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Refurbishing Old Computers With Ubuntu Linux

I currently have two laptops, an old 2002-era Gateway and an Acer Aspire Netbook. I got the netbook recently, after I realized that I could get all the functionality I needed out of a netbook and didn’t need to save more than I’d already put aside for an eventual replacement computer. The netbook was only $378, and that was because I got one with a 6-hour battery life for long car trips, commuting, etc.

For a while, my Gateway went virtually unused. It was getting old and even defragging and removing a number of programs didn’t make it much faster. On a whim, I decided to install Ubuntu Linux on it (as a dual boot, so I could still use two programs in XP). I found that putting Ubuntu on the old computer made it much more useful and helped me increase my productivity.

Why Ubuntu?

There are at least several hundred distributions (“distros”) of Linux software. Each one is intended for different users or different types of machines (some are “light” versions specifically for netbooks, for instance). Linux has a reputation for being the sort of software that only very technical people use. I’m not a great one to judge, as I am more technologically capable than the average computer user.

Ubuntu was designed specifically to be for desktop users (read more about their philosophy here), in fact its tagline is/was “Linux for humans.” I might be able to handle other distros, but I was looking for an operating system that was lighter and faster than Windows XP (let alone Vista) and ran everything I needed a backup computer to be able to run. A lot of the same programs are available in Ubuntu–Firefox, Open Office (compatible with Microsoft Office, though not equivalent), etc–or there are very similar versions.

Creating an Ubuntu Installation Disc

The hardest part for me was creating an installation disc. Ubuntu is free, but you have to create your own installation disc or wait until a free installation disc arrives in the mail. Being the impatient and do-it-yourself type, I decided to make my own installation disc. The problem was that I didn’t know how to burn .iso files.

First, you have to download the installation file from the Ubuntu website.

Next you’ll need a program that lets you burn it to the CD as an image. Just putting it on the CD-R as you might a document isn’t going to work for installation. If you have Nero, I’ve been told that it lets you burn .iso files as images. I have a free program called DVD Decrypter on my computer (I’ve used it in the past to backup my favorite movies, do the same w/CDs using iTunes). I found out that DVD Decrypter can also be used to burn .iso files.

To burn a .iso file using DVD Decrypter:

  1. Start DVD Decrypter.
  2. Choose Mode -> ISO -> Write.
  3. Select via “Source” the ISO file you want to burn.
  4. Choose File/Write to burn the image to CD/DVD (or click on the HD=>CD / DVD image).

I found it quite easy to do. Obviously, you need a CD burner and a CD-R (minimum) to do this, but most computers have CD burners installed and CD-Rs are easy to obtain. Here’s another tutorial with information on writing .iso files and some other free programs to try.

Note: You’ll need to boot from the installation CD to install Ubuntu. This is done by restarting your computer, generally selecting F2 right away, and changing the Boot order to check your CD-Rom drive first. This tutorial has screenshots that walk you through booting from a CD.

Installing Ubuntu Dual Boot

Installing Ubuntu is more intense but no more difficult than installing any other piece of software from a CD. I used this tutorial with screenshots to set it up as a “dual boot” so that my computer can run either Ubuntu Linux or Windows XP. The computer has been partitioned so that each operating system only has access to some of the space. Fortunately, there was enough free disc space (especially once I took off most of the programs that I used on my Acer) that I was able to install Ubuntu with room to spare in both sections.

You may not even need to create a dual boot, if you don’t have anything on the Windows side that you want to save and you’re sure that you’re done with Windows on this computer. Otherwise, setting it up like this allows you to continue to access Windows programs and files you’ve saved in Windows. You also should be able to uninstall Ubuntu and have plain old Windows again, though I’m not going to walk you through the steps (you can find a number of tutorials through Google).

Is Ubuntu Just for Geeks?

Last year, I might have said that Ubuntu isn’t for those who aren’t technically savvy–but it really is for everyone. You just have to remember that it’s a new operating system and it takes getting used to just like you’d have to get used to a Mac or to Vista. Ubuntu has strong similarities to both XP and Max OSx.

If you don’t do well with computers, you may want to bribe a more experienced friend with dinner and cookies to do your initial installation/setup. I feel nervous saying this, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my friends/family.

After it’s installed and you’ve figured out the file system structure (not too hard, especially if you’ve ever used a Mac) and installed any other programs you’d like, you can probably manage it just as well as you’d manage any other computer. There are great support forums (I suggest searching for your question before asking, as many have already been answered) and lots of tutorials online. The Ubuntu community is particularly used to regular people asking questions, so you’re more likely to find answers you can understand compared to some other distros.

