite not being the most popular of distros, it's still just as solid as it has ever been. There's no systemd yet, but it does still use BSD style rc scripts instead of System V init -- System V init compatibility is included nowadays anyway, but I prefer BSD rc scripts. Do an "install everything" install, or deselect KDE if you know for sure you don't want it.

Slackware now comes with a network-connected package manager, slackpkg. Once you enable it, updates are super-simple. You're also not going to be getting "updates for the sake of updates" if you're running one of the number releases (i.e. not slackware-current).
 

cr1901

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I think Chuck was alluding to something a bit easier to set up. Not something needing hours of tweeking to get up and running. Something a bit like the distro I'm typing this with. 20 minutes installation and another half an hour to get just so.

My suggestion was partially in jest. I wouldn't recommend anyone who didn't have 2 weeks to spare to try Linux From Scratch (which is about how long it took to get X and the bare minimums- web browser, etc- running the first time). But since Chuck creates his own hardware without many problems, I figured it was worth a shot.
 

Chuck(G)

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I'm quite used to building Unix/Linux from scratch, but again, that's not what I was setting out to do. My goal is to see which BSD/Linux distros are easy for a neophyte to install and which have the best device support, particularly in legacy devices. You know, hypothetical granny with her 10-year old machine. She's 80, so changing the hardware really can't be considered a good investment--no way she's going to want to learn the GUI du jour of Windows 8. My wife might be a typical example, although not quite our hypothetical Granny. She's comfortable with XP, having gotten there via DOS, NT 4 and Win2K--she probably drops into CLI mode more often that do many of this forum's members. She knows it and doesn't want to be told that everything she knew is garbage and it's about time she learned the latest way to do things. Heck, she still uses Courier email and QPro for spreadsheets--and SEMedit for text.

Currently, I just tell people to disable automatic updates (and how to avoid the security shield that indicates that), and, if they're using MSE, to reinstall the thing from an earlier distro and skip the insistance from MSFT that they should upgrade to the latest version. They get the nice green icon with virus database updates until July 2015, whereupon they can move to another AV tool.

NetBSD has pretty good support for legacy devices, but unfortunately, can be very slow and not at all familiar to current Windows users. It, like OpenBSD, is one of those "If you lived here, you would know where you are." systems.

I mean to try a 32-bit PCBSD (probably 9.1) distro. Judging from what I've read, it may actually be faster than the 64-bit 10.0.

I pretty much have to use OpenBSD on a couple of thin clients as somewhere around Squeeze, the Debian kernel quit supporting the VIA chipset IDE controller used for these boxes. "No hard disk found". That means any modern distro with the Debian kernel isn't going to work--and I've verified that. But then, those are strictly minimal CLI-mode boxes for me.

So among Linuces, it pretty much boils down to who has the best package management and selection, GUI alternatives, support and long-term stability.

I'm actually a bit surprised that there's no "boot your XP system with our DVD and we'll migrate everything for you" sort of alternative.

Right now, my current recommendation is that if you don't live in the Linux world and want to move from Windows, try Ubuntu with XFCE or LXDE, or Xubuntu/Lubuntu (which is pretty much the same thing). But I want to keep investigating. Distrowatch is little help, as it seems to reflect short-term fads more than anything.
 
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MikeS

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...Currently, I just tell people to disable automatic updates (and how to avoid the security shield that indicates that), and, if they're using MSE, to reinstall the thing from an earlier distro and skip the insistance from MSFT that they should upgrade to the latest version. They get the nice green icon with virus database updates until July 2015, whereupon they can move to another AV tool.

Thanks for taking the time for this research; also, thanks again for the tip about rolling back MSE; mine's been a lovely shade of green with a reassuring white check mark ever since then.

Regarding Automatic updates: it's probably a good idea to leave updates on, preferably in 'notify' mode so you can review first. Presumably there won't be any future XP updates but various components are still being updated; I updated the .NET framework a couple of days ago and I was indeed notified about (and installed) a number of related security updates.
 

Chuck(G)

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One can always use the Microsoft Update tool at one's convenience as well. Notify is probably the better solution if one wants to stay current, however--just be careful of what each update does. I wouldn't be surprised if MSFT tried to slip a "doom and gloom" update into MSE or XP one last time to catch the stragglers.

If you use the MSFT notification screen for XP EOL and follow the link, you get dumped into a "Here's a good place to buy a new computer" conversation, rather than "Here's how to upgrade to Windows 8". I see a trend here--"Toss your old hardware, no matter how much you've grown attached to it and buy a new box. We really don't want to deal with people who install Windows 8 themselves. One DVD that's only a recovery DVD, not an installation one."
 

lowen

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Hmmm...

The choice of which Linux or BSD to use as an XP replacement really depends upon how XP was used.

For basic Web/e-mail type things with a smattering of multimedia, it's hard to beat CentOS 6 with the EPEL and Nux Dextop repos enabled. You get long-term stability with CentOS (being a from-source rebuild of Red Hat Enterprise Linux), plus the additional things you're used to with the EPEL+Dextop combo. The Libreoffice package has excellent file interoperability with MS Office, too.

