Thinking From the Box

What Can You Do with a Low-end PC?

Eric McCann - 2002.01.04

I finally decided to visit Low End Mac's sister site, Low End PC. It's interesting what a change in perspective Low End Mac has given to me - I'm finding I can do a lot with 25, 33, 40 MHz computers (my fastest Mac is a 75 MHz PowerPC, and yet I still like my 8 MHz Classic.) Then I come back to my PC and find it slow with a 380 MHz processor...

So, what can you do with a low-end PC? What exactly is low-end?

Well, it depends.

For a hard core gamer, a 500 MHz PC with 128 MB RAM is considered low-end. It will churn and grind through today's demanding, graphically intense games. Basically, it just won't cut it. Yet that same system will get a family on the Internet, let them get their homework (or office work) done, and play less demanding (and often just as entertaining) games.

Let's say low-end is two generations back. What does that give us? The current generation of PC has Athlon XP or Duron processors, or Intel Celeron, Pentium III, or P4 processors. The slowest you typically see advertised are 800 MHz, and most are at least 1 GHz. (Yes, I'm ignoring Cyrix - whoever owns them now.) They seem to come standard with at least 128 MB RAM, Windows Me or XP, and 30 GB or larger hard disks. 32 MB AGP graphics cards are a norm.

So let's jump back two generations....

  • CPU: Intel Pentium, Pentium Pro, or Pentium II, 333 MHz max. Alternately, AMD K6-2 or K6-3 in the mid to upper 200 MHz range.
  • RAM: 32 MB.
  • Hard drive: 5-10 GB.
  • Graphics card: PCI based, with 4 or 8 MB RAM. Possibly an add-on 3D accelerator such as the Voodoo or Voodoo Rush.

Doesn't seem so useless, does it That system can still run Windows 95, OS/2 4.0 (with voice dictation and navigation), Linux, BeOS, or DOS. In fact, it will probably run better with the current versions of these, as the drivers will be available - since the hardware's no longer "bleeding edge." NT 4 is happy here, too.

Okay, let's jump back a little more:

  • CPU: Intel Pentium or DX-2/4, or AMD equivalent. 50 MHz (DX-2) to 150 MHz (DX/4, mostly AMD in the 486 class, or Pentium, non-MMX)
  • RAM: 8-16 MB
  • Hard drive: 500 MB to 2 GB.
  • Graphics card: 2 MB to 4 MB, PCI or SVGA.

Like it or not, this is still a usable system. Windows 95 came out with this sort of hardware. DOS was still around, with Windows or WFWG 3.1.x. OS/2 version 2, 3, or 4 was perfectly happy (though 4 felt a little tight - I know, I ran it on a system like this). Linux will still install. If you can find an early version of NT (3.1, 3.5, or 3.51) it will probably install here as well, just give it more RAM.

Those are all systems you can still find - we haven't even really gotten into using the OS or "using" the system!

Beyond that, we're looking in a thrift store, or someone's closet...

  • CPU: 386-16.
  • RAM: 2-4 MB RAM
  • Hard drive: 200 MB HD
  • Graphics card: VGA (possibly MGA or SVGA) video, 640x480.

Yes, now things get a little tight. What can you run on this?

  • DOS. Don't ignore this. Go to OpenDOS, which is multitasking and has a version of Personal NetWare incorporated.
  • OS/2 1.3 or 2.0/2.1.
  • NetWare 2 or 3 (running on DOS)
  • Possibly Linux, very trimmed down.

This is a system you can pick up - if it's not given to you - for probably $15 in thrift stores, if for that much. I had a similar system (IBM PS/2 model 70, 386, 2 MB RAM) given to me. The only thing that kept me from really utilizing it was the fact that I couldn't find a Microchannel (IBM's short-lived proprietary expansion slots, early "plug and play") network card.

Yes, there are earlier systems than that, but they've been (for me) rather hard to find. So, what can we do with a 386-16?

My suggestions on how to make this useful:

  • We're dealing with 30 pin SIMMs if we want to upgrade memory. Pricing on these can be cheap or horrendous. Still, we should be able to upgrade the system to 8-16 MB RAM, possibly by scavenging other systems.
  • The hard drive sizes on these are going to be limited to 540 MB if we stick with IDE. We might be able to go larger with SCSI. On the other hand, 540 MB IDE drives are cheap - four of them together give us a hair over 2 GB.
  • Stick in a network card! They're cheap (unless, of course, you end up with a Microchannel system).
  • If you want sound, go ahead and find an early SoundBlaster.

The next thing to find is ... an operating system.

Linux. Again, you can install as much or as little as you want. I'd ignore the X-Window system and stick with the command line at this level. What's it useful for?

  • Print server. Why bog down another Windows machine or Mac with printing?
  • Firewall/Router. It's built into Linux!
  • File server. You may want a larger hard drive for this, though - possibly SCSI, though to be honest, I'm not sure how limited the size will be. It's not IDE, so we won't have the BIOS's limits, and running ext2fs, we don't have to worry about the limits of FAT. A multi-gig drive might be a possibility, but partitions will still be useful just for keeping things organized. Use it as an MP3 file server.

OS/2. OS/2 comes with HPFS, the High Performance File System, as well as FAT. Again, you can get multiple 2 GB partitions set up, as long as the BIOS allows it. OS/2 is (to me) easier to deal with than Linux and very stable. With a 386, you'll want to use either version 1.3 (16-bit), 2.1 (32-bit), or 3.0. A basic 3.0 installation (with DOS support - the "red spine" box - and networking) is probably the best. You don't need to install all the toys in the bonus pack, but you'll probably want the fax program (which can act as a fax server), HyperAccess Lite (a.k.a. Hyperterminal in Windows), and the networking goodies. You can even install Internet capabilities, though I don't know that I'd use it for much of that, other than email, on a 386.

So what can we do with a 386 running OS/2 Warp 3?

  • Print server.
  • Firewall/Router. There are a good number of shareware and freeware programs for this.
  • File server. HPFS is very efficient.
  • Email and FTP. Virus worries? Not in OS/2 - there's no Outlook Express, nor many OS/2 viruses.
  • Basic "workstation." IBM Works comes with Warp 3 and 4 and gives you a simple spreadsheet, a decent word processor, and the like. Let the kids bang away on it, or just fire off that quick letter you have to get written while the "main" computer's being used to save the universe.

DOS. Specifically, OpenDOS, available from Deltasoft and <>.

Not only is it DOS, it's a DOS that scared Microsoft into creating its first "incompatibilities" because it outperformed MS-DOS. (It was originally DR-DOS, then Novell DOS, then purchased by Caldera and transformed into OpenDOS.)

What makes OpenDOS so nice? Well, it's actually multitasking-capable. It also comes with a version of Personal NetWare. And for the gamer, there's NetWars! On the downside, so far it seems to be limited to FAT-16s 540 MB partition size limit, though there are other file systems under development trying to overcome this by making it FAT-32 compatible. It does, of course, take more configuration - it's DOS, after all, so CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT will become your friends, but it's also Personal NetWare, a very nice peer-to-peer networking system.

Yes, it has the same uses as the other systems - do I really need to relist them?

This is just something to get you started on thinking how useful a low-end PC can be - even a 386, which you can get these days for the price of a delivered pizza, it seems.

I may just get ambitious and send in another article - just what you can do on these systems, besides use them for servers....LEPC

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