Reliving The Authentic 90s Linux Experience

Installing Linux on a modern PC has never been easier. There are tons of tools available that will nearly-automatically download your Linux distribution of choice, image a USB drive, and make it bootable so you can finally ditch your bloated, privacy-violating operating system and get the free performance boost that comes along with it. This wasn’t always the case, though. In the 90s you had to take a trip to a store (or library) and buy (or borrow) a boxed copy of some variety of Linux on floppy disk or CDs, and then install it on your own, often without the help of the Internet. [Action Retro] demonstrates this process for us so we don’t have to relive the pain ourselves.

Complete with a 90s-era Pentium machine enclosed in a beige case, this is really the full 90s experience. He’s found a boxed version of Red Hat version 5.2 with everything needed to get it up and running and, after a brief issue with the installer crashing because it couldn’t figure out the ZIP disk drive, had another era-appropriate experience by erasing the existing Windows 98 installation. This was before automatic partitioning tools were widely available, so it was a real risk for beginner Linux enthusiasts if they were trying to dual boot.

With the installation complete, the X window system still needed to be set up, as well as making sure the settings for the old CRT monitor were correct. With everything finalized, the system can really be explored. It includes out-of-the-box some software plenty of us would recognize today such as GIMP and some other software we might not, like Netscape Communicator. It’s a real time machine experience to get this operating system running on period-appropriate hardware, and a lot of features of modern Linux systems can still be seen especially if your modern distribution of choice still requires a lot of manual configuration during installation. Old operating systems aside, this machine might be capable of running a modern Linux distribution as well, provided it has something slightly newer than a 486.

65 thoughts on “Reliving The Authentic 90s Linux Experience

    1. Ah yes, good old XFree86 in it’s unaccelerated glory!
      Ah, those wonderful nasty memories! 🤗

      When you got X11finally running, but noticed that it couldn’t do dirty-rectangle, even (W311 in VGA mode could).

  1. “Linux distribution of choice, image a USB drive, and make it bootable so you can finally ditch your bloated, privacy-violating operating system and get the free performance boost that comes along with it.”

    Yeah when all teh Linux distribution are all open-source and have native back doors to allow people to rat and sector dump your hard drive over the internet

  2. I remember doing this with either this version of Red Hat or one near to it. I got it from a Dummy’s Guide book on Linux sometime probably 1997 or 1998ish. This brings back memories. Including the part where I ended up erasing my Windows 95/98 install while trying to uninstall Red Hat after having set up the dual-boot thing successfully… I erased the 200-300mb of MP3s I had too and I was so upset. It took a while to get those on a 56k modem back then..

    1. It was RedHat 5.1 from the 1997 Linux for Dummies Book I bought at Electronics Boutique. Ran better than Win95 on my 486DX2/50MHz with 8MB RAM and a 400MB Seagate Barracuda hdd.

    1. FIPS–the First Interactive Partition Splitter. It didn’t nuke my data, au contraire, this free command-line tool recognized I was using FAT32 and refused to run until I found and downloaded a newer version that supported F32.

      Compare to Norton Utilities Mac OS 16-bit partition tools… Those just chewed up the Mac’s equivalent 32bit filesystem without even looking. And they cost money!

  3. Having built a would-be Linux specific computer and then tried and failed to install Linux in the late 90’s… I cannot emphasize more the frustration of not understanding Linux and also attempting an install like that without easy internet. I remember pages of text flying by, every third line some type of error in cryptic AF language…Brutal. I never did get it to work after like 6mo of frustration.
    About 15 years later I needed to do some scientist software …stuff.. so I simply ran it in the terminal of my MacMini. It still took some doing, figuring out how to get plug-in’s, compilers etc working but it did work after a couple of days of trying.
    .
    Last year I downloaded a thumb drive with Mint, followed the instructions and I now have an amazing full featured OS after an hour, tops, of effort and literally zero frustration.
    .
    I don’t miss the good old days for stuff like this.

  4. What exactly was the performance boost?

    I remember how tremendously difficult it was to get any other software than what came on the CD. You couldn’t just download stuff and put it on a floppy disk, then carry it to your computer – no – you had to figure out exactly what package to get, and then figure out all the dependencies and get those as well, and then figure out where to put them…

    … or the fact that you couldn’t just put a disk in a drive and copy files from it. You had to manually mount floppies before they would appear in the file system!