CentOS: http://www.centos.org
EPEL: https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/EPEL
Nux Dextop: http://li.nux.ro/repos.html

I use it as my primary desktop on multiple machines, running Windows 7 in a KVM virtual machine for those extremely rare occasions I need Windows.
 

Chuck(G)

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I'm going to guess that some migration of old applications is going to matter. For example, my wife's insistence on Quattro Pro and Courier email means a WINE installation. Heaven knows what she'll do about using her SEMedit DOS-mode editor.

Yes, you can use VirtualBox/QEMU to handle an XP installation, but that's not really going away from XP, is it?
 

Chuck(G)

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Oh, she can use dosemu as well on several platforms--it actually fares better than DOSBox on a lot of programs. For example, it runs many DOS programs with 32-bit DPMI servers pretty well. Integration of either with WINE really sucks, however. I've got some utilities that bounce between Win32 CLI-type programs and 16-bit DOS real-mode programs (e.g. a compiled QBASIC invoicing program that outputs PCL printer codes, which is then translated by Ghostscript to a PDF format. Works great on XP, but not so much on later platforms.)

How about a DOS batch script that sets environment variables for use by both Win32 CLI utilities and DOS ones? Not so hot, according to my experiments.

One wonders what it would take to add 16-bit real mode support for such stuff to WINE--and not just start a DOSBox session.
 

Jack.

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Just drop the box down the window and bring out your VAXes. PLEASE ENTER TIME AND DATE :p
-
Apart from joking, i've had the same exact problem with a Acer TravelMate i had to repair. I ended up installing XP again because the user needed IE for a... hell knows what.

In my PIII top-of-the-line workstation i run W2K ADVSVR, as well as in my VMs, and it runs pretty smooth, i must say. Includes most WinXP features without eyecandy. Lacks UAC though. I think i got addicted to it.

In my opinion, Debian is the best choice, as it comes with a nice'n'easy installer and the desktop environment is configured automatically. I tried to run Debian PPC with XFCE4 on a s****y PowerBook G4 Aluminium and it ran very fast. Also works like a charm on a Pentium MMX, but obviously i didn't use X there.
 

Caluser2000

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Thanks for the heads up on dosemu Chuck. Not had much to do with it at all. The system automounts the fdd so accessing my dos disks easily enough at the familiar dos prompt. I've added to my list of must haves.

I'm liking using XFCE. It's fairly snappy on this old box, a PIII 730. Also liking the way you can add bits n bobs using apt. Certainly a far cry from when I set up RH 7.3 on my P200mmx, which is still servicable. Although on the whole atp is good it still pays to be carefull adding extra programs.

Interesting that the via cipset was dropped, progress I guess.
 
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Chuck(G)

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Interesting that the via cipset was dropped, progress I guess.

The excuse given was that the old driver was somewhat buggy (although I never ran into bugs). Not new hardware = forget it.

I'm starting to see the same attitude with other things, as in, "you're still using a PS2 mouse! Get a new computer!" Well, this computer is less than a year old and it uses a PS2 mouse and keyboard. I don't like that attitude. I still use NetBSD 5 because it has support for QIC02 drives (as do old versions of Debian and RH).

I've never understood why, on BSD and Linux, a change to hardware drivers always seems to mean a kernel recompilation.
 

Caluser2000

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Intrinsic to the monolithic kernal design of both from what I can gather. Though I'm no expert at all.

Anyone played with Minix3 at all? Seems a good way of understanding some *nix concepts.
 
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lowen

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The excuse given was that the old driver was somewhat buggy (although I never ran into bugs). Not new hardware = forget it.

Hmm, that was the old ide layer to the libata transition, right? When the /dev/hdX turned into /dev/sdX? The libata layer is missing some drivers for certain 'difficult' IDE chipsets.

I'm starting to see the same attitude with other things, as in, "you're still using a PS2 mouse! Get a new computer!" Well, this computer is less than a year old and it uses a PS2 mouse and keyboard. I don't like that attitude. I still use NetBSD 5 because it has support for QIC02 drives (as do old versions of Debian and RH).

Heh, I have a QIC-40-style floppy tape drive running under an old Red Hat. My only QIC-02 interface is a QBUS one, but I don't have the drive any more.

I've never understood why, on BSD and Linux, a change to hardware drivers always seems to mean a kernel recompilation.

Now, this isn't true any longer, at least on modern CentOS. Many drivers (that are not already in-kernel) can be built just with the kernel-devel headers, no kernel recompile required.
 

Chuck(G)

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When I had to add a USB device to OpenBSD, I became acutely aware of the monolithic kernel. I suppose I could understand the need for some sort of boot device support being monolithic, but this was a USB NIC--something you'd think that could be loaded at any time.

Well, that's one really good part to MSDOS/OS/2--you need only have support for the basic INT 13 devices to get booted--everything else can be loaded from separate device drivers after that.

So are there any viable microkernel Linux/Unix alternatives for the x86/x64 platforms? Or is that just an idea that's passed its prime?
 
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Caluser2000

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Also works like a charm on a Pentium MMX, but obviously i didn't use X there.
I'd of thought X would be quite handy if you wanted to use multiple terminals on it. This RH 7.3 P200mmx box seems to run ok with it up and running. There's also some pretty fugal apps available to use with it as well.
 
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