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Ask HN: What is your favorite low-end setup you've ever done?
61 points by mod50ack 25 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments
I really like to see what the most modern/productive setup is that you can run on a piece of hardware. My favorites include a NetBSD desktop with current software I ran on a ca. 2000 mid-range desktop a few years back, or, even more delightfully hacky due to ppc32, a debian-ports system I've got running now on a PowerBook G4.



Of all my hilariously low-end setups, my favorite would have to be the Zipit Z2. It's a little handheld instant-messaging toy with a qwerty keyboard, a 320x240 screen, and 32 megabytes of RAM. In 2011 or so, I didn't have a laptop or much money, and I ended up using one of these as my daily driver. In those days, 32 megabytes would run stock Debian. X11 was practically useless on a device with no mouse, but all the curses programs worked. I had pretty good eyes, so I loaded a 4x6 console font and got myself a (tiny) 80 column terminal. Elinks was a mite heavy for the thing and also has a tendency to lock up when a page is slow, but I discovered an obscure console browser called 'retawq' that would support my 100-tabs-a-day habit, even in such a constrained environment. I even compiled it on the device. mplayer ran perfectly well, and the audio chip in it was actually absurdly good especially for an IM toy, so it was actually quite a practical mp3/FLAC player as well, at a time when a portable FLAC player would run you about £200 if you could find one at all. Disk space was limited only by the miniSD card you put in it.

They aren't quite so much fun any more, sadly, as Debian no longer runs properly on 32 megabytes of RAM.


I had the original ZipIt, it didn’t have a color screen and it’s specs were even lower. It could still run text based Linux, with an ssh client, and it could play mp3s, but only with one optimized piece of software. I used it to go on IRC, and even wrote some very basic games that used ncurses or the framebuffer.

https://elinux.org/ZipIt


I still have a stack of them, they are quite nice. I have old images which work pretty well, especially using debootstrap chroots you can still run quite a lot of (not kernel dependent) stuff. Lot of fun those were.


Reminded me of my Cybiko. Man that thing was great fun.


I worked a computer store back in the mid 2000s. We got an iMac in that had a busted CRT and the owner just wanted the data moved to a new machine and then gave us the old one to get rid of. I pulled it apart and installed Linux on the 233 Mhz PowerPC. It ran for years with just the power board and motherboard sitting open on my desk. I used it for a server and development environment through ssh. I finally turned it off and I recently pulled it out of the box and the PRAM battery had exploded and ruined the entire thing. Good memories though.


I used a IPS-screened Thinkpad T42 (1.5 GB RAM, compact flash card in place of HDD) + RAM-booted Tiny Core Linux + Non DAW for producing radio shows for my country's public broadcasting. The T42's sound card didn't work, so a Zoom H1 recorder was used daily as an audio interface. I even used that machine to record something important outdoors with an Avid Mbox 2, but I remember feeling really uneasy as to how well this would work out.

I liked the T42 a lot (I still have it). All in all, I guess it is time for HN to re-discuss Joey Hess' minimal setup:

https://usesthis.com/interviews/joey.hess/

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4721645

https://joeyh.name/blog/entry/xmonad_layouts_for_netbooks/

Or Jason Rohrer:

https://usesthis.com/interviews/jason.rohrer/

http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/jason-rohrer/simpleLife.ht...


I had no idea Non, existed, thanks!


It was a fascinating find for me as well. Great example of modular design.


I have setup a self hosted note server[0] on Raspberry PI. Here's my workflow:

- Remembered a todo or note? Type note in your browser address bar with keyword 'pin' prefixed

    pin todo!pay the rent
    pin grocery!handwash
    pin watchlist!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j800SVeiS5I
- Note gets saved in markdown document like todo.md, grocery.md and watchlist.md. 'pin' is the keyword I have configured for my Pi server and browser thinks its a search engine.

- A http shortcut on Android when clicked shows a dialog box with todo.md contents.

- Edit/View notes using mapped network drive in your favorite markdown editor both on desktop/mobile. You can also view all the notes in your browser.

[0]: https://github.com/quaintdev/pinotes


As someone who is constantly (it seems) looking for new ways to take notes / todos this is a very cool solution.

Using a get request to write the one-line notes is really nice - though do you handle any sort of auth with this? Can FF be configured to handle that with the shortcuts?

I love the idea of running this at home and being able to access it from anywhere - and it being a simple webpage.

Edit: I just took a look at the source and no, no auth - though for home-network constrained things this could still be cool.

I like the novel approach to it :)


Thanks for the feedback! I intend to add support for multi user so that may require some sort of auth. I haven't got around to how I am going to implement it though.

