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Suggestion: Download Ubuntu 10.04 (before the end of the month - 12.04 comes out in APril and you may have to google to find 10.04 somewhere else than www.ubuntu.com . 10.04 (10:10) still use the Gnome 2 desktop. The newer versions are using Unity (like Win. 8). After downloading, burn it to a CD and then try booting the CD on your 486 (you will see a "try it" and an "install it"). Select "try it". You my get lucky and it boots and runs. If you can run it from the CD (you shoild be able to install it then). If it doesn't run, you can do a "wubi" install into a Windows direcdtory (just like installing any Windows app). There is a wubi.exe file on the CD. It will do tthe install into the directory. If you are running XP, it will modify the XP boot.ini file (adds a line to the end) to give you a choice when you power on to run either XP or Ubuntu. I'd recommend around 8GB (you can get by with 4GB, but when you start finding out all the free S/W (Synaptic Package Manger and the Software Center) you can easily fill up the space). If you are running Vista or Win. 7, you can also do a Wubi install (I haven't tried it as the Win. 7 boot process is different from XP) - however, I'd recommend downloading VirtualBox, install it (like any Windows app) and then create a VM for Ubuntu and install into the VM (you can also do this on XP).
Thanks for the great answers. I guess I'll put Ole Bessie the 486 out to pasture. I figured it would be iffy to try Ubuntu on it, but I thought I'd look into it. I'll do as suggested and pick up a newer old machine and give it a shot. The one I had was the desktop I used through college, so I actually have a little sentimental attachment to it, believe it or not, and though it might be fun to try to resurect it with Linux and at the same time I could try learn a little something. Thanks again!
I doubt Ubuntu 8.10 will be useful on a 486 - if you could even manage to get it working. Modern Linux distributions - and by modern I'm talking about distros dating back from a decade ago - are optimised for running on i586+ machines. And IIRC, I read something recently about most distros dropping support for the 486 and older machines.
Also, trying Linux on a 486 might not be the best way to get an ideal impression of the modern OS. You will certainly run into many roadblocks - trying to boot it will be the biggest hurdle. Then you have to worry about the drivers. Finally, I would be surprised if the 486 even worked in the first place - I mean even motherboards as recent as 10 years old are known to go bad due to leaky capacitors, and if not the motherboard, it'll be the PSU or the RAM... I've seen even 5 year old PSUs conk out for no apparant reason. And if that happens, good luck finding a replacement!
Personally I would just buy a cheap P3 or P4 for $10 or something and use that instead. Or ask your library or school nicely and they may even let you have one for free. Check with your local tech community / circle, someone might have a few unused old machines lying around.
Heck my university gave away their ageing dual-CPU AMD AthlonXP servers for free - I took three of them with the intention of running my own server, but the high maintanance and noise just put me off. Eventually all the machines stopped working for some or the other reason, and I can't be bothered trying to fix them.
Using a cheap but relatively modern machine would be faster, reliable, practical, cheaper and more importantly - save a lot of time. (That is, if your goal is to ultimately learn Linux in a manner which is useful in a modern world. If however reviving antiquated hardware is your main priority...)
Another important point to consider is support. Linux is largely driven by the community, so if you're new, it would be wise to stick to popular choices of distros / software and hardware so as to get better support. If you were on a 486 currently and run into an issue (and I'm 100% sure you will), you'll have a hard time trying to get anyone to help you. Infact, most communities wouldn't even take you seriously and they'll think you're a troll.
Anyways, if you do manage to get your 486 working, and have a lot of time and patience, I would recommend using a specialist distro meant for old machines - such as Damn Small Linux or Puppy. DSL has been known to work on 486s. There are also variants of Puppy such as TurboPup Extreme that can run a full GUI under 10MB of RAM. But if you only have 4MB of RAM - which was quite common back then - then you can rule out running a Linux-based GUI. Also remeber that it'll be quite hard getting a hold of *working* EDO RAM modules - or any spare parts for a 486 for that matter.
A good GUI/OS that I do know which would great in 4MB of RAM is QNX's, with it's Photon MicroGUI system. The whole OS came on a single floppy disk and even included a DHTML capable web browser! Since it's a POSIX complaint OS you could still learn all the commands and system architecture which is common to all Uninx-like OSes. This is something you really should check out if you do manage to get your machine working. :)
Speaking of cheap machines, a Raspberry-pi is a great little credit-card sized device you can have for $25, which can even play HD video and is a great platform for learning Linux. Check out www.raspberrypi.org
Final thoughts: Is there a particular reason why you aren't trying out Linux on your own current machine? If you're afraid that you might mess something up, then fear not - as most distros are available as a Live CD (or USB), which doesn't touch your data (unless you explicitly tell it to do so). So all you have do is pop-in the CD (or USB), boot from it and you have a full-fledged Linux system running from the RAM. Any changes you make will be in the RAM and therefore will vanish when you reboot the system. When you're ready for the next step - you can make a persistent live USB so that any changes you make will be stored within a single file on the USB drive.
If booting from a LiveCD is too close to comfort, you could just install VirtualBox in your current system, and run Linux within VirtualBox. VirtualBox, as the name suggests, is a virtual computer, and is extremely handy for trying out new operating systems without absolutely no fear of messing up your existing setup. Learn more about it at virtualbox.org
I say no, Ubuntu is for modern computers.
Furthermore, I think you even no will be able to run updated Lubuntu (Light Ubuntu) which is designed for older computers. (Wikipedia: "dropped support for i586 processors").
You can search for your ideal distro here, at "Distribution category" select "Old computers":
However, if you are an advanced user, you can use an older version of ubuntu (8.10) with a light window manager, like e16. That config runs on 500MHz CPU, 192MB Ram, 32Mb graphics card, 3GB HDD.
It will be ugly, it won't be so user-friendly as updated Ubuntu, but it may work.