ARCH With GUI on Old Slow Machine (2)

Published on October 26, 2022 at 5:43 pm by LEW


In this continuation/conclusion of my last post on the subject, things have gone a little sideways, as far as installing a GUI on the Dell Optiplex FX160. The current version of the main Arch repositories do not have a working video driver for this computer.

My intent with this project was two fold. First to see how easy it would be to install a mainline distribution on older hardware. And second, to see how well it ran, and if the older computer was usable. While the first part worked , I have sort of hit a snag on the second part with the video driver problem.

The Nature of the Problem

The Dell Optiplex FX160 has SIS 671/771 on board video. I was hoping that one of the standard default drivers for X would work, but no such luck.

A little research showed that the SIS drivers where once in the Arch repositories, but have since been removed. It is considered antiquated, as said card/chip set has not been in production for more than ten years. I do not see this as an issue, as I am trying to resurrect an ancient (fourteen to fifteen years old) low power computer that probably never had a big install base. So it is understandable that the repository maintainers would remove it.

Arch AUR to the Rescue

There is something called the Arch User Repositories (AUR), where unofficial packages reside.  I found the following driver, xf86-video-sisimedia 0.9.1-13. in the AUR. I have talked about AUR in this post.

The issue with the AUR, at least as far as this project is concerned, is that the packages need to be compiled. This involves installing additional software to perform this task. Which sort of goes against the premises of this project.

However, just to prove to myself I could make this old computer work, I went ahead and installed the additional packages, and compiled the SIS driver. I did not bother with an AUR helper application in this case as this project on this computer has become short lived.

While using the AUR  is not difficult, it is not really a beginner topic. Community supported packages have a higher probability of going sideways than packages in the official repository.  And it also requires installation of some additional packages. One of the points of the project was to see if it could be done without any additional packages or procedures.

Being stubborn in certain things, I went ahead and installed the additional software and compiled the driver. But I would not recommend it for the average user.  It took some tinkering, and creating a xorg configuration file to get it working, but I did prevail. In the end, for a functional usable computer, the effort was probably not worth the time. For the educational benefit, it was invaluable.

Note I am not covering the process here, due to the complexity. If anyone is interested, I will be happy to share the process with them.

Overall Performance

After getting the GUI working I installed some light weight applications. The computer was not happy or snappy and it was not fast. But it was usable. The biggest issue was running a web browser, any web browser. That brought the system to its knees. It handled text pages and pages with limited graphics okay, but that was about it.

Overall, This is not a computer I would recommend for casual use for anyone. It could perform as a low power server of some sort. But any demanding tasks are going to stress the CPU. I would also upgrade the memory and storage drive if I was going to use it as a server.

Overall Thoughts

I hear it often, Linux can breath new life into an old computer. From this stage of the project I just completed, I would caveat that statement. It depends on how old the hardware is. I would say for the best out of box experience, nothing older than five years. After that you are going to run into driver issues.

Because I am running Linux, I could find an old driver, compile it, and use it. You would be out of luck on most other popular operating systems. But then again this is probably way more effort than the average user will want to go through


In one respect, using Linux I was able to get an old computer to work. However it was not a simple project, and not one well suited for today’s average computer user. That said, even with a really light GUI, the computer, while usable, did not operate smoothly. Screen resolution was low, and almost any web page in any browser caused the computer to stall.

In short, you can bring old computers back to life with Linux, but you need to have reasonable expectations about what they can do and how well they will operate. And if the old computer uses hardware that is no longer manufactured, you will start running into driver issues that might require finding and building old Linux code to recreate the binaries.

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