At the beginning of January I decided to try my hand at using a ten year old laptop running Linux Mint MATE as my daily at home machine. While there is certainly some cruft associated with using such an old machine for the most part the experience was perfectly fine. In fact I’m using it right now to write out this article. I wouldn’t recommend running out and buying one solely for the purpose, but the fact remains that Linux Mint MATE, and probably Ubuntu MATE as well, provide a great average user load experience on underpowered hardware.
It seemed like perhaps it would be a bit too much for this old Dell XPS M1530 to be able to survive in the modern era. Would I be limited to just VI and some command line programs? Would the operating system itself buckle the computer under its weight? In fact there was literally nothing that I failed to do with this laptop. This was going to be my daily “at home” laptop which does a handful of things: web surfing, watching YouTube videos, editing LibreOffice documents, blogging this WordPress website, reading news articles, and looking over and entering data in my health tracking sites.
I knew I wasn’t going to have a problem editing Office documents (and I didn’t) but I wasn’t sure if web surfing was something it could pull off. While processors have seen a large increase in performance over ten years, their per-core performance isn’t an order of magnitude better. Since I had given it a beefy amount of RAM for the time (4GB) would have no problem running the memory hungry browsers that we now use for our every day interactions. Even without Flash modern browsers are beasts of programs for rending most sites. So yes, browsing went fine, but sites with lots of ads and the like would have a tendency to start bringing it to its knees if I opened up too many browser windows (which I tend to do when I go on my daily news binge). So check that off as a solid score for all of the web browsing activities.
Watching videos I thought was going to be too much though. That would have been a deal breaker if it came to having to use this for an extended period of time. I fired up YouTube and expected a sputtering video if even that much However the machine actually was able to crank out video both in window and in full screen mode. These weren’t just 640×480 videos either. I was actually able to watch videos all the videos I wanted in full resolution. That was far more shocking considering that I refuse to install Flash so these were all HTML5 encoded. I had assumed that a computer from back then would have had quite a hard time with modern HD video but nope! I knew how I’d really grind it to a halt, I’d play Netflix videos on it. Again, shockingly, it was actually able to keep up with full HD Netflix videos. Now, I would probably not want to try doing anything else while they were playing but the fact remains that this decade old laptop running Linux Mint MATE literally did everything I need out of my laptop.
What did I skip out on? My laptop isn’t my only machine, in fact its one of several I use every day. As a developer I have a workstation class machine that I use for software development. That’s a big screen, lots of memory, and lots of high speed disk space. It’s also spec’d out to do some reasonable gaming. While I did try my hand at doing some light compiling on this machine just to see how slow it was, it’s not something I’d recommend doing. At the time of purchase compiling on a machine with a 5400 RPM drive like this thing has felt slow. It’s even more so now when you compare to SSD performance. But, that isn’t my standard usage for my regular laptop so that’s all moot.
So what did I learn from this experiment? First, for your average user’s typical workloads it doesn’t take a lot of power to do these things. The web browsers are really what push things the most, but we’d probably do well to have low power high battery life machines optimized for running those engines. Of course if I had an overly heavy OS running on this, like Windows 10 things would have turned out drastically different. Case in point, I stopped using this laptop six years ago because Windows 7 was really dragging butt on it. Second thing I learned is that I can do everything I need to with Linux. I had converted my development workstation over to Linux but still have been kicking around a MacBook Air as my daily laptop. Now that all of my regular files are properly converted over to the latest LibreOffice I have everything I need. Figuring out that I can play Netflix was probably the biggest bonus of this whole thing. All of that boils down to when it comes time to replace my MacBook Air I’m going to seriously look into a Linux laptop replacement, especially if Apple can’t get their computer crap together.