Debian with Raspberry Pi Desktop Promising For Old Computers

During my first pass evaluation of a HP Mini (110-1134CL) I tried a few modern graphical operating system options and failed to find anything satisfactory. Ubuntu Mate is designed to be a lighter weight alternative to mainline Ubuntu, but it still felt sluggish. Chrome OS (available as Neverware CloudReady) now only supports 64-bit CPUs, which excluded old 32-bit machines.

It works fine as a text-only command line machine, but that seems like a shame as it has a perfectly operable screen and video subsystem. All it needs is a Linux distribution even lighter weight than Ubuntu Mate. I’m sure there are many options out there — historically there has never been a shortage of options for Linux distributions, and websites like this one help sort through options.

But I’d rather not learn yet another Linux distribution. I’m already juggling through more than I strictly wanted, plus some time in FreeBSD as part of my FreeNAS explorations. If only there was a Linux variant that I’m already familiar with, optimized for minimalist low end hardware.

The poster child for minimalist low end hardware is the Raspberry Pi, which is so minimalist it doesn’t even have a power switch. Raspbian, their Debian-derived Linux distribution, has been cut down so it runs on Pi hardware less powerful than the cell phones we’re carrying around nowadays. What if someone took that work and put it in a distribution I can run on old x86 computers? At 1GB of RAM and 1GHz CPU, the hardware spec of a HP Mini is quite similar to a Raspberry Pi.

An online search quickly found that such a thing exists. Not only had “someone” done the work, that “someone” is Raspberry Pi foundation itself. This was the result of someone at the foundation thinking of the exact same “What if….?”question, but they thought of it a few years earlier and had the resources to make it happen.

Thus old computers with 32-bit Intel CPU have the option of running what they’re currently calling Debian with Raspberry Pi Desktop. A beginner-friendly super lightweight variant of Debian with almost all of the software packages that come pre-installed on Raspbian. Only Wolfram Mathematica and Minecraft are missing due to licensing. It all sounds very promising. Time to try it on some old 32-bit machines and see how they run.

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