My laptop charger died so I have been using my old desktop for a while now at home. This is a 1 GHz machine with 350MB of RAM running Debian. At first I was a bit worried that the system wouldn’t support my working habits because of the low RAM but while using it I have realized that Debian works great with ~378MB of RAM. Obviously the system is not as responsive as it would be with 1GB of RAM but its definitely usable.
Actually it works fine with 250MB also, as my 128 MB RAM chip died I had to take it out and I could still use the system with a single 250MB chip. This is with Firefox (with upto 8-10 tabs), Thunderbird, uTorrent (using wine), Konqueror and Konsole (multiple sessions) running. I could even watch videos without issues. Though a couple of times I did have to close Firefox when viewing a video because the video would take ages to startup.
The main issue I had during this time was with Firefox. I found that I would have to restart it after using it for a while (day or so) or when I went to a page with a lot of flash. It used an average of about 130MB of RAM on my system. At times it went up to 60% usage on 378MB (according to top). [Don't feel like calculating it right now]
Flash was a pain during this time. Pages with a lot of Flash slowed the system down to a crawl. So it looks like a lot of the memory leakage/excessive memory use in Firefox has to do with the Flash plugin in use.
If this machine was running XP or any other flavor of windows apart from 98/95 etc it would have been completely unusable. I did try booting into windows XP on this system to do some OCR (I can’t seem to find a good OCR client in Linux) but the system was pretty much unusable with about 2-5 second wait while opening windows etc.
My usage is a lot more intensive than most regular users so for a normal user Linux will be even more responsive. I mean does average Joe have 10 Tabs open at the same time while OpenOffice is converting a 95 MB document to HTML? (Don’t ask. It was a PDF converted to .doc which I needed in html) Oh and I usually listen to music when I work so Amarok was also running in the background at the time.
BTW, in case you are wondering I am running KDE v3.5.10 so its not an old version and most of the effects are still on (Except for the transparent panel, which I find annoying)
Another thing I learnt was that USB transfers take longer if you have low RAM for some reason. Atleast they do when you are using a USB pendrive, my external harddisk seems to work with the same speed even with low RAM.
So if you have an old machine, don’t throw it. Install Linux on it and donate it to someone or use it as a extra server or something.
PS: I have finally upgraded the RAM on this system to 1GB so it works even better.