Thursday, 28 March 2013

Getting an old IMac G3 to be useful

Well of course I couldn’t resist.

Having got an old G3 to boot to the command prompt I had to try and get it running a desktop.

First of all I got myself some more memory for it. Everything I read suggested that even the lightweight versions of Lubuntu needed a bit more than the 256Mb Xubuntu 6.04 had been happy with and it was less than twenty bucks for 512Mb.

I had half hoped that the desktop would start working with the extra memory plus a decent xorg.conf to cope with the G3 display, but no such luck - I had the framebuffer problem. Reading the FAQ’s revealed that there was a known problem with framebuffers and 12.04 meaning that the video basically didn’t work.

The solution was to upgrade to 12.10. Easier said than done. The live CD was anything but, and the alternate install disk image for 12.10 didn’t want to play, so after failing to install an older different version of ppc linux, I reinstalled 12.04 and started painfully upgrading linux.

This was a painful exercise, as the old G3 was connected to the internet via a wireless bridge to our home network and then to the internet by our extremely flaky ADSL link - too attenuated, too much noise. Let’s just say that downloads and streaming media can cause our link to go and sulk severely, and trust me, it can sulk for Australia.

However, persistence does pay off and the command sudo apt-get upgrade --fix-missing is a wonder of resilience, and you get there eventually. 

Actually you don’t. I still can’t get a desktop manager to work despite upgrading everything fully. Currently sudo start lightdm bombs out just after saned starts. I suspect it's still not starting the video drivers correctly

I probably still need to spend a little more time with xorg.conf and tweak a few other things and hopefully it will burst into life.

The sensible question to ask about this exercise is why, why bother spending time trying to get a 12 year old machine running, when actually you secretly know it will sit in the garage and be used occasionally to check email and write the odd bit of text, something that could be done from the command prompt, for example by installing alpine and configuring it to work with gmail and creating markdown structured text with nano, and then mailing it to myself to then create decent quality odt by using pandoc, or indeed implementing a script to push it to dropbox.

And I have to agree, rationally there’s no sense. If I wanted or needed a linux machine at home I should have bought myself a refurbished thinkpad, or even an old ex government pc for less than a $100, after all if it will run XP it will run linux.

But then there’s the learning aspect. Under unix (or linux) I’ve always been a command line person when it comes to actual computing and while I’ve played with X Windows (and Dec Windows) I was actually a bit vague about the internals - my approach being to install an ubuntu or debian CD and go from there.

Doing this I’ve learned things, and had a had a little bit of fun along the way, which was really the whole point of the exercise …

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