In high school, I made a Jarvis like voice automation system with a friend. This was 2010, before Siri and AWS and home automation were cool. The whole system was made out of junk parts. An ancient desktop with a parallel port was the brain. The parallel port pins were connected to relays which were driving the mains current to various appliances. We used the hilariously bad Windows speech recognition to manipulate some cmd scripts which turned the parallel pins on and off. As stupid teenagers, we had open mains lines on the floor. I am happy to be alive.


My 'lightbulb' (pun intended) moment as a kid for getting in to CS was when my dad fished an old (something - it ran DOS, but not windows, and came with the Turbo C Bible) PC out of the skip at work and wired up some 12V filament bulbs to the parallel port - and by writing bytes out to it you could make them flash in pretty patterns.

Later I also did the mains relay thing too - but I put them in a metal box. Safety first ;)


You would probably have been fine. I was doing much less cool stuff when I ran main voltage (240v) directly into the palm of my left hand. Thumb twitched for about an hour :)


The most extreme was a Nokia E66 with PuTTy. I was on a flight for a holiday and then the real time bidding system we had running was erroring out. I knew where the bug was (proper fix was a TODO), and I had to fix the service before boarding. nano with a T9 input typing Python is something I will never want to do ever again.

Oh yeah, editing code on a live server. Also probably never again.


My all-time favorite (so far) was running our company email server on a Mac SE/30. Although that might not qualify as low-end, it was a machine our department got at no charge when the donor upgraded. Good times, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

I currently use an HP Stream 11 Pro that I got for not quite $100. I was going to run Linux on it, but the trackpad was unusable for me without lots of tuning of low-level parameters. It is usable as a dev box for static HTML sites, using VS Code on Windows 10, even non-GUI WSL2 Linux basics. 4GB of RAM, 6 Watts of heat.

Windows is a huge amount of work for me, but learning PowerShell or Python doesn't require a ThreadRipper. Or 1080p video.


I bought a new HP Stream recently and it's been delightful to run Lubuntu on - everything worked out of the box. Even two finger scrolling in Firefox with the trackpad.

I have other machines that I use for my day job, but it's such a fun little computer to use.


I regularly use an EEE PC (901, I think?) when I don't want to deprive my wife of the MacBook. Runs Debian Linux with MATE just fine, only browsing is a bit slow.

The programs I use are configured to have a minimum of toolbars and such to save on screen space.

There's also a Pentium 4 PC that I've installed a time-appropriate stack on - Windows 2000, Visual Studio 6, etc - to see if I was wrong to assert Wirth's law. I wasn't, the thing flies.


EEE PCs are cool. I had a bunch, and modified them all.

I wish that Asus had continued that line-up -- especially now with common touch and high res small glass displays.

ultrabooks seem to have won, but I love 7-9 inch laptops as a form factor. The typing takes some getting used to, but the size is such a nice convenience factor.


I don't like carrying things when traveling, so I have tried different mobile offices over the years which can definitely be considered low-end practical/productive setups:

- around 2005; HP Ipaq pocket pc + Zaurus C860 with network adapter; I did all my document writing, programming, server admin, online buying/selling on the combi of these two; very light to travel. Pretty perfect even for quite long times on the road

The Zaurus I used until 2010 around; I still have it and it still works perfectly.

- around 2011; OpenPandora + iPhone, same setup as the above but more powerful ; still as portable; on the Pandora I could/can do mostly anything I need to do for work; php/ruby/c#.net/python/haskell/lua. The Pandora battery can be swapped, so I carried 2 extras which means a week of work while weighing absolutely nothing...

- around 2018-now; GPD pocket 1 + iPhone and it's x86 while having very good battery life with debian/i3wm, so same as above but with a lot more freedom. It's far less repear-able though than the Pandora and the Pocket 2 is really not as good (I sold it; it was annoying to work with compared).


Easily this: https://taoofmac.com/space/blog/2020/05/23/2130

Hacking a netbook into something I use daily has been more useful in the current context than all my Raspberry Pi hackery - last year I turned a 3A+ into a neat portable server, and that was a lot of fun, too:

https://taoofmac.com/space/blog/2019/08/22/2023

...but ultimately less productive.


Netbooks were so great. I had an Asus EEEPC that first ran Windows 7 for a while, then archlinux using a tiling window manager, and finally I installed MacOSX on it and I actually held down a Ruby webdev job on that until I had made enough money to buy the MacBook Pro 2009. I still have a picture somewhere of the EEEPC transferring the OSX settings to the MacBook, it was hilarious.


