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The hardware is an ancient (yet fully functional) Pentium PRO 200 MHz with 48MB RAM. I'm looking for an appropriate command-line OS for it (no GUI, no multitasking).

The OS should also have utf-8 support, foreign keyboard layout support, TCP/IP setup and FTP interface, a text editor (something like Nano) ... and nothing more.

So, what tiny, GUI-less Linux distro would you suggest?

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by typewriter do you mean wordprocessor? Do you have a particular text mode wordprocessor you would like to use? Also does the machine need to connect to the internet? If it doesn't then just run an OS from that era. –  Justin Dearing Aug 13 '12 at 16:09
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closed as too localized by random Aug 13 '12 at 16:31

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1 Answer

The traditional tiny, low-spec Linux distro is DamnSmallLinux, a.k.a. DSL. From Wikipedia:

The minimum system requirements are a 486 processor and 8 MB of RAM. DSL has been demonstrated browsing the web with Dillo, running simple games and playing music on systems with a 486 processor and 16 MB of RAM.

Compared to its minimum system requirements, you're running a fairly "beefy" system. You could probably multitask surfing the web with Dillo and using its built-in text editor, and you'd even have support for using the mouse because it uses an X server.

If your ancient computer has an IDE interface, you may be able to "upgrade" the hard drive to something slightly bigger -- a commodity hard drive that's still small enough to be supported by the disk controller -- if you run into disk space issues. That may allow you to install DSL to the hard drive and to allocate a large swap file to give yourself some more memory, thus allowing some more reasonable multi-tasking.

I'm guessing your hard disk is probably between 500 MB and 2 GB in size, right? That should be enough to install DSL and allocate a bit of swap, but as I said, you may want to look up in your motherboard manual how big of a disk can be installed (is it LBA?) and you can probably pick up an inexpensive and much faster HDD with on-board cache to make it much more usable. Sounds like a fun project!

P.S. -- energy efficiency wasn't much of a priority back then, so watch your electricity bill. Compared to using that old bucket of bolts, buying a current-gen netbook or eMachine could pay for itself in a couple of months just by the energy savings.

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A nice answer indeed! However, multitasking is a bad choice for this system. Multitasking is suited for today's Core i5s and i7s; for this old piece of hardware, it should be just like this: turn on, open text editor, save text, upload text, turn off (all in command line). Nothing more, distraction free. And as far as energy efficiency goes, the max. TDP of the CPU is some 10 Watts (compared to 60-something Watts of today's computers). –  Johnny Aug 13 '12 at 16:44
Johnny, multitasking has been a component of desktop OS's since the 80386. logix.cz/michal/doc/i386/chp07-00.htm In fact the kernel used by dmansmall linux (I believe) is i386 based. It should work just fine. –  Everett Aug 13 '12 at 17:13
Only open one app at a time then? –  EBGreen Aug 13 '12 at 17:21
@Johnny, I'm a little confused. You want a command line OS that you are only going to use for word processing, but you are worried about the way that things will look, when you are doing more than one thing (multitasking). I guess I misunderstood, " ... and nothing more." to mean you wouldn't be doing these things, and they wouldn't be a consideration. There isn't a unitasking OS that includes a TCP/IP stack. In order to include networking you need to have multitasking capability. This is even true of Arduino's. –  Everett Aug 13 '12 at 17:42
The "no multitasking" requirement sounds more like a wetware problem than a hardware/software issue to me. –  Mokubai Aug 13 '12 at 17:52
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