The free Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference PDF does a great job explaining how Ubuntu works and how to use it. Some sections are geared toward the everyday user and some are a bit more technical. If you don’t want to learn about the command line, you probably don’t need to.

The Downside to Ubuntu

There is one major downside to Ubuntu and reason why I don’t use it on my primary computer. Some useful software just isn’t available for Linux. This doesn’t cause any issues when I’m using it as a backup computer, because I just delegate the tasks I can do on Ubuntu to Ubuntu. And there are some great Linux programs.

I can do almost everything on Linux, but as long as there are programs that I want/need (Quilting software, for instance) that require XP, then I’ll continue to dual boot at the least. The only thing that looks weird to me on Ubuntu is the fonts–some classic ones are actually proprietary and therefore aren’t installed.

(There’s one other downside, not to the system itself, but some laptops are too old and too slow and not right for Ubuntu. Other distros may work on them, especially lighter ones. My husband’s old HP Pavillion is one example…it was probably built for Windows 98 and always had trouble with XP.)

The Reason I Like Ubuntu

Putting Ubuntu on my old laptop has greatly increased the speed and functionality I get out of it. For me, therefore, it’s a great tool that I’ve used to extend my laptop’s lifespan and allow me to run more programs at the same time (and not slow down my computer!).

If you’ve given up on an old computer or laptop, consider extending its lifespan by installing Ubuntu.

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Frugal Urbanite April 17, 2009 at 7:44 am

Being a closet computer geek, one of my old boxes is running Linux.

The big problem is drivers. A lot of older printers, scanners, etc just don’t have Linux support (and neither do many new ones).

Frugal Urbanite’s last blog post: Getting Great Deals Online

mrsmicah April 17, 2009 at 8:45 am

@Frugal Urbanite good point, I hadn’t even thought about printers because it’s on the old computer. I use thumb drives or DropBox to transfer files between the computers, so I don’t print from the old one at all. But that’s a reason why it might not be right for your main computer.

FupDuckTV April 17, 2009 at 1:52 pm

I’m very impressed. Not many non-geeks would venture into the Unix/Linux realm.

I work in the Windows world, so I mainly play in that world. But I dabble in linux.

Leila April 18, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Under my desk there is a computer called “blueeyes”. My dh and I built it -from new parts- in January 1998 and installed RedHat on it. Right now it runs my email and our webserver. Until last month it ran the webserver, mail server, DNS server, and oh, the firewall too. At this point, it’s a homebrew installation. At some point, we’re going to have to -sob!- decomission it, but until then, it runs elm fine, as well as Apache. It’s been running 24*7 except for power outages for the past 11+ years.

In other words, I hear ya! Except I have ubuntu on my current desktop and loathe it with a passion. Much prefer Gentoo!

mrsmicah April 18, 2009 at 11:11 pm

@FupDuck well, I’m a bit of a geek. I’m not geeky enough to hack in and make changes to the distro itself, but I’m geeky enough to enjoy some of the command-line stuff.

@Leila one of my uncles runs a small server or two like that. I need to get him to teach me how. I can see what you mean about the Ubuntu desktop. It’s very much like Windows, which is why I think it’ll work well for non-geeky people. But I can see how it would be frustrating for those with better skills.

Kyle April 19, 2009 at 9:56 am

I run a Suse 11.0 box for a desktop computer, I recently picked up a new Netbook which I love but I think I am going to install the Ubuntu Netbook Remix. It is specifically optimized for the smaller screens on netbooks. As a Linux nerd I am always happy to see people adopting it. Drivers are getting better and easier to come by, I have an HP all in one that works great on my Suse box.

Patrick May 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Thanks for the tutorial. I’ve been thinking about installing Ubuntu on one of my old laptops for some time, but the project seemed out of reach to me. I think I can handle this though. (just don’t know how often I would use it because the computers are truly extra at this time).

Patrick’s last blog post: Should You Contribute to a 401k Without an Employer Match?

Mrs. Micah January 20, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Ran across this old post and am now lamenting the loss of my linux laptop. After running Ubuntu for a year, it finally kicked the bucket. Still, it had a good run.

Mike T. June 8, 2010 at 10:24 am

For me, I am pretty much happy with Microsoft’s operating systems, but for an odd reason. Now that people are moving to Vista, and windows 7, their “old” computers aren”t powerful enough. Soooo, they give them to me!

What do I do? I put Ubuntu on them and all of a sudden I have a free computer that runs nicely under Ubuntu – Yay me!

JMontes October 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm

I agree with ubuntu being good to low specs computers. Ubuntu’s live cd is another favorite for troubleshooting. 🙂

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