It's a shame the only cheap, small laptops now all seem to be Chromebooks with limited storage and very few ports on them

I still use my 1015PX EEE on a regular basis - the keyboard is flaky (dust under the keys?) but it comes in handy to share network via Ethernet connection to a something without WiFi

No USB 3 and only 2GB of RAM isn't great; although you can browse simple websites reasonably well, and I was surprised streaming live YouTube content in VLC works fine


Only 2GB of ram? I'm pretty sure my EEE (901) had at least 4GB. I bet you could get that upgraded for less than $10 now.

edit: I think I'm wrong about this, a little googling shows that support for 4gb ram on atom n550 is dodgy at best. I don't remember taking a soldering iron to it. I really did Ruby webdev on a machine with 2GB ram, crazy!


Could be one of those situations where sometimes 4GB will work, but it officially only supports 2?

The HP MicroServers are like that


This is kind of basic but I bought a Thinkpad W530 with maxed out specs, prior life as a docking station queen, in a used Japanese bookstore (in San Diego) last year for about $300 after I needed a 15" non-Mac laptop.


A ThinkPad W530 I bought in 2013 is still my primary laptop. It's maxed out as well, a 2.7 GHz quad-core, 32 GB of RAM, and a pair of Samsung SSDs in a RAID1.

A couple of MBPs have came and went during this time, I've kept going back to the W530. You got a great deal, though, I originally paid around $2300 for mine!


Awesome machine. I gave mine to my brother when I got a T440 and I deeply regret that choice.


I picked up programming as a hobby and was lucky to get a job making an inventory system for a jewelry store in the mall using dBase II on a Xerox CP/M machine. That was nice.

When my dad and uncle wanted an inventory system for their computer store in the same mall, I thought I could make one from scratch on the Atari 8-bit. It was written in BASIC with 6502 assembly routines. Things went pretty well but disk (as in 5 1/4" floppy) access was slow and tried to fit the stock into memory which didn't fit. Got a bank switching 128 KB memory extender (up from the base 48K). It was fun writing the data compression, search, and sort routines in assembly. The sort was a combination quick + merge sort because bank switching meant that only 1+1 of N banks were addressable at a time. I think it also disabled display DMA for a 30% speed boost during full sorting. I'm also remembering it had a partial index that fit in main+bank0 memory for searches. It did more than inventory, serving as the POS with receipt printer and dot-matrix printed reports. That thing ran for years and years until Atari started making PC clones and something else was used as 'business machine' promotional demo.


A 33mhz 486 DX (8MB RAM, roughly 1990 vintage IIRC) was doing firewalling and routing duties for my parents house from approx 2000 until ~2012.


Cool! What was the throughput and latency like?


Before Age of Empires 2, Age of Mythology, and Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 were rereleased on steam I held on to my first Windows XP computer dearly, a Dell Dimension 4000 series PC and little VGA LCD from round 2007. Had to replace the battery at least once.

These games aged very well and I miss the graphical simplicity of XP. I used to edit movies on it in windows movie maker.


My favourite was Casio PocketViewer PV-S660 I used during high school as calculator, for note taking, learning programming and playing games. You could not do much on 6MB flash and 160x160px monochrome display, but it was awesome device for the time. On two AAA batteries it lasted for months of everyday use (without backlight).


With a raspberry pi 3 I've done an app running on node, scraping some open data, pushing those crunched data to a redis.

Then a cronjob will post that data to a website.

All on that machine.

For a while I've also used it as a minimal webdev environment with no real performance problem.


Does a 1.2 GHz 64-bit CPU with 1 GB of RAM really qualify as low end these days?


No, it is a very low end machine.

Those specs would have been mainstream 15 years ago, when I had to replace my first thinkpad in 2007 the Acer I brought had a GB of ram and that was a budget machine. Worked very well after I upgraded the OS from Vista to XP.


The Vista to XP 'upgrade' was such a good move.


> Worked very well after I upgraded the OS from Vista to XP.

LOL


Well probably yes if you consider that is possible for the regular consumer to get a 24c/48t Ryzen machine with 64gb ram, running steadily at 4+ ghz


While true, it just doesn’t really seem like a challenge to run Node and Redis and do a bit of web scraping on that. So nothing against Raspberry Pi but I interpreted the spirit of the question as asking about the really long tail of low end systems. NetBSD, for example, runs on Motorola 68K based Mac systems like the Mac Classic II which only supports up to 10 MB of RAM and has a 16 MHz CPU. The top comment talks about adapting a toy with a tiny screen and 32 MB of RAM which is great.


13 years ago, I used an old box with very low specs (Pentium MMX) as a home network appliance using Linux.

It acted as a firewall, reverse proxy cache and if you used nmap on it, it showed up as a network printer.


I ran Gentoo Linux on a 12" iBook PowerPC G4 for a while after Apple officially declared it as end-of-life. I really loved the form factor at the time, it feels clunky now.


Does a Sun SparcStation 2 count? By today's standards it is pretty feeble (a small percentage of the power of a Raspberry Pi) - but it sure didn't feel that way at the time!

http://eschatologist.net/blog/?p=266

I occasionally think about trying to find one and installing NeWS & HyperNeWS to see if it really was a nice as I remember.


