Atticware Revisited: Step-By-Step Instructions For Installing A Current Linux Distro On A Very Small, Very Old Laptop

by Caitlyn Martin

Back in May I wrote an article titled Atticware: Reviving Ancient Little Laptops, which talked about using a current, very small, very lightweight Linux distribution to make a couple of old Mitsubishi Amity CN subnotebook computers useful again. The Amity CN is a 133MHz Pentium system with all of 48MB of RAM and a puny 1.2GB hard drive.

While the article received no comments I have been receiving e-mails now and again from people who actually did read it and who wanted to know exactly how I managed it. I went ahead and wrote it all out as step-by-step instructions. The good news is that very little of what I've written is Amity-specific. I think it should mostly all work on any laptop that can't boot from CD-ROM or USB which has at least a Pentium processor of some sort or another and at least 32MB of RAM.The net result is that I've created a brand new webpage detailing how to install Damn Small Linux onto the Amity CN. This may lead to an entire website dedicated to making current Linux distributions work well on older hardware.

I'd love to hear from people who actually try and use my instructions. Did they work for you? Could they be better? If you succeeded, what system were you using? I'd be happy to post revised versions for different hardware giving appropriate credit where credit is due.

I'd be particularly interested if someone gets good results with the older models in the Toshiba Libretto series. The Libretto is so small that even old models still have a geek cool factor when running Linux. I expect what I've written will work fine on the Libretto 50CT, 60CT, 70CT, and 100CT. Newer versions can probably run a more capable distribution. I'm afraid the Libretto 20CTA and 30CT are just too old to be really useful any longer. Anyone care to test my theories about the Libretti?


2006-07-04 08:00:50
1.2 GHz hard drive? ;)
Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-04 08:12:24
Yeah, it's a really fast hard drive... and if you believe that...

It's been corrected to 1.2GB in the article above.

The point, of course, is that what would be useless under Windows still can have life under Linux. Happy Fourth!

2006-07-04 08:56:20
DSL on Libretto --;f=26;t=14099;hl=libretto;f=8;t=13812;st=0

Puppy on Libretto --

Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-04 14:05:37
Doug: Thanks! The first Damn Small link (installation on a Libretto 100CT) and the Puppy Linux link (installation on a Libretto 50CT) are excellent. The instructions aren't as detailed on the DSL link but the concepts are the same as the ones I used on the Amity CN.
Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-04 18:39:06
This just made my day!

The comment from Roberts, one of the lead DSL developers, is especially heartwarming:

Nice to see articles from someone who "gets it".
Even the new "unc" type extensions are mentioned.
Validates my goals and objectives.

Nice to see someone developing for limited hardware. It's not only geeks with old toys that benefit. There are real opportunities to reach out to people on very limited budgets, non-profits, and, of course, embedded device makers with DSL. It's not that I "get it". It's that the developers of DSL and DSL-N have found a need and filled it beautifully.

2006-07-05 08:12:29
Those are not ancient. They're just old.

I've been looking for a *small* distribution to run on one of my 2 ancient laptops. 1 is a Toshiba 5200/100. It's a lugable w/ 8MB RAM and 100MB disk. Plasma VGA screen. 1 16bit ISA slot w/ an Adaptec 1542 SCSI, 1 8 bit slot w/ a WD8003 ethernet. 386 cpu. Right now it runs DOS.

The other is a Zenith 386SL. It's 12MB/120MB w/ VGA 16 screen w/ a 386SL cpu. It's got a Zenith/Thinkpad zport for ethernet which was available for older kernels. No expansion so it needs floppy install. It runs windows 95 right now.

So, anyone know of a more modern linux for these ancient and very tiny systems?

btw - my 1st linux was on a 486 w/ 8MB/340MB disk.

Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-05 09:49:19
Tom: Computers that are approaching a decade old are ancient. Yes, you have even more prehistoric hardware, systems that I would personally consider well past their useful lifespan. On systems that old you truly have no choice but to use an old version of Linux or one of the micro floppy-based distributions that are text only.

The last version of DeLi Linux, which was based on Slackware 7 and a 2.2.x kernel, claimed to run well on a 486 with 16MB of RAM. It might just work on your 386 with 12MB of RAM, though I'd bet it would be terribly slow if you ran X and X-based applications.

Sorry, there are truly systems that are only interesting as museum pieces. DOS and GeoWorks sounds like a reasonable solution on your systems, at least to me.

Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-05 09:59:48
Tom: OK, I found one that lookos very promising for your 386 systems. Take a long look at Basic Linux:
2006-07-09 07:29:34

The Linux on Laptops project has been around for quite some time.


Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-10 16:10:45
Scott: Linux On Laptops is the first place I checked before writing any of this. Where do you think I found the eight year old web page? There was nothing current like what I wrote. Indeed, instructions on how to put an up-to-date lightweight distribution on an old laptop were pretty much entirely missing. Linux On Laptops is brilliant when hardware is reasonably current. For old hardware they usually have old instructions for very old distros plus a bunch of broken links.

FWIW, I've submitted what I've written plus the links dougz provided to Linux On Laptops. Hopefully they will be included.

