On the x86 architecture, Linux requires at least an 80386SX CPU. Unless you're buying a computer from a yard sale, then, any x86 computer you purchase today will have sufficient CPU power to run Linux.
The Embeddable Linux Kernel Subset (ELKS) project
(http://www.elks.ecs.soton.ac.uk) is dedicated to porting Linux to 8086 through 80286 and other old CPUs. This project has yet to produce a fully usable system, however.
Although the Linux kernel and most Linux software can run on an 80386SX CPU, some Linux distributions impose higher minimum requirements. Generally this is because the distribution includes a kernel or other critical components that have been compiled with optimizations for later CPUs, rendering the distribution unusable on older models. Specific official requirements for some popular Linux distributions in early 2000 include
• Caldera OpenLinux 2.3: 80386
• Linux Mandrake 7.0: Pentium
• SuSE Linux 6.3: 80486DX (80386 is supported for "limited usage.")
As a general rule, if a distribution supports a given level of CPU, it supports all CPUs and clones at that level. For instance, you can use a Cyrix 6x86 or AMD K5 with a distribution that requires a Pentium CPU.
If a distribution requires a Pentium CPU, it might not include FPU emulation. Because early NexGen Nx586 CPUs lacked an FPU, you might not be able to use such distributions on early NexGen systems, unless they include the matching FPU chip. In theory, you can get around this problem—and other Pentium requirements—by hacking the install floppy or by installing using a different CPU, recompiling the kernel or other components, and then replacing the CPU. In practice, this is almost always more effort than it's worth.
Linux has yet to make much use of MMX or AMD's 3DNow multimedia extensions. Modern CPUs all include MMX, however, and there's no reason to avoid CPUs with these extensions.
A handful of Linux programs, such as some MPEG playback software, can be to take advantage of these instructions.
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