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March 3, 2011 / ftth

Linux distros for AMD Geode LX800 CPU

Some time ago i was searching for a tiny fanless computer to use as an ecological, always-on server to run services on. Computer-based services are increasingly conquering our homes and workplaces, and it makes sense to me that new devices have to appear to make computers less obtrusive in everyday life (noise, heat dissipation, high power consumption, mechanical breakdowns, …) for 24/7 operation.

At this time, the Atom platforms was just apprearing (the eeepc had just appeared), and the alternatives were among Mini-ITX systems, VIA C7 processors, Geode LX800 CPUs, and ARM platforms. Single Board Computer based products were the gradually appearing, and embedded/mobile platforms were developing as well.

The device had to:

  • be energy-efficient
  • be totally fanless (and possibly, mechanics-less) for zero-dB operation
  • run Linux out of the box with Open Source drivers
  • fit a tight budget (~300€)
  • offer minimal multimedia capabilities (audio support

After some browsing and reading some reviews (like this one), i opted for a 500 Mhz i486 AMD Geode processor, to have x86 compatibility and efficient energy consumption (~3-6W), with 1GB Flash hard drive and 512 MB RAM.

You will want to look for a lightweight (1 GB/i486/500Mhz !) Linux distribution for the device, get ready to fight a capricious BIOS (especially USB Flash disk booting which doesn’t work without some hiccups) and a surprisingly slow CPU. By elimination:

  • Archlinux and other “modern desktop” distros are not an option (i586+)
  • Source-based distros aren’t either (cross compiling or having a local compilation environment will eat time)
  • For both disk space and graphics performance, adequate graphical distributions would be hard to find
  • DamnSmallLinux did not boot (!!!)
  • Modern Netbook distros rely heavily on Intel hardware and are not i486 compatible

After trying our Ubuntu 8.04 whose apps sometimes throwed “illegal cpu instruction” warnings and no audio support (instead, a continuous buzz), i ended up choosing Debian (lenny) for an excellent compatibility and problem-free installation. For pure network uses, OpenWrt/*BSD/m0n0wall seem like nice choices.

In overall:

  • audio quality is really fine and i use it to wake me up and play music with my lightweight, ncurses-based webradio player, but the Alsa drivers seem a bit unstable (changing volume when playing audio makes audio crash)
  • don’t expect a rocket, performance is closer to 10 years old computers (but for a fraction of the power consumption of course). At best you will get nostalgic, but forget about torrent downloading with e.g. Aria2 (you won’t get anywhere with 1GB space anyway)
  • no noises, even from the power supply so far
  • the device is a bit warm after a few days (~30°) but it’s stable

Here are a few advices:

  • if you can, use an USB CD/DVD drive to boot from. The poor man’s install (USB Flash Disk) i a (psychological) challenge:
    • most distros are published as .iso images; which means USB-based booting is up to you
    • it is always tricky, since not many distros offer .img files or guides
    • USB Flash Disks behave differently when booting, and some won’t work for BIOS compatibility issues
  • other distros and kernel versions might work, but the one that works for me is the 2.6.26-2-486 kernel (the alsa module is snd_cs5535audio
  • not installing xorg is a good incentive to keep things small (1 GB drive…)

It’s been running for the past months and it’s updating my dyndns domain, waking me up with pycwc, wakes up other computers on demand with WakeOnLan (hibernating), and is increasingly becoming more and more useful for daily needs.

If anyone has performance optimizations hints for the AMD Geode LX800 platform or good results with other distros, please post some comments.

[EDIT] I now (2014) use, which is a Debian wheezy (7) based distro with the ALIX profile (it uses a custom kernel (1.9 MB big) with AMD Geode hardware crypto and watchdog support. After a proper apt-get upgrade, docs removal (through the provided script) and a few installs (vim, htop, …), root filesystem eats only around 250 MB which is pretty impressive.

rootfs 958M 251M 707M 27% /
lsmod| grep geode
geodewdt 1760 0 
cs5535_mfgpt 2282 1 geodewdt
geode_aes 3280 0 
geode_rng 704 0 
rng_core 2168 1 geode_rng


Leave a Comment
  1. Sicca / Mar 26 2012 12:37 pm

    i’m using ubuntu 10.04 on this cpu since 1 year , and absolutly no problem.

    ubuntu 10.04 minimal install
    xorg install
    then install openbox

    the distro is very smooth , internet navigation with last google chrome.
    mplayer for videos.
    audio is working fine.

  2. Ralph / Sep 3 2012 3:51 pm

    CentOS 4.8 installed using the i386 switch works wonderfully, unfortunately it has reached the end of life cycle in Feb 2012. CentOS is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and works wonderfully, unfortunately CentOS 4.8 was the last version to support the Geod LX (non-pae) processors. You can still download it, I have it running wonderfully on on a Slim FitPC, The only problem I currently have is that I cannot get the WiFi to work, but the LAN work fine.

  3. Manuel / Nov 11 2012 2:46 pm

    I’m using Arch linux i686. The Goede LX is an i686 processor. Installation on my ALIX board takes 705MB.