2006-07-11 09:35:32
I am running debian 3.1 (installed using floppy images) on a P120 with 16 Meg of ram. Works pretty good. My X is using the lwm as window manager. I think that I am using between 500 and 600 meg of disk space right now.
Samir Arishy
2006-07-15 20:33:48
I have Lib 110ct and I am going for it equiped with your instructions. I will be back ;)
2006-07-16 01:25:53
I'd love to hear from people who actually try and use my instructions. Did they work for you?
Yes they are.
Eduardo Duca
2006-07-16 08:24:47
I have a Debian Sarge in my Libretto 110CT, but I will try very son Vector Linux or Ubuntu (I have donĀ“t chosse yet). But I will post in my blog a tutorial about both with som difficults (like no CD and Flppy not recognized) D-Link DWL-650 rev P WIFI PCCard (if I can to do it works), enhanced DOckStation (with USB original with Libretto110ct) and etc.
Caitlyn Martin
2006-07-17 22:54:12
My thanks to everyone who has e-mailed me or commented about their successes using my documentation to revive old laptops and successfully install Damn Small Linux or other similar distros. It lets me know it was all worthwhile.

To those of you who have written me essentially with support questions: I may or may not have time to answer. I'll do the best I can so long as they quantity doesn't get too large, OK?

2006-07-21 07:52:33
Good post!
2006-07-24 01:49:33
Good post!!
2006-08-17 13:30:03
Dunno about your instructions, but I just reinstalled my 100CT for I think the sixth or seventh time. The previous times it's been mainly because I swapped to a bigger disk, and once because my previous, precious 50CT died, but this time I took the plunge and went from Debian -- installed once upon a time as I think Slink, and upgraded all the way up to Woody (yes, Woody) -- to Ubuntu Dapper 6.06 in one go.

There are some good tips on the Ubuntu Wiki about how to get the most out of a low-memory system, and the instructions for how to install from a USB stick are basically doable when what you have is an IDE drive in a USB cradle instead of a stick. Granted, I upgraded to 64Mb memory but it doesn't feel like it would be impossible to go even with 32, particularly if I decided to run without X11.

2007-03-02 14:52:27
I tried your instructions and it worked very well for me. Thanks very much.
2007-04-14 20:32:48
I am a linux newcomer and I could use some help with installing linux on my libretto 50ct.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-05-25 13:02:51
Amber: A Libretto 50CT is a very challenging Linux installation. Look at my instructions for the Amity CN and see if those work for you. The only difference really is the 32MB memory limitation you have. With so little memory I'd install Damn Small Linux to the hard drive in the conventional way rather than doing a frugal install.

I am assuming you've upgraded your Libretto to 32MB. A current distro, even Damn Small Linux, won't run in 16MB.

If you ask more specific questions I'd be happy to answer them. I have new articles on the Libretto series, on customizing Ubuntu for systems as limited as yours (not easy!), and on Damn Small Linux 3.3 planned.

2007-06-05 11:02:45
I did indeed upgrade to 32mb on the memory. I was actually able to do the frugal install using your instructions but everything ran very slow. How would I go about a normal install of Damn Small 3.3 that would not run in ram? I have Dos on the machine and a cdrewriter that works with the dos installation. The cdrewriter is a microsolutions Backpack .
Caitlyn Martin
2007-06-09 15:36:42
Amber: To do a traditional hard drive installation you need to boot into Damn Small Linux 3.3 somehow (could be your existing frugal install) and run the install to hard drive script from the menu. You will need a partition with about 300MB free to do the installation. A separate /home partition is also a good idea since upgrading in the future will basically mean reinstalling DSL. You may want to keep your frugal install around for future installs.

One comment: You have a Pentium 60 with 32MB of RAM. Slow is all you can ever expect -- just not as slow as with frugal. Dillo and SIAG and Ted will run reasonably well but Firefox, for example, never will. A Libretto 50CT is almost to the point of useless now. Not quite, but almost.

2007-06-20 13:44:38
I wanted to thank you for your help and to let you know that my is libretto is running faster now with the hard drive install.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-06-20 20:57:31
Amber: Fantastic! Thanks for letting me know. Hopefully your success will inspire others as well.
2007-07-29 09:43:58
I've got a Libretto 100ct with 64M memory and a 60 Gig hard drive. It is set up with a dual boot running Damn Small Linux v3.3 (haven't spent time trying to install 3.4, but I'm guessing it's just as easy) and Windows 2000. The fact is, you could run DSL with the default 32M and a 4 Gig (or smaller) hard drive. It is running with both a wired and a wireless network card. The reason I set up DSL is becaus Windows is slow slow and I like to take this machine on the road for Internet access because it is so small. I can run DSL with X and Firefox browser and still only sue about 16 Meg of the 64 Meg of memory. Also, now that it's all configured the say I wanted, I used R-drive (a disk imaging program) to make an image of the partition(s). I can restore my entire Linux partition in a matter of minutes from the Windows partition. If things get "really" bad, I just have to remove the hard drive and attach it to my desktop with a USB-IDE adapter and restore that way. Simple, and works like a champ.

I wouldn't doubt other Libretto models (50, 70, etc.) would work just the same.

If anyone wanted detailed instructions on how I did the installation, email me.

2008-07-10 17:03:06
Hello, I have been searching high and low for a replacement battery for this very tiny laptop. Do you have any suggestions. I can no longer get my battery to recharge.