Replacing Win95 with FreeBSD for low cost home PCs

Charles Young charles at
Tue Apr 8 19:37:05 PDT 2003

Hi Steve,

A few points about your recent post. I'm sure several others have
commented (presumably with similar issues) but I can't resist questions
such as these.

Before I start though, I must say I like the idea of replacing Win95 for
a low cost home PC. 

However; don't forget that you have been through the pain of learning an
OS and the installation tricks that make it simple to build a system.
You probably think to yourself: 'oh, I think I'll build a few Win95
machines today' and know that at the end of the day the machines will
work as expected. Don't forget the original pain before you got to this
point, as you'll have to go though that same pain again.

That being said the process can be fun and interesting - should you have
plenty of coffee, unlimited time, and a few spare machines hanging
around to replace the machine that you've just spent 15 minutes
reconfiguring using the impact configuration method*.

The first place for info is the freebsd handbook:

It is your friend.

Now for some detail - and forgive me if I ramble on here:

1. Release -  FreeBSD 5 is the CURRENT release, not the STABLE release.
What does this mean? It means that you are trying to run what is
essentially a beta release. This means that there will be all sorts of
issues that a neophyte will probably not want to cope with. The release
(at the moment) that you should be working with is FreeBSD 4.8. See for more info.

2. Applications - Your clients will want to have a familiar workspace.
This means a GUI (almost certainly XFree86), as you mention. Presumably
you will also  pre-load a desktop environment (Gnome or KDE) on top of
XFree86 and then a set of user applications - such as abiword,, evolution, mozilla etc. 

I have set up this sort of thing for use in corporate Australia in four
office now (averaging 17.3 workstations per office) and it is not as
easy as you might think. I thought it was going to be bloody difficult
to get everything right, and I was under prepared for the amount of time
it took.

What I've done is to set up a meta port of a workstation suite and then
install this on each machine from a central dist site via NFS. I found
there were fewer issues this way, though the build process can take a
mighty long time.

{note - if you do go down this path then *when you get to the point of
building the meta-port* check out /usr/local/etc/pkgtools.conf . This
file is your friend. Put all the makefile parameters here not inside
your meta-port. That way you can upgrade specific ports individually and
maintain the make parameters.}

{note 2 - use CVS for your meta-port, support files and documentation.
Otherwise you get into a version mess and ... I actually tag each
installation that I do - though I'm finding tagging more and more
unwieldy - I might get back to you about a better way of managing the
process. Any suggestions from the list?}

3. Help -  The freebsd users group in Sydney is a wonderful group of
people. You can check them out on

They are your friends.

4. System resources - This is going to be a biggie. XFree86 +
environment will use significant system resources. This is not to say
that a 'pentium/486  100mhz with 32 mb ram and 300-800 mb hdd' will not
be adequate, however you will want to not build too many bells and
whistles into your environment. Select a low resource window manager
(such as metacity if you're using gnome) and make sure that your users
have access to the tuning pages for their selected environment. Anything
you do to reduce the memory footprint will be a Good Thing(tm).

5. Training: FreeBSD + GUI is not Windows 95. Your users will be
confused and wary of changes. That being said, you can use window
managers and themes to make the thing look like Windows and supply links
to the documentation for your selected environment so that people can
find out what the differences are.

6. User acceptance: I work in an office here where exactly half the
folks use Windows2000 and the other half use FreeBSD. One machine is
dual boot and, while it used to be mostly in Win2K, it now spends almost
all its time in FreeBSD. 

Our clients are progressively happier with FreeBSD workstations. There
are fewer issues with viruses, unexplained hangs and crashes and people
regard their machines as 'faster'. But it takes time - particularly in
replacing MS Word.

In conclusion - I would suggest having a play with FreeBSD 4.8 and, if
you like what you see, use a freebsd workstation as your primary machine
for a while.

Good luck,

* The impact configuration method usually involves a 5 kilo
sledgehammer, but may involve defenestration or just a medium to large
cliff. (Kanangra walls, Govett's leap  or Sublime point would be perfect

Charles Young
digital Wranglers


Date: Tue, 08 Apr 2003 21:02:56 +1000
From: "Steve Moss" <stevem at>
To: questions at
Message-ID: <20030408110256.11656.qmail at>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"


Sorry to send a Q without fully reading the documentation, but I've
tried linux before and I just get more and more confused. I'll briefly
tell you my situation:

I am living in Australia's Blue Mountains on a disability pension (I
have asperger's syndrome) I know how to build a computer for about $70
good enough to run win95 for basic internet and typing etc, and I'm
horrified that people on low incomes like me are paying over $1000 of
money they don't have so their kids can do homework and they can email
their old granny in ireland etc. So to make some pocket money and help
people out I sell them for $140 all set up and connected to the

The obvious problem is the windows 95 factor - I'm breaking the law and,
worse, using a dreaded Microsoft product. If I could use a free,
open-source (or not) OS of equivalent power usage to 95 (i.e. goes good
on a pentium/486  100mhz with 32 mb ram and 300-800 mb hdd)I'd be happy.
GUI-ed Linuxes seem to need way too much power and f
Freedos isn't ready (plus I had trouble with seal, gem etc as well as
arachne). Apart from that I love DOS!

So I got a CD of FBSD 5.0. I can't even find "makeflp" or whatever you
write the boot disks with on Windows. (too old to boot from CD) (not me
the computers).

Is it worth me persevering with BSD? I do really need a GUI because my
customers aren't that pioneering - they've emerged from the 2nd
millenium like everyone else - as babies who can only point and click.
So what do you think? Shall I go on to ask how to make boot floppies
from my BSD cd?

yours anticipatorily,


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