    1. Oh yah, mounting. That was one of the things Mandrake did so much better. It used Supermount by default. You could just pop your floppies in and out just like Windows. I think that worked with CDROMs too… I don’t know. Back then CDROM drives were still expensive, Linux was on my secondary computer and I only had a CD drive in the primary.

      For all those dependencies… there was rpmfind.net. Even so, RPM Hell was called that for a reason.

    2. chroot existed even then. I was building”docker” images in mid 90s, long before docker existed… No need to trust your distro package manager when you can build isolated containers and install everything from source there, safely, rolling back if things go wrong.

  5. An 1998 RedHat? Sorry, that is for loser! :-)

    My first install was two or four 5/1.4disk direct from usenet on my 386sx with 6MByte ram,
    And the next thing was to start the compiler so you had the soft you need. And of course
    everything with a minix filesystem with 12 character names.

    And if you had a problem it was possible to ask all the famous names in usenet, too. Because
    they were still students. :-D

    Olaf

  6. Glad to hear of others’ frustrations from the time.
    In 1993 I installed Slackware 1.0, from 50 floppies. Running on a 386SX-16 — pretty much the minimum viable hardware. It was a time consuming, frustrating chore, but I got it running in a few days, mostly thanks to the copious documentation.
    I ran a dumb terminal off it so two of us could share the 14.4 kbps dial-up SLIP connection to the university. Heaven, for the time.

    And I learned to not underestimate the bandwidth of a pair of sneakers and a backpack full of floppy disks.

    1. And thank you for using Slackware 1 for your work, then. I still run Slackware on my Dell Dimension, also here via WSL. And even inside a system that followed me home from VCF East a number of years back.

    2. Same story here. Except my hardware was a 386 DX-33 – luckily had 3.5″ floppy to cut down on the number of disks. But I did have to upgrade to 4MB(!) RAM to compile SLIP client and run X so I could play netrek.

  7. My first Linux experience wasn’t exactly great, either. It ran sluggish and unstable.
    On same PC – a Pentium 75 w/ 24MB RAM and an 1,5GB SCSI drive – Windows 98SE ran smoothly and was fully functional.
    And it needed merely 1 (“one”) CD-ROM vs 10 (“ten”) that my Linux distro had shipped with.

  8. Living in the dorms at that time.. with a fast (for then) Ethernet connection Mandrake was almost like installing one of today’s distros. Rather than burn a CD one could use the basic floppies. CD ROM drives, let alone CDRW drives were expensive then.

    A single floppy was all many systems needed. From there the installer would continue running off of FTP sites. I think you could but I wouldn’t want to try that over dialup!

    It helped knowing that a friend had a not-to-well-known mirror running at his University which had a pretty fast backbone connection to mine.

    1. The masochist in me decided to try installing Red Hat Linux release 2.1 in Virtualbox.

      It worked (CLI only, guessing that maybe the virtual graphics card emulation isn’t good enough in Virtualbox).

      It sports a 1.2.13 Kernel out of the box and probably does not even support the then still rather new DHCP .
      With a static IP, basic network functionality works, including DNS resolution, ICMP and even FTP !

      1995 seems almost like yesterday .

    2. CD Burning made me swicth to Linux. I was failing to copy CDs under Windows95 (buffer underrun issues), then switched to Linux in 1996 with cdrdao, cdwrite and cdrtools. Never missed a CD copy since then. Recompiled the Linux kernel to add an additional FIFO buffer to the CD writer buffer (1MB of cache on a Matsushita CW7502), it took me 6 months of back and forth downloading stuff on floppies with ARJ once a week at school computer lab, since I had no internet at home.

  9. (offtopic and dumb comment)
    …Regarding ancient versioning Redhat 5.2, we were still running Redhat v6.0 at our local council performing all rating and property stuff up until July this year.
    We only installed it in 2013.

    I remember watching a version 3 point something of HP tru64 on our dec alpha in 1997. Took three days and two HP tech blokes to get it running properly even back then. I nervously upgraded it to 4.0/4.1 by myself in 2000 or 2001 hoping that it wouldnt crash and wouldnt run out of hard drive space. It ran a 50,000 head cattle feedlot, killfloor & boning room database.

