Adventures with Artix

I was rummaging through my collection of old computer stuff lately, and I came across a really splended Toshiba laptop that I bought, I think, in 2008. That makes it about fourteen years old. It was supplied with Microsoft Windows Vista -- a candidate for the worst microcomputer operating system ever released -- but you could install Windows XP on it, which I did.

At the time, this was a highly-specified machine. It had a 1.4GHz, dual-core CPU, and 3Gb RAM. A big selling feature was dual USB 2 ports. Best of all, the case was made of some kind of exotic metal (magnesium?) so it weighed under 1kg. For comparison, that makes it lighter than the latest Microsoft Surface Go, for the same size screen. It was, and remains, the lightest laptop computer I've ever owned. Despite its size and weight, it includes a DVD drive, and a bunch of other features that are rarely seen on a modern laptop, like a hardware volume control.

I'd been thinking for some time about getting a new, lightweight laptop for travel. It was opportune, therefore, that this one should show up when it did. Still, since I'm not going to go back to Windows XP at my time of life, finding the machine raises the question whether an old laptop like this can run a modern version of Linux. By that I mean a modern graphical desktop, not just a console, even though the Linux console is awesome.

My first thought -- which might have been naive -- was to install a regular, mainstream Linux. I normally use Fedora on my laptops, but this is a heavyweight, tightly-integrated desktop platform, almost like Windows. Somewhat surprisingly, Fedora did install, and it kind-of worked. It worked to the extent that, if this was the only laptop computer on Earth, I could probably use it. But it took about five minutes to boot to the graphical desktop and, once running, was constantly swapping memory to disk. It turns out that the basic Fedora installation, with Gnome 3 desktop, actually uses about 10Gb RAM -- even when doing nothing much. I was able to cut this down a bit by careful removal of components but -- and this is my gripe about modern desktop Linux -- everything depends on everything else. There comes a point where you can't remove anything, even if it appears not to be necessary, without breaking some other part of the system.

So with some reluctance, I gave up, and looked around for an alternative.

The state of lightweight, desktop Linux in 2021

Although I have no particular objection to systemd, you can bet that any kind of Linux that uses systemd is going to be too heavy for old, low-powered hardware. There are (a few) Linux distributions that don't use systemd, but often this is for ideological reasons, not to make the installation more resource-efficient. A good non-systemd Linux is Devuan. Devuan benefits from a reduction in complexity by omitting systemd, but it's not a "lightweight" Linux -- it still uses Pulse Audio by default, for example. I'm really looking for something that is pared down to the essentials, but is still capable of running a graphical desktop.

Is there such a thing? Um... Well, that's the problem. It's possible to boot a Linux kernel on pretty much anything that has a CPU, but fully-supported distributions that focus on low-resource hardware are thin on the ground. Of course, you can build a Linux installation from the ground up, which is what I do for embedded applications. But I don't want to do this for a desktop computer.

There are other candidates, but this time I decided to try Artix. Artix is a variant of the popular Arch Linux, without systemd. Again, I have no principled objection to systemd -- I just don't want to run it on a system with 3Gb of RAM.

Introducing Artix

Artix is a highly-configurable, desktop-capable Linux that is capable of being installed in a very minimal configuration. It doesn't use systemd, but offers a range of lightweight alternatives. There is even a "low memory" version of Artix, that is said to boot with as little as 300Mb RAM. I think it's probably fair to say that Artix is designed primarily for knowledgeable Linux users, and makes few concessions to newcomers.

Artix uses packages from the Arch repositories, but with overrides for those components that need to be implemented differently without systemd. It uses the same pacman package manager as Arch, but configured to retrieve files preferentially from the Artix repository, regardless of which package requires them. In addition, there are additional packages to match the non-systemd boot process. For example, most laptops will need to have installed the DHCP network configurer dhcpcd (or something similar). The package for this is still called dhcpcd, as it is in Arch, but there's an additional dhcpcd-openrc that provides the plumbing for using it with the OpenRC boot manager, rather than systemd. To be fair, this package management strategy does not seem to be documented at a high level, and it took me a while to work out how to use it. I suspect it probably seems blindingly obvious to the folks who maintain Artix, but it wasn't obvious to me.

There were a few other non-obvious things that tripped me up, but I'll get to those later.

Installing Artix

So far as I can tell, all installations of Artix start with booting to a shell from an installation image (CD or USB). Once booted, you can proceed with the installation, either manually, or using an automated graphical installer.

It is here that I made my first mistake. I wanted to start with a really minimal system, and install absolutely nothing except what I needed. I didn't want to use the graphical installer, so I downloaded the minimal installation image, with a view to installing everything using command-line tools.

But this install image did not include any tools that would have made configuring a wifi network connection an agreeable experience. Had I been able to install a graphical desktop using this image, or even an X server, I would have had a better selection of tools to choose from. As it is, I had to hack on wpa_supplicant configuration and start a stack of networking daemons manually, just to get to be able to install the rest of the system from remote repositories. The base installation gets you to a console shell, but that's all.

