June 2, 2006

STX Linux: A second life for older hardware

Author: Marcel Gommans

Creator Michael "STIBS" Stibane calls STX Linux "a desktop Linux distribution especially targeted to older hardware." I tested version 1.0 of the Slackware 10.2-based distro on an old laptop with a 300MHz Celeron processor, 80MB of RAM, and a 4GB hard disk. I found this young distro for old hardware has promise.

Installation, using a text-based installer, is easy and fast. You have to select (and if necessary create) the partitions you want to use, after which STX installs all of its included packages on your system. There is no option to select individual packages. After that, you can install LILO, and you are ready.

While the installer found all my hardware, it failed to set up my PC Card network adapter. I found the solution on the STX forum (which is currently absent while the STX site undergoes a redesign). As it turns out, STX does not start PC Card services by default, because when you use old hardware, you do not want to run stuff you do not use. I was able to solve the problem by making /etc/rc.d/rc.pcmcia executable. I also needed to run alsaconf to get sound, but that was the only other glitch.

When the installer finishes, you are ready to start working with STX. STX's Equinox Desktop Environment (EDE) resembles that of Windows 98 or 2000. It is very light, but complete. In this early version, sometimes one of the icons moves to the upper left corner when I selected it, but that was the only minor glitch I discovered. I have one suggestion to improve version 2.0: I would stop using a separate menu for user-installed packages and combine the "programs" menu with "user programs." And it would be nice if you could remove a menu entry from the "programs" menu.

One unique and valuable tool is the beautiful and easy-to-use STX Control Centre, Michael Sheldon's tool for configuring an STX box. Here you can manage users, install software, configure your network, add a printer, or change your screen resolution.

STX comes with a nice set of packages that work well on older hardware. TextMaker provides a word processing application with good Microsoft compatibility. You can work on your spreadsheets with Gnumeric. Imendio Planner gives you project management capabilities. All these packages ran fine on my old laptop.

You can surf the Internet with the Mozilla browser, and check email with the Mozilla mail client. Chatzilla and Gaim provide chatting and instant messaging. Included are gFTP and the D4X download manager. You can browse a Windows network, and there even is a Web site composer available. XMMS and gxine let you play audio and video files, and Graveman lets you burn CDs and DVDs.

STX comes with a selection of simple games such as solitaire, Minesweeper, and Mah Jongg; don't expect spectacular 3-D games. In the graphics section you can find a PDF and an image viewer. The GIMP is available for editing photos, and Inkscape lets you create SVG drawings. STX provides XSane for using your scanner and flPhoto to connect with your digital camera.

All these packages except the GIMP run well on older hardware. The GIMP is included anyway because there is no good lightweight alternative. Altogether, it is a fine collection with which the average user can do all his computer activities.

Of course you can add packages, but you have to be careful; you can't simply add Slackware repositories and start slaptgetting stuff. STIBS advises getting the packages you really need from LinuxPackages and installing them using the local software option in the STX Control Centre. I tried downloading OpenOffice.org 2.0. It installed fine, but it was unusable on my system because it needed too many resources.

STX comes with USB hot-plug support; simply hook up your USB storage device and click on the icon.

Even though my laptop has only about 80MB of RAM and 128MB of swap space, I was able to run several programs at the same time without
issues. Sometimes the applications need some time to start up, but after that you can work just fine.

STX is a young distribution with potential, but it has some clear room for improvement. I would prefer to be able to use repositories without breaking the operating system, for instance. But STX looks great and works well. The Windows look and feel makes it easy to use for people new to Linux. Upcoming features planned for a future version include a graphical installer.

STX development has slowed down because STIBS has found paid work, but there's no reason you can't give an old computer another chance with STX as it is.

Marcel Gommans is an IT manager from the Netherlands who discovered Linux more than six years ago.


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