  4. Allyen / Nov 8 2014 11:12 pm

    I have one of such machines, a netbook made in Brazil by a Chinese (apparently) company which later stopped making it. LX800, 512MB RAM, 60GB disk. I’ve run the original Moblin (Ubuntu 8.04 based it seems) with gnome (2), and I’m running Mageia. It actually is being used as a server, because in such role a fast CPU is not required. Please note that live Mageia versions won’t work. I t must be installed to disk, when it will sense the Geode CPU& associated video hardware and download a non-PAE kernel and correct video drivers. Also, my netbook has a very peculiar resolution (1024×600) and requires a special xorg.conf, otherwise it will try 1024×768 — which works nice on an external monitor but sucks on the integrated display (you can’t see the panel). Since it’s used as a server there’s no need for much interaction, so I use IceWM. I’m planning to try Trinity DE in the future, but JWM is probably a better idea with such low RAM.

    A few years ago (7?), I tried to play videos on it with very moderate success. First, forget Flash, because Adobe is lazy and won’t support anything that flimsy — they even stopped supporting they did support before in recent versions. Yeah, proprietary software is worse.

    What I did, and worked, was to download the Flash videos and played them with mplayer, with all the tweaks on, like framedropping etc. It’s a very hard battle; be sure to download a low enough resolution so that the CPU doesn’t barf. Another option (which I didn’t try) would be re-encoding the video to play faster — on another machine, the Geode CPU had problems even to encode mp3 audio…

    My recent idea is using an Android distrubution, Android-x86, because I assume Android video players must be very lightweight for use with low-end hardware. It might require kernel compilation, I don’t know. Of course, that might prove not to be the case.

  5. Justen Passant / Nov 30 2014 3:45 am

    Some comments about my tests with a similar machine (AMD Geode LX800, 512MB RAM, 1024×600 LCD… I just tried to install several distributions, someone please correct an eventual incorrection in my conclusions (as of november/2014):

    a) Xfce based (working):
    – best looking distribution: HandyLinux;
    – 2nd best, very awesome: SolydX;

    b) Xfce, not working (mostly PAE… Geode hasn’t it):
    – Lite, Sparkylinux (use to work formerly), Xubuntu;

    c) others not working (live won’t boot):
    – anything Ubuntu-derived (reason: PAE);
    – Manjaro: reason unknown (not PAE).

    d) memory is critical, so LXDE is a better option than Xfce:
    – forget Lubuntu (see above);
    – Mageia works if installed (that’s certain), Live version didn’t boot (tested long ago);
    – SolydX can install Lxde (untested);
    – Handylinux repos by default don’t have LXDE.

    e) I didn’t test it with this Geode computer, but abother great looking distribution is Voyager (from France, not to be confused with Linux Voyage from HK). Xfce-based, so probably won’t do with low memory… (read on).

    The above solutions are somewhat poor (though beautiful at times) and might work for a computer executing a light program — playing music, for instance. Libreoffice with a long text might be another entirely different story — actually, a saner option is using Abiword.

    I came to the conclusion that, no matter how light the Desktop Environment — LXDE, Enlightment, whatever — memory use will be critical for such a small computer. Hence, I opted for a Window Manager. IceWM or Openbox are ok, but JWM seems smaller and more to my tastes. Configuration is made with text files… (more on that later).

    IceWM or Openbox are more easily found (Crunchbang being the “go to” option here), but JWM is not that widely offered. Sparkylinux is nice and has it — but it uses PAE, now.

    I settled on antiX, a distribution based on Debian and great for older equipment. It even has special configuration options for JWM — still via editing config files, but all being done in a single place.

    I’d say it’s not as easy to configure as a heavier distribution, one must know Linux a little deeper, but it really makes a difference e.g. when playing videos. This Geode version has hardware video acceleration — which can play accelerated videos up to a certain size (1024×720, as I recall, but the screen is less than that).

    On the other hand, the Geode has no floating point… which makes unaccelerated video impossible to play. In this distribution, I managed to play 640×360 videos (perfectly) and 640×480 (without sound, seems the codec was missing).

    It’s nice to be able to reuse such a good equipment which certainly provides great functionality for such low power use.

  6. Justen Passant / Nov 14 2015 11:25 pm

    One year later, here I am again 🙂

    Just wanted to post that I’m using my Geode computer as a firewall and (though not exactly now) as a caching proxy server (squid, that is) — thanks to the great Ipfire distribution. I once used it also as print server, but now things go directly to the (laser) printer.

    In summary, all systems go up and there’s a server which allows access to stats and allows administration of all services (I guess it could work as a file server, too).

    Energy consumption is kept to a minimum and it is never turned off (though power outages force me to turn it on again, there must be a wake on lan option there…).

    It never gets hot (Ipfire generates stats about hd temperature, for instance).

    All in all, an excellent option for that use case.

    I can only recommend the Ipfire guys as excellent professionals, their distro works so fine in such a tiny machine.

    It’s a great distribution, I have no doubt.


  1. Pixelink POS Touchscreen

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