  10. My first Linux install was in 1992 while at university. The monitor for my 386sx running Windows 3.1 died, but I was able to snag an old serial terminal from the scrap heap. I borrowed a monitor for a day, installed linux from 5.25in floppy disks and set it up to boot to the serial port and returned the monitor. Command line only of course (but with fake windows via the ‘screen’ utility), but I could do all my programming homework without having to log into the shared mainframe.

    1. Oh god, yes! Err, no! I once got my Sound Blaster 16 ISA working. But not full-duplex, as with Windows 98SE.
      After fiddling with the full-duplex, the whole thing froze.

      Oh, and then there were OSS and ALSA.
      Most applications needed old OSS, but the sound drivers included were ALSA.
      Because of this, ALSA had to emulate OSS, which never really worked.
      Then sample rate conversion issues, 8 vs 16-Bit etc.

      And the stuttering and lagging issues.
      Sometimes, audio playback worked only for a few seconds before it stopped.

      In the 2000s, the same trouble repeated with PulseAudio.
      Applications wanted ALSA, but the distribution had favored PulseAudio.

      *sigh* Linux and sound cards, oh yeah! 😩

      And before someone mentions USB “sound cards”..
      Yes, they often work. But they are dumb deviced, without any own processing features (worse than an 8-bit Sound Blaster which had ADPCM decoding).
      Sound quality isn’t great, either.

    1. Not quite CGA, but you’re correct about the bland interface.

      DOS software by Symantec and Central Point Software released in 1990-1994 were years ahead of the Linux text-mode interfaces.

      Pictures:
      https://github.com/dosbox-staging/dosbox-staging/issues/657

      Those DOS programs had used custom VGA fonts to create beautiful text-mode interfaces (TUIs).
      Same goes for AMI WinBIOS..

      In fact, even Tandy Deskmate from 1984 looked more advanced in terms of TUI design.

      Even back in the 90s, Linux ecosystem looked very dated.
      Commercial applications were much more user friendly.

  11. FreeBSD still installs with old school text dialogs. Once you’re past the installer everything is very modern. I can’t argue with the results, it’s reliable and works in many use cases including IPMI remote management.

  12. Although Mandrake was the first Linux I actually got to work on my machine, it was Red Hat 5.2 that I tried next and stayed with. The drivers for the Matrox Marvel video capture card were better for Linux than Windows 98, allowing for maximum quality instead of an always-safe default.

    In retrospect, the installation process was a nightmare. Although I never destroyed my ability to run the Win98 system that I added dual-boot Red Hat to, there were a lot of close calls and a lot of failures to get through LILO.

  13. Ah such fun horrifying memories lol. Did the redhat on a pc in a pizzabox back in the day and yeah the video you really had to know your gear before you went punching in values. It was to explore linux back then but yeah there was a bit of a learning curve. I was so relieved when the live distros showed up. It made it much more fun to see if linux would be useful on those boxxen in those days. Fun times. Hilariously, this doesn’t feel all that long ago but I am just old lol. Fun read though I would love more like this :)

  14. This is the Linux I learned on — I believe my first was RH 4.2, but 5.2 is the one I remember buying at Best Buy and installing on the family Packard Bell while in college. It was AMAZING booting my system to a linux prompt instead of having to dial into the college Unix mainframe.

  15. So what the author might have forgotten was that there were LUGs that met in person and we all sat around and helped each other install 😄. I miss those days – EUGLUG was the best. Miss you guys.

  16. Even this experience was a joy compared to installing SCO Unix on IBM multichannel PCs in the mid-80’s – a couple dozen 3.5″ floppies, followed by an incredibly tedious configuration process. Yuck!

  17. Those were the days, Slackware on 4 floppies, kernel 0.9x in 1992. Though the experience on an silicon graphics personal Iris workstation (mips 4000 @35MHz, graphics unit >$60K) at university helped with the Unix environment.

  18. Using ARM in the Acorn series at school and having people force me to swap to ’86 clones. My effort at subversive activities was run a computer club at lunch time for kids interested to play around with Linux. Red Hat, I think it was at the time, plus some old 486s, as the Pentium were pushing them out and they were considered junk. I feel good about it, I hope the kids appreciate the broader view of IT I gave them at that time. Windows 95 was so tedious and pretentious. Linux was a salve for the soul. Thanks Linus, f o Bill.

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