Because applications can be run remotely under Linux, a 386 can be used as a graphical terminal for applications running on a more advanced system elsewere. All the tough computing is done on the server machine, and the 386 just handles displaying the results and forwarding user input to the server. By booting off the network, the terminal doesn't even need to contain a hard disk.
For real work, a 386 makes a fine print server, and even an acceptable filserver for a small department or home office. Since Linux can run without a monitor or keyboard, you don't even need a full system for this kind of activity.
A 386 is perfectly adequate as a router for a network. Attach a modem to it and use IP Masquerading, and all of the systems on a network can surf the Internet through the 386 at the same time, using only one IP address from the ISP. Take a look at http://bopper.wcbe.org/, which is run on a 386 w/16MB of RAM.
The following quote is too good to resist putting in here:
From: "Michael Appelt"
Newsgroups: comp.os.linux.hardware Subject: Re: 486DX33 as a firewall? Date: Wed, 12 Aug 1998 13:19:01 +0200 Organization: NETPLEX Internet Services - http://www.ntplx.net/ I believe, it will do. We are using a 386/40 with ethernet & isdn & modem interface as firewall, dhcp, dns, bootp, sendfax, pppd, smtp, smb, laser printer, to serve a total of 8 internal and 1 dial-in clients: 2 PCs (games & internet), 2 PCs (MS-Office & Scanner/Fax/Copier), 1 uVAX2000 with NetBSD booting from the net, 1 uVAX II with VMS/UXC and 2 more Vaxstation2000 using basically DNS No, Xfree86 is not included, and a telnet is sometimes a bit slower when heavy printing load has been queued. But that causes no impact on internet access, we get whatever our provider can serve close to the isdn-limits of about 7.2 kByte/sec. The system has been stable over more than 1 year. (always several weeks between reboots - caused by config changes the wrong direction) I needed the keyboard and monitor just about 3 or 4 times to recover from serious disk problems (disk is gone...hope same with the problems) durcing that long time. So what, take NT to get fun...., get Linux to get the functions Regards, Michael
A 486 system is even more powerful. On my 486-100, I can websurf, serve files, compile code, edit files, read mail, transfer files, and more, all at the same time. At the same time, my wife can surf the web on her Windows 3.11 PC through my Internet connection.
Because the operating system is so efficient, I can do things on the 486 that are impossible under Windows. I can play full-stereo, 44.1KHz .mp3 files on my 486 and read mail at the same time. Under Windows, you can't play full .mp3's on a 486 at all.
Imagine what you can do with a more modern PC...