In the past, I've had some really low-end setups.

The most low-end things I have nowadays are a pair of Neoware CA21 thin clients (VIA 800 MHz, 512 MB RAM, 512 MB flash storage) serving as DNS and NTP servers.

Pretty much everything else runs on my VMware vSphere cluster but I keep those going as the cluster needs functional DNS and NTP services when starting up from scratch (chicken and egg problem).


In the 90s I installed FreeBSD on a Zip drive running on an old Powermac and connected a MacPlus as terminal with a 6m long ethernet cable (Edit: or another cable? no longer sure). I used it for experimenting with Unix and IRC.

However, for some reason the Zip drive was always trashing even though the system wasn't swapping. But the setup worked.


Until three years ago I had been running an Aldi Pentium Pro 4 system from 1999 with windows 95, that I moved to various kind of Linux distributions since 2010. The system has been running great but finally decided to buy something modern... A Lenovo x220 from 2012 ;-) with a new SSD running windows 10 and Linux dual-boot.


RPi Zero W, set up as an stand-alone wifi access point, running off a usb battery pack. I used it with an ssh client on my phone for Python code and writing while traveling.

Old Thinkpad with no battery just after ext3 with journaling came out. I would yank the cord without shutting it down. Never lost data ;-)


My best low-end setup was a network gateway running FreeBSD for traffic shapping and NAT. It was a Pentium pro II, out-of-the-shelf with 4 3COM Fast Ethernet and used to provide internet for more than 2k simultaneous users. It was the main server from an ISP where I used to give some consulting.


I used to use a 486-33 as a router/firewall setup with Smoothwall (I think) as the OS. This was probably about 2003 when ADSL was a new thing and there weren't any affordable dedicated routers on the consumer market.

Also used to run a Hackintosh setup on a Samsung NC10 netbook.


I had a Sun Sparc Classic with an s-bus quad fast ethernet card. Loaded OpenBSD on it and ran it as my home gateway/router for a few years.


Not super low end, but I used a Thinkpad X200 running xubuntu well into 2016. Swapping in an SSD kept everything feeling fast enough


AntixLinux on classic Thinkpads


Solaris 9/ultra 10


• I had a client with a Novell IntraNetware 4.1 network. I did a bargain-basement system upgrade for them. With a local system builder, we took a whole storage closet full of decade-old 386 and 486 desktops and turned them into Cyrix 6x86 166+ clients. The motherboards had integrated graphics and NICs (rare back then), 32MB RAM and a smallish local EIDE hard disk, say 1.2GB. No CD drives, original 14-15" SVGA CRTs.

A 2nd Novell server would have been too expensive, so I put in an old Pentium 133 workstation as a fileserver running Caldera OpenLinux with its built-in MARSNWE Netware server emulation. It held CD images of NT 4 Workstation, the latest Service Pack, the latest IE, MS Office 97 and a few other things like printer drivers. Many gigs of stuff, which would have required a new hard disk in the main server, which with Netware would have meant a mandatory RAM upgrade -- Netware 3 & 4 kept disks' FATs in RAM, so the bigger the disk, the more RAM the server needed.

On each client, I booted from floppy and installed DOS 6.22. Then I installed the Netware client and copied the NT 4 installation files from the new server. Ran WINNT.EXE and half an hour later it was an NT workstation. Install Office etc. straight off the server. (An advantage of this was that client machines could auto-install any extra bits they needed straight off the server.)

For the cost of one fancy Dell server & a NOS licence, I upgraded an entire office to a fleet of fast new PCs. As a bonus, they had no local optical drives for users to install naughty local apps.

• Several 486s with PCI USB cards, driving "Manta Ray" USB ADSL modems -- yes, modems -- running Smoothwall, a dedicated Linux firewall distro.

http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/36102/Alcatel-Stingra...

https://www.smoothwall.org/

This was at the end of the 1990s, when 486s were long obsolete, but integrated router/firewalls were still very expensive.

Smoothwall also ran a caching Squid proxy server, which really sped up access for corporate users regularly accessing the same stuff. For instance, if all the client machines ran the same version of Windows, say, Windows 2000 Pro, then after the first ran Windows Update, all successive boxes downloaded the updates from the Smoothwall box in seconds. Both far easier and much cheaper than MS Systems Management Server. (And bear in mind, at the turn of the century, fast broadband was 1Mb/s. Most of my clients had 512kb/s.)

There was one really hostile, aggressive guy in the Smoothwall team, who single-handedly drove away a lot of people, including me. The last such box I put in ran IPCop instead. http://www.ipcop.org/ After that, though, routers became affordable and a lot easier.




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