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Linux will revive an old PC? Not so fast.

I bought several old notebook PC’s a while back, specifically for the purpose of giving them to my grandkids. I wanted to see if I could retrofit them as replacements for newer PC’s, sans Windows. Because, let’s face it, Microsoft has effectively tied their newest OS to any new machine that you buy.

Want to buy a used PC and update the OS on it to XP or Vista? Forget it, unless you want to buy a new license. Translation–an additional $100 or so. As you know, you can’t install your Windows OS on more than one machine. You have to have a unique license for each and every one. I have three older PC’s sitting around, minus hard drives (or non-working drives), that need an operating system. I actually “borrowed” an XP CD that didn’t require registration, as my first attempt to revive them. And that worked fine, except the first machine (let’s call it alpha), only had 4 gigs of hard space, and Windows took up 3.5 gig. After adding Office, I had almost no space left.

On to plan B–Linux. This is a free, open source OS, that I’d read about, but never paid much attention. Now it had my attention. It sounded perfect:

  • Free
  • Readily available
  • Has a small footprint–meager disk and memory requirements
  • Runs a free, open source version of Office (Word, Excel, Power Point, etc.)
  • You can test it with a Live CD version (you don’t need to actually install it to use it)

It sounded perfect, but turned out to not quite be true. Here are my attempts.

Trial 1–It can’t be that easy

I bought a magazine with a version of Ubuntu on a Live CD. Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux that’s been more or less standardized and packaged so you have a core system that only needs to be updated from time to time with improved versions.

It ran fine on my primary PC with Vista. Except that the wifi connectivity didn’t work. I consulted with a friend of mine who is handy with Linux, and we ended up installing it on my machine with VMWare, a free PC virtual machine. That let me run Linux with all of my Windows hardware, including the wifi card. I was up and running, but not with the machine (alpha) that I wanted to run it on.

Trial 2–USB perfection

So, I figured I just needed to run the Live CD on alpha, and I should be good to go. Well, the first problem is that if you run from a Live CD, none of the changes you make to get something working, like wifi connectivity, will get saved to your next session. You need something called persistence, so any changes get picked up when you run it again. I solved that problem by finding a download of Ubuntu that will load and run from a USB drive, and has the persistence property. Basically, it just saves any modifications to another file on the drive, and the OS looks there for add-ons whenever it loads.

But uh oh, a new problem surfaced. Most older PC”s won’t boot from a USB drive. So, I did more googling and found a solution for that. There’s a neat little program called PLOP that will load from either a CD or a floppy, that will give your OS the option to boot from a USB device. I had CD capability on alpha, so I burned an ISO image to a CD, and joila, had the ability to boot from my Ubuntu-on-a-USB stick.

Except it ran and ran and ran, and would never finish loading. I did some more reading and discovered that Ubuntu needs at least 512 meg of RAM to run. I only had 128 in alpha. But, a smaller version of Ubuntu, called Xubuntu, seemed like it would solve my problem. I tried that, and Eureka, it loaded. But, it ran woefully slow. So slow, that it was impossible. to use.

Now, here’s the irony–XP was a resource hog, but it ran fine in 128 meg of memory. It was hardly slow at all. Yet, Linux, which has an incredibly smaller footprint, was like watching molasses flow. Argh.

Fortunately, memory is cheap ($40), even for older PC’s, so I ordered 256 meg of memory, and moved on to a still smaller version of Linux, called DSL (Damn Small Linux), while I waited for it to arrive.

Trial 3–Damn Small, and damn near working

DSL installed fine, but I still had the problem with wifi connectivity. That was, of course, a minimum requirement for alpha–it had to have browser capability. After fruitless hours trying to find a Linux driver for the Belkin card I had in alpha, I tried a technique built into Linux (and DSL), called NDIS wrapper, which lets you use the Windows driver that came with the card. And miraculously, it worked. I had a browser that worked. It was an older version of Firefox, but it worked fine. I thought.

I could browse pretty much any site I wanted to look at, including FaceBook, so I thought I had hit pay dirt. But, of course, it was too good to be true. Hootsuite, a FaceBook and Twitter add on, crashed the browser. And when I tried to use the chat capability of FaceBook, I found it wasn’t there. And I couldn’t get the chat icon to show up, no matter what I did. I think there probably is a Flash add on, or something similar, that this version of Firefox doesn’t even know about.

Well, no big deal, so I can’t chat. I can live with that. However, the next problem I found was that I couldn’t post updates on FaceBook. Nothing happened when I clicked on Share. So, that makes this experiment a failure.

I resigned myself to using Xubuntu (the wifi worked on booting), once I had upgraded the memory. Well, you’ll never believe this. When you order memory, the companies always make sure you give them the model number of the PC so they’re “sure” the memory will work. The new chips fit into the receiving slot just fine. Except the physical board was larger in one dimension than the original board in the machine. There wasn’t enough room in the memory compartment. I had to send them back.

Trial 4–Is it just me?

Once I get some memory that actually works, maybe I’ll be in business. Stay tuned.

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