What do you do with an old computer? Say, a 386-generation PC running Windows 98 that hadn't been patched in years, with a 20-Gbyte hard drive most likely infected with all manner of viruses, spyware, and other maladjusted programs?
Sure, it could go to the landfill, or you might be able to get a tax deduction from donating it to a local school. Or, using a Linux-based operating system, you could turn it into a functional desktop, browser, and e-mail client, and put it back to work.
I started with an old computer that had only been used for Web browsing and instant messaging, and which hadn't been updated since it was purchased in 1999. My thinking was that if it didn't work, the PC would go to the landfill. But if it did work, I'd have a second computer for various science projects.
The first step in switching to Linux is picking a Linux distribution. A popular site called Linux Distribution Chooser can help you decide. I found this site while writing this article, and the first distro I had selected, Ubuntu, landed near the top of the list.
Ubuntu markets itself as "Linux for human beings," which begs the question of who exactly the other versions of Linux were written for, and whether the Finnish embassy has lodged a formal complaint.
Here's what I did to install Ubuntu:
Downloaded the Ubuntu installation disk image and burned it onto a CD
Moved photos and MP3s to a separate hard drive, and formatted the hard drive on the PC. By now, I was past the point of no return.
Configured the PC (using the pre-boot "BIOS" menu) to boot from the CD
Booted from the CD
Selected the "Install Ubuntu" link
Waited some more
After 10-20 minutes, saw that there was nothing but a brownish-red screen and a glowing cursor
Checked the instructions, which said, "Once Ubuntu has finished booting (this can take some time) you will be presented with an Ubuntu system running from the CD"
Rebooted several times, tried various install options, and just let it cook for a while
The problem was that I couldn't see what was going on behind the scenes. Ubuntu, in an effort to make a user-friendly operating system like Mac OS X, hides most of the cryptic inner workings of the installation process behind a graphical interface. As a result, I wasn't able to pinpoint exactly where in the process it was breaking so that I could request help from the famously helpful Linux community.
In other words, Ubuntu is "Linux for human beings," but I was trying to install Linux on a computer. What I needed was "Linux for outdated PCs."
Ubuntu is built on top of a Linux distribution called Debian that has a reputation for needing slightly more technical knowledge. This didn't scare me, so here's what I did:
Downloaded the Debian installation disk and burned it to a CD
Per the instructions, gathered various data about the PC (e.g., monitor size, mouse type, etc.)
Booted the PC from the Debian install disk
Ran into a hiccup: The installation CD contains only the bare minimum to set up your local directories and get you connected to the Internet. Then, the installation process downloads a piece of software called APT, which in turn downloads the rest of the operating system along with various applications. During installation, I was presented with a choice of servers from which I could download APT. I picked one at random, and it wasn't able to connect. I tried another, and another, and had the same problem. So, I figured it was a network connectivity issue, and then spent the next half-hour or so messing around with cable modems, routers, and IP settings. Once I figured out that the network was actually working, I returned to the APT download screen and started picking other APT servers at random.
After a few attempts, I picked an APT server that worked!
About an hour or so later, APT had collected all of the pieces of the operating system.
After setting a few more configuration options, I was in! I visited a few Web pages on Firefox, played a version of Tetris and a few other games, and otherwise put the PC through its paces. Success!
I can't say that it was a simple process. There's definitely room for improvement in terms of picking a distribution that'll work the first time, and in rebounding from errors during installation. Nonetheless, the Linux ecosystem had enough diversity to get the job done.
Considering my investment in Windows software and its prevalence among larger businesses, I'm not ready to move my main PC over to Linux. Still, I'm glad to have the exposure to Linux and the chance to try it out.
For small businesses that don't want to spend thousands of dollars upgrading PC hardware and software, it's great to know that new life can be injected into old PCs using a free operating system that's fast enough and secure enough for basic needs.
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