When I first started a previous job in 2007, I was issued a used Dell D600 laptop. The machine was outdated when I got it. The machine had a Centrino processor, 256MB of RAM and no wireless card. I used the computer at work for a year or two before I was issued a more modern machine. When I left the company, the gentleman in IT told me not to return the machine. The laptop sat in a closet for five years slowly losing value.
“Keep it. If you send it back, I’m just going to throw it in the dumpster.”
I had a 2TB external hard drive plugged into my router to serve as a network folder, but I found the solution unstable. One time while copying files from my computer to the drive, the copy failed a lot of the data on the drive got corrupted. I blamed the router, so I unplugged the drive.
I had the idea to use the old Dell as a networked linux computer where I could use the external drive as a network folder. As a bonus, I would be able to finally install Plex for my Roku. I reformatted the laptop’s hard drive and went to work.
I tried to install Ubuntu, but the OS was too cumbersome for the old machine. It wouldn’t ever boot into the graphical installer. When using text installer, it would freeze while trying to install packages.
I ended up using a distribution I hadn’t heard of – CrunchBang. The OS is meant to run with very low overhead, and other people have had success running it on the D600 as well. The distro defaults are great – the desktop shows computer resources in use and updates them in real time. For such a weak machine, I found this information invaluable.
I installed Plex, setup a Samba share onto the external drive, and mapped the Plex library to the shared folder. When I went to stream home movies to the Roku, the videos played for a couple seconds before pausing, buffering, playing, and pausing again. The memory was maxed out, so I ordered and installed 1GB of RAM from Amazon for $16.
The memory issue was fixed, but I was still getting buffering issues on the videos. I dug further and found the CPU was maxed out. I found the Plex client was requesting the server to transcode the videos in real time. My network is fast enough that I can stream the videos in real time at full resolution, so I switched the Plex default client video quality from 720p to “Direct Play”. The videos are playing nearly perfectly now.
I am happy to have resurrected an otherwise worthless machine to use as a network server. If I want to physically get on the machine, it’s convenient to have a built-in monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but I rarely do this. The machine plugs into the router with ethernet, so it’s hidden out of view anyway. All of my network administration is done via SSH, and I load files onto the computer with the network share. The only time I’ve opened the machine was one time when it froze.