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Basic Linux - Linux for old PCs

07 Aug 2021 - faintshadows

A friend (thanks, Ferix!1) pointed me to BasicLinux, which claims to be "designed specifically for old PCs." And that it "uses a small kernel and busybox to provide a low-RAM Linux, capable of browsing the web, doing email, and functioning as an X terminal."

Pretty decent goal! And it claims to run on a 386 with only 3MB of RAM. Naturally, I wanted to try on just that, my Tandy 2500SX/25. It has 6MB of RAM and ~85MB of drive space. The kernel version available is 2.2.26, with alternative version with optimisations for 486DX, Pentium, and Pentium II systems.

There are two versions, the DOS version, and the floppy version. The former boots from within DOS, and the latter runs in a RAMdisk. The latter requires 12 MB of RAM, while the DOS version only wants 3. However! The floppy version is what I'm going to need to use for right now, as the DOS version extracts to over 30MB, and is too big to fit on a single floppy. I'll have to either copy the zip over to the 386's hard drive, or, much easier, use my Pentium machine that I already have set up and ready for use.

Of course, since nothing I do is painless and easy, I can't get the 2nd floppy created. I keep running out of space on the disk before the tarball can copy over. I have an idea, that it's how FAT drives are created on newer systems, so I'm going to make the floppy under DOS/Win95. Go to boot up the Pentium, CMOS is dead and it's a damn integrated battery on a chip! Back to the Tandy then, I gotta figure out how to get a 2.8MB zip across 2 floppies, along with the tooling to unzip it. Or! I grab my other Pentium box.

Three floppy drives later

I was finally able to boot DOS to make a DOS floppy, and I was able to copy the second disk image to another diskette. FINALLY we can boot. Thankfully after waiting a long time for it to figure out that I don't have a hard drive plugged in, it loads the 2nd disk successfully, and we're in. X even works too.

Loading the kernel

Booted in

Memory usage with X running and an Xterm was reasonable at ~11MB of the 16 that this specific system has (the Pentium I wanted to use had 24). The d command runs Links in a file browsing mode, and wp is the Pico editor.

The X11 Desktop

cpuinfo, free, and uname

I spent way too much time to actually get this thing to boot, I couldn't spend a whole lot on actually using it.

Checking out the addons page, there's quite a lot that can be added to an install of Basic Linux. A more complete Links, for example. Midnight Commander, mpg123, smbclient, icewm, a SimCity clone, some X games, X servers (non VESA) are all available, and any package for Slackware 4.0 is compatible. Of course, once you start installing a lot from Slack 4, you may as well just have installed Slack.

If I ever get to running this on my 386, I'll make a new post for that, but from what I've seen and what's available, I'd recommend checking this little distro out. It may not have been updated in over a decade, but neither has the hardware of the computers it targets.

  1. Ferix runs his own blog, and it's much more interesting than mine, I'd highly suggest you give it a read!!