another OS hunt
Sunday, March 17 2013
The cold continued today, completely with a St. Patrick's Day dusting of snow. I kept mentioning St. Patrick's Day in conversations with Gretchen, even though (for me at least) the day is about as significant as Ground Hog's Day (that said, usually it is better in terms of harbingers of spring). Speaking of harbingers of spring, for several days now the robins have been back from wherever they go in the winter, and they seem enthusiastic and happy to be here despite the lingering cold and soil conditions that might be too frozen for them to extract worms from it. Some days ago when it was warmer and it seemed like maybe spring was really coming, I saw several flocks of Canada Geese high overhead, but they were being ambivalent about the weather, heading neither north nor south but east.
This afternoon in between short bouts of web development, I found myself procrastinating in at least two different ways. On the one hand, I found myself uploading images to my Facebook photo albums and then assigning them their proper dates and locations. This was mostly just to see how the Facebook map consolidated location points that were too finely-pitched to show individually. Its solution is to combine them into circles of various sizes, appropriate to different scales. I was intrigued by the way these circles merged, divided, and otherwise changed as I zoomed in and out.
Another procrastinatory activity I undertook was a series of experiments with various operating systems on an old Inspiron 7000 laptop (featuring a 366 MHz Pentium II and 256 megabytes of RAM). The laptop, which was current in 1999, was salvaged from the trash in Staunton, Virginia by my old buddy Josh Furr (who is a sanitation worker). It weighs about ten pounds and the shift keys don't work, but it has a gorgeous LCD, a DVD drive, and lots of legacy ports and even a floppy drive. So I'd like to give it some light weight operating system to make it useful. I'm working on a project now that will require at least five separate browser sessions for testing, so it might be nice if it could run a web browser.
I've been down this road before, of course. Every year or two I find myself downloading .iso files of various operating systems and then burning one CD after another and trying them out. They're usually flavors of Linux, and, unless I'm installing them on reasonably-modern hardware, I only download the ones that claim to be "tiny," "damn small," "lean," "stripped-down," or otherwise "bare bones." Today I broadened my search somewhat by doing a Google search for "alternatives to Linux," which lead to a top-10 mostly non-Linux list of alternative OSes. I tried nearly all of them, and (as has often been my experience) the bulk of them would not successfully boot the computer in question. And the ones that did were, with one exception, completely disappointing in terms of speed. In addition to the non-Linuxes, I also tried a number of Linuxes including Peppermint OS (it worked), Arch Linux (it didn't), and Browser Linux (I forget). The dirty secret that nobody will tell you in the Linux world is that Microsoft Windows (XP or otherwise) is by far the fastest general-purpose graphical OS one can install on an aging PC. I don't know what Microsoft did right, but it leaves Linux in the dust. There is, however, that one exception I alluded to previously. The OS is called KolbiriOS. It's written entirely in assembly language and the whole thing, complete with a fairly attractive GUI, text editor, command-line terminal, file system browser, graphics editor, text-based web browser, development tools, and a dozen or so games, comes to less than five megabytes. That's like an OS from 1990, and it boots from a CD in about a second on the 14 year old laptop. While KolbiriOS isn't useful to me because it cannot seem to use any of the network cards I have, it makes you wonder how much more awesome computing would be today if it had been built around a carefully-coded kernel. In the end, though, it's looking like that old laptop will work best if I install some sort of Windows on it. (I'm actually thinking Windows 98, since Dell doesn't provide any drivers for Windows XP and it would be nice to be able to use the trackpad.)
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