It turns out that a fully-configurable, command-line installation can be carried out using any of the installer images -- including the graphical installer. This fact is, in fact, fully documented -- but who reads documentation? Not me, it turns out, in this case.

Having cursed myself roundly for this oversight, I cursed myself even harder when I realized that my old laptop actually had a wired Ethernet connection (they all did, in those days). So I need not have bothered with the wifi configuration at all.

In short, doing a minimal installation using only command-line tools is well documented. Had this documentation page actually started with "do yourself a favour and download the graphical installer even if you're going to install this way" then even an idiot like me would have found it straightforward. Of course, idiot or not, you need to be perfectly happy with command-line operation if you want to do a fully-custom install.

If you do a really minimal install, then you'll end up with something that boots to a console, and all the rest of the installation still to do. If you want eventually to run a graphical desktop, you'll need to install everything manually, choosing exactly which components you need. In my case, I installed the XFCE4 desktop (which, surprisingly, does not have X as a dependency -- you'll need to install that separately). I didn't have to use anything other than pacman to get everything installed, but I did have to edit the pacman configuration to add all the Arch repositories as well as the Artix ones. For example, there's no Firefox in the Artix repository, nor (so far as I can tell) no media players. Again, the need to do this is well documented, if you have the good sense to read the documentation.

The result

Having installed everything I needed, including the graphical desktop, I was quite surprised at how well everything worked. I was expecting to have problems with the old hardware, but even fussy things like suspend-to-RAM and backlight brightness control just worked.

Booting to a console takes about fifteen seconds, and to an X desktop session a further ten seconds or thereabouts. Not blazingly fast, but tolerable -- and much quicker than I was able to achieve with a regular desktop Linux. And this is without any tweaking beyond being very carefully what I installed.

With the graphical desktop running, free reports that 2.8 GiB RAM is installed, of which 2.4 GiB is available. That's only 400Mb for the desktop and kernel -- that's a lot, compared with what we could do with 16kB in 1982, but it's still impressive by modern standards. There are no processes running whose function I can't identify.

Of course, this is an old machine. Whatever you can do to optimize the operating system platform itself, modern software is often still too much for it. Web browsing using Firefox is plausible, but it struggles with many modern, media-bloated sites. That's not the fault of Firefox -- website managers (or their advertisers) feel compelled to use every fancy feature available. Interestingly, the Midori browser, despite using about a quarter of the memory of Firefox for doing the same jobs, was no faster.

It was possible to play full-HD video files using mplayer, full-screen and windowed. Audio plays direct to ALSA, as it always did before Pulse Audio came along, and this works just fine. I did not have to do anything clever to configure the audio or video hardware, despite its age.

There's no doubt that a machine of this age behaves better when using command-line and console tools than modern graphical ones. That suits me, for the most part, because almost everything I do with a computer, I do in a terminal. The things I really can't do in a terminal -- like editing photos or music notation, I tend not to do on Linux at all.

Nonetheless, graphical applications do work, provided you're patient, and they don't challenge the 3Gb or so of available RAM.


If you're careful, and know what you're doing, it remains possible to install Linux on an old(-ish) and underpowered (by modern standards) computer, and use it to do useful work. The same cannot be said for Microsoft Windows but, to be fair, it cannot be said of mainstream Linux distributions, either. For better or worse, mainstream Linux is designed for modern, high-powered hardware. The inefficiencies involved in running 168 processes just to maintain a graphical desktop -- as my Fedora installations do -- are hardly even noticed on a 16-core CPU with 32Gb RAM on call. As a result, there's little encouragement for developers to support old hardware.

Systems like Artix exist, I guess, because of the hard work of enthusiasts. It relies on donations just to cover the cost of its infrastructure; I doubt anybody is making any money from it. Although Linux is entirely capable of bringing life to old computers, none of the commercial Linux vendors have much interest in supporting this. That's not a criticism -- after all, I work for a commercial Linux vendor. The nature of being in commerce is to make money.

My real worry, though, is that this march of technology cannot continue uninterrupted. We don't have unlimited energy resources, or a place to dispose of the millions of tons of CO2 that are generated by running over-powered computers and infrastructure. We should be getting a grip on this now, by embracing an "intermediate technology" approach to information technology whilst we still can. The key concept in "intermediate technology" is that tools should be appropriate to the task, and no more complex than required to complete that task. There's no place in the modern world, with all its environmental problems, for a computer user interface that shows 3D-rendered animations that serve no useful purpose. Nor is there any need for a computer that is powerful enough to host such a desktop, when it is only going to be used to look at websites.

Those of us who understand such problems should be supporting a simpler, less resource-intensive approach to computing. One way in which we can do this is to reuse old computer hardware, and encourage the continued development of software that can run on it. Personally, I would not rule out a return to the simplicity of the 8-bit microcomputer, but that might be a step too far at first. a simpler Linux is, at least, a step in the right direction.