Thinking From the Box

Why Not Use a Freenix?

Joseph Bales - 2002.05.02

I recently read Eric McCann's article, Why Not Use DOS? Being a Freenix advocate (Freenix stands for Free Unix), I decided to write an article about using Unix clones on low-end PCs.

There are two practical options when it comes to using Unix on a PC, Linux and BSD. Most people have heard of Linux. Fewer have heard of BSD, but since it is Unix, it works about the same from the end user's perspective.

Both OSes are similar in that they can run on 386 machines and up. In fact both were originally developed in the 386 era.

Pros and Cons of a Freenix

There are many pros that make a Freenix a great operating system choice:

  • Multitasking (need I say more?)
  • Built in Internet connectivity
  • Built in networking
  • Tons of built in or readily available applications
  • Almost no viruses
  • Multiuser design
  • Tons of documentation both online and in the bookstore
  • Good support for older hardware
  • Long file name support
  • It's free

Some of the cons are:

  • Steep learning curve for newbies
  • Will not run DOS and Windows applications natively

There may be only two cons in my list, but they are very important in deciding whether or not to use a Freenix. If you don't have the time to invest in learning more about your computer and Unix, don't try a Freenix. And if you have that one DOS or Windows app that you can't live without, a free Unix is probably not for you - although most DOS and Windows applications have a free Unix alternative.

Why Freenix?

Some of you are probably asking why you should go through all the trouble. I say just look at the pros list above. The ability to multitask puts Unix way ahead of DOS or Windows 3.1, and the price is always right. Plus, the 386 versions of these OSes were originally designed to work on the 386, so you shouldn't have trouble finding one that meets your system requirements.

How do I get a Freenix?

There are many to choose from, and sometimes the choices can seem overwhelming. There are several commercially available Linux distributions (companies include Red Hat, Suse, and Mandrake), most of which are available online or at your local computer store.

If you buy an off the shelf Linux distribution, remember to check the system requirements, because some are built for Pentium level processors only. They usually have a minimal install for low-end PCs, though.

Another way to find a good, small, Linux distro it to check out A search on this site can show you many versions of Linux that will run on a 386 or 486 with limited memory - and some versions will even run off a floppy.

BSD comes in three flavors: NetBSD, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD. They are all pretty similar. FreeBSD can usually be found at CompUSA or online for download. NetBSD and OpenBSD can be downloaded or purchased online. I use NetBSD, and it works very well for me. It even has a tiny version of its kernel designed specifically for low-end PCs.

A good option for the bargain hunters is the local bookstore. Check the discount rack and see if you can find a Linux for Dummies or similar book. They are usually in the $10-15 range, and most include an outdated version of Linux on a CD-ROM. For our purposes, outdated isn't bad; in fact, it is preferred.

In Conclusion

I hope that I have shown you how a Freenix can be advantageous on a low-end PC. I also hope that I haven't discouraged any newbies out there. With a little patience and the help of thousands of Web sites, newsgroups, and mailing lists, learning Unix can be a very rewarding experience and make your low-end PC a very productive machine.LEPC

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