"Poor old Grace", my current "main" computer, has been really struggling to keep up, gets forgetful (runs out of memory), or just plain gets stuck: current software needs ever more resources which she doesn't have. She served me well for almost 8 years now, and deserves retirement.
Finding a new machine for a decent price (I'm poor) wasn't easy though, and I've been looking round for quite a while, including at a site a friend pointed me to recently, Mr. @, where they sell refurbished hardware bought off companies who replace their machine park in bulk every two or three years. At first that looked interesting, though nothing really jumped out there, while what looked halfway interesting was quickly snapped up (seemingly in bulk, too!); one workstation-class computer that looked interesting cost €599 — still a lot of money for me — but all items were snapped up in a day, too. I kept my eyes on the site for at least a week, but new machines didn't appear all that fast.
And then my local Aldi supermarket had an offer: a Medion multimedia computer, for €499: not only less costly, but with hardware specs that exceeded the workstation, like an AMD64 (64-bit) dual-core processor, 4GB RAM, Gigabit network, a good-sized HD (640GB), etc.; it comes with a decent keyboard, and a mouse that needs replacement, mainly because it's just too big for my hands! Never mind the software (Vista Home premium, but with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions included). Enter Marie!
OSs and repartitioning
By now, I've cleaned up the machine a little (removed all pre-installed software that I didn't want, but the Registry still needs a little cleaning) and configured Vista so I find it halfway tolerable while I really set things up. What I'm planning is to turn it into a multi-boot system, with Vista (for testing only), Windows XP (for those Windows apps I really cannot do without) and one or two Linuxes for most everything else.
That means repartitioning, of course, taking care not to lose what's there: like a recovery partition to restore the machine to its initial state — it took a little digging (into a .bin file and DOS executables and all) to find out how the recovery process worked so I would know what its requirements are: the recovery files (apparently made with Ghost) need to be on the first DOS-visible partition, which of course excludes NTFS or any Linux file system, but includes all FAT variants (it's on a FAT32 partition now); as long as I don't create another FAT(x) partition it should be OK to shrink the partition or even move it around. And to use a mouse I'll need the original one: the recover batch file installs a PS2 mouse.
I have a preliminary plan now for how to repartition. I already have downloaded and burned the SystemRescueCD which contains GParted for repartitioning (it seems to work though I haven't actually done anything with it yet) and a bunch of other system tools that may come in handy. Before actually repartitioning I need at least a full backup! Linux distributions next.
LiveCDs: running Linux without installing
This is where it gets interesting, since I have little experience with Linux. I've worked with FreeBSD a little on one server, and my current host installs CentOS on their VPSs, so I've worked a little with that as well. To get more experience, Fedora (of the same RedHat family as CentOS) seems a good match for Marie, but I don't want to limit myself to that… So the last few days I've been busy downloading ISO images of LiveCDs and burning them (on Marie — providing another hardware test, no problems with the burner).
I did some very preliminary tests with Xubuntu and Ubuntu LiveCDs, and have already decided I don't like Xubuntu for day-to-day work: its file manager seems way too primitive for me (for timestamps only a date is shown, not time, and a horrible "Today" which I hate - I want a full yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss ISO-format timestamp, everywhere). Ubuntu, which uses GNOME instead of Xubuntu's Xfce, has a more capable file manager (setting my preferred timestamp a matter of a few clicks, and easily found) and generally seems more configurable. Neither, however, recognizes my screen resolution; I'm told this is probably because these distro's don't have drivers for my video card, while Mandriva recognizes more — I already have a LiveCD for that, so that's next in line; and I'm told I can just copy whatever configuration file it produces to Ubuntu to make it use the proper screen resolution settings, or I can use jockey-gtk. Thankfully, I'm getting a lot of help for all this from identi.ca's Linux group members!
So, I'm having a lot of fun, though this is all very preliminary. But with some careful "education", Marie is going to be an awesome team member for development, for both web development work as well as graphics, photo editing and a bit of video editing, for most of which Grace just doesn't have what it takes. No doubt you'll hear more about Marie as we progress.