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Install Linux to breathe new life into your old computer

Create: 02/28/2016 - 13:13
The Linux desktop

I have a couple of older but still functional computers that just can't handle Windows XP – even after a fresh install of the operating system.

About a year ago, I installed Linux on one of these laptops. The experience was not pleasant.

Side note here. You just can't say Linux. That's the "kernel" or the core atop which everything else sits. There are many variations or "flavors" of Linux, and each serves its own purpose. For those of us who have used operating systems with a graphical interface (Windows or Mac), you will want one with a desktop shell. Otherwise, you can have a command-line installation, just like DOS of the old days.

My first go around was an Ubuntu distribution – or "distro," as it's known in the Linux community.

It ran dreadfully slow – much slower than Windows. Every operation seemed to take place in slow motion. I stood by painfully as programs opened in stop-motion animation.

It was not a good alternative to Windows. For the moment, my experience with Linux had ended.

Recently, I came across some articles about so-called lightweight Linux distributions. Perhaps, that's what I needed for this computer, which has a Pentium 4, 512MB of RAM and an 80GB IDE hard drive.

Try before you buy ... errr ... install
For testing purposes, I used YUMI to install several bootable Linux distributions on a 16GB USB drive. This is a perfect way to test Linux without installing it to your computer, if your computer can boot to a USB drive, rather than the hard drive. If not, you can burn the Linux ISO file to a CD or DVD and boot your computer from that disk. If you do end up liking one of these distributions, you can install it from that CD/DVD after booting into the environment.

Some of these came in 32- and 64-bit versions. Which one should you use?

From reading various forums, the consensus seems to be that if the computer runs Windows 7, 8 or 10, then use the 64-bit version. If it runs Windows XP or something earlier, go with the 32-bit version.

That seemed like good advice to me.

After I continued my search for more information, I decided on testing six Linux distros:

  • Debian Live 8.3.0
  • LXLE 14.04.3
  • PC Linux LXDE 2012.12
  • Porteus 3.1
  • Puppy Linux - Slacko 6.3
  • Tails 2.1

Each certainly has its strengths and shortcomings, and your ability and desire to learn a new operating system should be considered.

I should mention here that Tails is intended to be run from a CD or USB drive and leaves no digital footprint of its use. While this sounds good, running it from a USB or CD drive means that you always have to enter your WiFi security key every time you boot up. When you shut down, it completely wipes itself from the computer's memory. Pulling the USB from the computer immediately shuts down Tails.

After trying each of them, I eventually settled on LXLE. Puppy ran very quickly, but I think a strong understand of Linux will help you take advantage of it – or at least better than I understand it.

PC Linux came very close to replicating the Windows experience, look and feel and could be a good choice for those who think that is important.

I'm sure veteran Linux users have their own likes and dislikes and wonder why I didn't try this or that distro.

Hint: When you install Linux, you'll need to set up a password. Make it easy to remember, because you'll need to use it for certain system functions, such as system and software upgrades and installations.

Thumbs up for Linux LXLE
What I like about LXLE is that it runs very smoothly and with decent speed. There are enough options and tools that I don't have to become expert in the "Linux of Things" to install additional software.

LXLE is a based on Lubuntu, which itself is based on Ubuntu, as the LXLE website explains.

The learning curve is small, and I was able to get it up and running quickly.

LXLE also comes with a good amount of useful software in the base install. That includes Libre Office,a Web browser, GIMP image editor, FTP program, an e-mail client and a surprisingly large number of games.

The programs that comprise Libre Office launch quickly and are full-featured and can save and open the latest Microsoft Office formats (.docx, .xlsx, .pptx, etc.). This is important, because no matter how good a program is, the corporate world is still dominated by Windows.

I added the Opera browser and synched it. I use Opera's "Speed Dial" feature to group together URL shortcuts for managing different parts of the site and to handle social media duties. I also added Dropbox and several other programs.

LXLE handled the hardware nicely. As you would expect, the Windows button on the keyboard doesn't do anything with the exception of Windows + e, which opens file manager, similar to the Windows file manager. For computers with dual function keys, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't.

