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Meeting Your Needs with a Low-end PC

L Victor Marks - 2001.10.03

There are limitations on what you can expect low-end hardware to accomplish. There are your own limitations, the limitations of your existing knowledge.

First, remember this: People have been productive with IBM PC computers since 1981 using EasyWriter, PFS:Write, WordPerfect, and Textra, on hardware that today is more frequently used for anchoring a boat. There's nothing wrong with maximizing your potential with an older machine.

Decide what you intend to do with your low-end PC. You can use a machine running Windows 3.x as an email machine quite happily. With MS Word 6.0c or WordPerfect 6.1, you can happily compose documents. You'll be limited to reading Word 97 and newer files with a WordViewer application, but it's possible. Web browsing will be largely untenable. Most fancy things like Flash, QuickTime, or Java won't work well at all under Windows 3.x. Networking two or more machines will be annoying but possible.

If you want to do more - composing modern documents, using a modern web browser, with modern networking - look to Linux. Linux can run well on older hardware and do things unheard of with Windows 3.x, but the hardware limitations are secondary to the limitations of your own knowledge.

First, lay out your needs and rate them in order of most importance to least importance.

Some requirements might be:

  • document creation
  • email client
  • Web browsing
  • email server
  • network router/firewall
  • Web server
  • print server

Document Creation is just what it sounds like: word processing, or the use of productivity applications. MS Word 6.0c and WordPerfect 6.1 are fine choices for Windows 3.x. Under Linux, WordPerfect for Linux, ApplixWare, AbiWord, and KWord are all fine word processing applications. I hesitate to mention StarOffice for low-end hardware due to its slower performance even on higher end hardware.

Email Clients are for sending and receiving email. Netscape Mail (Netscape 3.x) or Eudora 3.x are good choices for Windows 3.x. In Linux, you can use command line applications, similar to DOS, such as Mutt, Balsa, Mail, Pine, Elm, and others. For graphical Linux applications, you can use Netscape Mail, KMail, and others.

As I mentioned before, Netscape 3.x for Windows 3.x will get you browsing the Web, but it won't be a wholly satisfying experience. You won't get the full effect of animation or interactive Web sites. The Linux story is similar, except that the plug-ins exist for Linux. The interactive animated content may run slowly, sometimes intolerably so, but it will run.

Windows 3.x cannot act as an email server. Linux can, through the configuration of Sendmail or Qmail. This is a handy practice if you want to send email through your own server instead of the server at your Internet Service Provider.

Linux can make your low-end PC protect your more modern machines from attack, by routing the Internet signal to all your more modern machines and acting as a firewall, preventing incoming attacks from the outside world. This will keep you from being vulnerable to things like Code Red and Nimda.

If you want to serve Web pages, Linux comes with Apache, the world's most popular Web server. Windows 3.x doesn't have a facility to accomplish this.

If you have multiple modern machines and want to use your low-end PC, you might consider installing Linux, connecting your printer, and using it as a print server for all your newer computers. While it's possible to use one of your modern machines for this task, it's a neat use of older hardware and better, because you're isolating the spooler that handles how print jobs are queued up and passed to the printer from a machine used for production tasks.

Evaluate your needs carefully, decide what your expectations are of your low-end PC, and plan which operating system and software you will need to proceed. A low-end PC can be quite a capable system, whether in a server capacity or as a machine for simple document creation. Contrary to Microsoft's marketing engine, you don't need to have the latest greatest software and hardware to be productive. I have a friend who happily uses low-end hardware for document creation in his law firm.LEPC

UPDATE: Among the goals I mentioned, I suggested that you can use a Windows 3.1 machine to do light Web browsing and email. This is true, but I neglected to mention that you need a TCP/IP stack and dialer. This can also be referred to as a Winsock, for Windows purposes. Some Winsocks are the MS Winsock for Windows 3.x, available from Microsoft (if you can find it on their ever-changing Web site - my bookmark takes me to a broken link), Trumpet Winsock, or the Chameleon NetManage stack; all are fine choices. A review of these stacks is here, although I don't recall having paid $400 for Chameleon NetManage when I used to use it. A quick look at Netmanage.com shows they aren't even selling it any longer, but Trumpet.com still has a stack for Windows 3.1.

For those of you who choose Linux or another free operating system (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc...), a TCP/IP stack is included in the operating system, so you avoid this problem.

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