Arch over Old Hardware

Initial installation of Arch Linux

I inherited an Acer V5-122P laptop, which is extremely underpowered. Even lubuntu was unusably slow (see final sentence), so rather than cutting down the default services - or throwing the laptop away - it was worth the effort to build up from scratch. I'll use Arch btw.

The installation guide is great, but the laptop doesn't have an ethernet port and the initial wireless connection was less obvious than everything else. When I rebooted into the new system, I had failed to install the packages needed to connect to the wireless (wireless_tools and dhclient).

I had to reboot into the live-usb stick again, so that I could finish bootstraping the installation:

mount /dev/sda1 /mnt
# Connecting using the binaries from the live-usb,
# using the configuration file
wpa_passphrase my-wifi-name my-wifi-passphrase > /mnt/etc/wpa_supplicant/connection.conf
wpa_supplicant -B -c /mnt/etc/wpa_supplicant/connection.conf
dhclient wlp1s0
# chroot to main hdd (/dev/sda1) and install the wireless 
# tools there using the wifi connection made by the live-usb
arch-chroot /mnt
pacman -S wireless_tools dhclient

Rebooting after that, I can connect to the wifi and continue setup without relying on the live-usb.

Post Installation

The installation of Arch was the first time I'd not used a graphical installer in a long time. The magical scripting made it pretty straightforward, but it still felt like the return of an old friend.

Sadly, the laptop remained annoyingly slow for anything but editing text. It boots to the console in around 15 seconds, and by adding the following to .bashrc, it's then fine for editing text.

setfont ter-118n
alias vi=vim

But continuing to a graphical desktop (startxfce4) takes another 20 seconds, and since everything there is so slow, except for text editing, I don't bother. Starting firefox and bringing up a website might take 15 seconds. It was a surprise to me that a premium laptop in 2005 was far better than an entry-price laptop manufactured eight years later, although the later is admittedly much smaller and lighter. I had guessed that I was seeing Wirth's law in action; software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware is becoming faster. So I thought that I could outsmart it by installing only the lightest of software. But that approach basically failed.

The closest to the 1.75GHz single-core Pentium M from the 2005 laptop that I can find an equivalent benchmark for suggests that the old CPU had significantly less than 30% of the power of this new one. Since that laptop died years ago, I can't do a side-by-side comparison. But thinking it over, I strongly suspect that the newer Acer laptop with Arch linux is actually faster than the older Vaio was with ancient Debian. I guess that a 30s boot time would have seemed incredible a decade ago.

The Computational Hedonic Treadmill

The laptop is usable now. It's quicker with Arch than it was with lubuntu, and both were miles ahead of Windows. But I made a mistake in thinking that the slow computer was a case of Moore's law vs Wirth's law.

I just hadn't noticed over the years how far my own expectations of the computer's speed had also increased.