You can also ALT + Tab between running programs – which has been with Windows since version 3.0.

Sometimes, there is a pop-up menu for a right mouse click. Sometimes, there isn't. Some settings are spread across different system tools.

Bluetooth support is built in and works well, and it recognized the Logitech USB dongle for connecting mice and keyboards. Setting up a WiFi connection is simple.

Great for Linux 'newbies'
And that's one of the nice things about LXLE. It is a solid operating system for Linux novices. Most of the things that you would like to do with it are logical and easy to learn.

Like Windows, the more you know about Linux and LXLE, the better you will be able to make use of its features.

There are scores of screensavers and desktop wallpapers included. By default, there is a left-side flyout dock for frequently used programs. I moved it to the top of the screen and added a few others. I'd like to add multiple panels within the dock like Stardock Corp.'s ObjectDock. In fact, I would like ObjectDock, and I'll need to look at some of the alternatives.

Much as you can with many of the Linux distros, you can create numerous desktops, which can be useful or not. The default is two desktops, and you can create more. or you can just run everything on one desktop. The advantage of multiple desktops is that you can have a browser on one, Libre Office on another, your e-mail client on a third and perhaps your media player on a fourth.

There is a small learning curve. While there are some Windows-like features, some things don't work in the same way. For example, when you launch a program, there is no visual cue that it has launched. Windows, for example, shows the hour glass. In Linux, you just wait for the program or its splash screen to appear on screen, although certain operations in Linux will display a watch.

That's a minor complaint, and it's mostly a matter of becoming accustomed to how the OS runs. It's similar to driving different vehicles and figuring out how to turn on the headlines and windshield wipers and move your seat forward and back and adjust your mirrors. I would recommend that you put away your Windows thinking when you boot up LXLE.

LXLE has given several aging laptops a second chance as usable computers.

Computers in my house that are now running Linux:

  • Acer Aspire One AOA150 netbook, which has an Intel Atom processor.
  • Sony Vaio PCG-FRV27 laptop
  • Sony Vaio VGN-UX180P micro-computer
  • Hewlett-Packard 2000-412NR laptop
  • Home-built desktop PC with AMD Athlon II processor

The Acer netbook is noteworthy, because it took Windows XP running on an OCZ 100GB SSD about three or four minutes before it was usable.

With LXLE, the time from power-up to a usable state is 55 seconds.

I once again love this little netbook, because it has the large capacity battery, and it can easily run five or six hours on a single charge. And with the speedy LXLE OS, it’s a joy to use. For the record, this has an Intel Atom processor running at 1.6 Ghz with 2GB RAM, which it shares for video.

There are some limits with the netbook. It still struggles with complex HTML pages, especially those that are loaded with scripts and auto-run videos.

I downloaded Qupzilla – a lightweight browser that doesn’t load most ad code, including Google Adsense. However, it does have problems with pages that have a great deal of behind-the-scenes scripting.

Many of your Windows or favorite Mac programs are also available for Linux, including Thunderbird and the Firefox, Opera and Chrome (Chromium) browsers, the excellent VLC media player and Audacity audio-editing program, as well as the Filezilla FTP client and Dropbox.

I’m sure that there are more programs, but these are the ones that I want to use right now.

If you want a blast from the past, download Flight of the Amazon Queen, a graphical adventure game from the 1990s.

In a twist, you can add the VMware Player, which allows you to run other operating systems, such as DOS or Windows, in a virtual session. It’s not easy to get it up and running.

Aside from Opera and the VMware Player, all of these can be downloaded from the included Lubuntu Software Center. It's very easy to use.

Epson wrote a Linux program that works correctly with my Expression 1600 flatbed scanner. It works very well.

At the moment, LXLE doesn’t support computer hibernation. The option is there on the log-in screen, but it’s unavailable (“grayed out”). From what I’ve read, there is an issue with some computers being unable to restore the session coming out of hibernation, so for now it’s been turned off.

If your computer seems like it’s running on molasses, try Linux and see if it’s something that will work for you.

Where to download the Linux distributions mentioned here
Here are a few links that you might find useful:

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.