Skip to main content

Old Computer Challenge #3


This is the third year in which Solene has run the Old Computer Challenge and I've tried to participate in each of them.

Participating in these requires a little flexibility since I work remotely for $DAYJOB. The low-end computer challenges posed less issue since neither the VPN nor rdesktop required much in the way of resources. Using the smaller screen-dimensions on the older laptops made it a bit more challenging, but I made it work.

First year (2021)

The first year and third year both focused on limited hardware,

I chose a Gateway Solo 1200 as my primary machine for the first year. Boasting an 800MHz Celeron processor, a 120GB spinning-rust HDD, a 10mbit wired LAN connection (it also had an internal wi0 wireless card and a PCMCIA Intel wifi option, but both only supported WEP rather than WPA2 so I stuck with the wired option), and upgraded to its maximum of 320MB of RAM. This machine infamously arrived on 9/11 with the UPS driver delivering it as I watched the twin towers fall on TV.

The machine ran the latest release of OpenBSD without issue. The limited CPU & RAM limited my choice of software notably. Fortunately, other than web-browsing, much of what I do happens at the command-line.

I had used Claws Mail (a GUI mail program) for many years but it started using more and more system resources. So I had aspired to switch to mutt or neomutt. The Old Computer Challenge gave me the kick I needed. Dealing with multiple accounts and catch-all mailboxes posed the worst pain-points. Otherwise, it ran fine within the limited system resources. And they provide a lot of power to mow through piles of email.
I've long used cmus for playing my music collection, and pianobar for streaming. Both ran fine even on this ancient hardware.
All my coding happens at the CLI using a mix of vi, vim, and ed for editing, and doing version-control with git or rcs so not much changed here. I did find notable startup lag both in starting vim and executing Python code. It made me appreciate the fast startup times for utilities that compiled down to native code. I also found myself using awk in a lot of places since it had a faster startup time than Python.
I've long used rss2email to gather my RSS feeds and deliver them to my inbox, reducing the RSS-reader issue to a mail issue. I experienced no disruption here, since mutt let me keep reading my feeds just as I had done in Claws.
Social media
I accessed Twitter with Rainbowstream, Mastodon with Tootstream, and rtv (now obsolete) for Reddit. For text posts and commenting, I loved them all. But for image/video posts, they fell short. I wish I had a quality CLI interface for Facebook to keep in touch with friends & family who only share things there.
Office stuff
Thankfully, I don't have to deal with Office documents often. And almost never outside of $DAYJOB so I could use Word or Excel remotely. I did install Abiword for the occasional MS-Word document and Gnumeric for the occasional spreadsheet. Both provided reasonable fidelity and speed while running within the confines of the limited hardware.
I don't game much, so this didn't impact me much. I think I played a couple rounds of cribbage(6) and atc(6) as a proof-of-concept, but certainly no high-end FPS games here.

Web browsing hurt the most. Firefox & Chromium? Completely unusable without gobs of RAM. For some basic browsing, lynx and dillo provided lightweight options, while Epiphany clocked in at barely-usable (but still better than Firefox & Chromium) for sites requiring JavaScript.

Second year (2022)

The second year focused more on limiting network usage (both total-time and bandwidth).

I had to segregate life here since $DAYJOB requires remoting into my work machine so I didn't count that time against my allotted 1hr.

I didn't know how to count my cron job that downloads my podcasts nightly since I don't have much control over how long they run or how much data they download. I decided that, since the challenge only ran for a week, and I batch podcasts roughly every three weeks, I could load a fresh batch to my player before the challenge, disable the cron job for the week, and then re-enable the cron job after completing the challenge. Not quite the spirit of the challenge, but also a lot like how I would download things in high-school, where I would walk to the local campus library to download large files and bring them home.

Email didn't pose a great concern, since OfflineIMAP let me batch download my emails from the server, and my local MTA would batch up outbound emails until I reconnected, sending them all to my smart-host mail-server in one go.

However, the second year really cut into social-media usage. Its model simply doesn't accommodate offline use well.

Third year (2023)

Similar to the first year the tools remained largely the same. However this year I did the challenge while on vacation. Cheating? Maybe. But also enforcing since I didn't take any other laptop. This time I took a Dell Mini10 netbook with me. This hand-me-down came to me with 2GB of RAM, but I'd made a few upgrades:

  • replaced the 120MB HDD with a 60GB SSD giving a bit of extra pep
  • replaced the rubbish Broadcom wireless half-height PCI card with an Atheros chipset
  • installed OpenBSD 7.3 in place of Windows Vista

The netbook has no fan, relying on passive cooling instead. This meant that using apm -L kept the system running cool. I could manually apm -H to get the full 1.x GHz but it came with a warm price, discouraging me from doing so.

The tiny 1024×600 screen resolution gave even greater constraints when remoting into $DAYJOB but, that helped me stay in vacation-mode rather than try to sneak in hours. Additionally, X seemed to think the display offered 1024×768 resolution, so everything rendered with a squishing/scaling that ruined friends' pictures. And equally bad, the Poulsbo chipset lacked support in X, so it rendered very slowly using VESA. But I had times where I could watch text render character-by-character, and could type full paragraphs of text before the first couple words appeared on the screen. With better graphics-support, I suspect it would have felt notably snappier.

Future challenges

After returning from that vacation, I purchased a new laptop for travel, and got rid of four of my old junker laptops (my beloved rejoices at fewer laptops on my desk). I still have the Mini10 and a PPC iBook G4 running OpenBSD, so I can participate in future challenges.