16 Feb 2012

Give An Old PC New Life With Linux

Chances are you have an older computer sitting in a closet somewhere just gathering dust. Why not breathe new life into it by replacing its old, clunky Windows installation with a fast and shiny new Linux installation?

Linux has come a long way since the early days of typing cryptic strings of characters onto a "command line". Most modern versions of Linux now look and feel much like Windows, but without the code bloat and sluggish performance. And if you primarily use your computer to browse the Internet, check emails and such, except for a dramatic speed increase you'll be hard pressed to tell much difference in how the machine actually works. What's more, if you use it for other tasks as well you're sure to find a free software package to download and install that will do the job just fine. I run Open Office on my Linux notebook and I don't miss the bloat and sluggishness of Microsoft Office one bit!

The power of Linux lies in the super efficient way that the Linux kernel utilizes hardware. I have installed various versions of Linux on a number of older Windows desktop and notebook PCs and I have never been disappointed with the results. A great example is an HP desktop with a Pentium 4 processor and 1GB of RAM that runs rings around a much newer Gateway running Windows Vista!

There are several Linux distributions available, but the two that I use most are Ubuntu and Puppy. Ubuntu works extremely well on most computers, but Puppy Linux is outstanding for systems with slower processors and limited RAM. My suggestion is to try Ubuntu first, then switch to Puppy if you need even more speed.

You can download the latest version of Ubuntu Linux here, then burn it onto a CD-R. If you have access to a PC running Windows 7 you can simply right-click on the downloaded file and click "Burn Disc Image". When the process completes you'll have a bootable Ubuntu Linux installation CD.

You can download the latest version of Puppy Linux by clicking the "Download Latest Release" link on the Puppy Linux homepage. Then use the same procedure described above to create a bootable Puppy installation CD.

Regardless of which version of Linux you decide to install, the process is pretty much the same. Simply configure your PC's BIOS settings so that it will boot from the optical disc drive, insert the CD, then turn on the power! The computer will boot right up into Linux and you'll be able to install it onto the hard drive. You can even run Linux right from the CD for a while to see if you like it before actually installing it! Just bear in mind that it will run even faster once installed.

The installation process for both Ubuntu and Puppy is fast and easy, with just a few simple questions to answer for a typical installation. The Linux plug-n-play process works very well for detecting hardware devices and installing the appropriate drivers. It works so well in fact that I have never had even one hardware issue when installing either of these versions of Linux onto a machine. Your mileage might vary of course, but if you do have problems help is readily available in the support forums on the Ubuntu and Puppy websites.

There you have it. Don't let that old PC sit on a shelf gathering dust! Fire it up and replace Windows with Linux so you can experience computing the way it ought to be!

Rick Rouse is an A+ certified PC technician and the owner of RLROUSE Infoblog.


  1. Just of today, Celeron 800, 1G mem, TNT2 nVidia Video.
    Blown away with PCLinuxOS LXDE mini + LibreOffice 3.5 and Firefox 10.0.1. See for yourself ;)

    1. Very cool. That's a great distro for older hardware as well.

  2. I have two main problems with your article:
    1) You have a revised but somewhat inaccurate idea of what is considered an old PC. I doubt that a 1 GHz P4 with 1 GB of RAM is exactly an "older computer sitting in a closet somewhere just gathering dust"! Granted that 486s, Pentium I's, and even Pentium II's are tossed away or else recycled for scrap-metal these days. Still, I bet you would easily find more people than you would otherwise presume still have PCs with mid-speed Pentium III and K62/K63 500+ CPUs laying around. Instead of "1G mem", many of these *really* old PCs probably are maxed out with 256 MB to *maybe* 512 MB RAM, and probably these still have "low" vRAM AGP or PCI video as well.

    2) I find your suggestion to "try Ubuntu first, then switch to Puppy" is immensely MISLEADING for the *really* old PCs I just mentioned. AAMOF much of the time, even Ubuntu will absolutely refuse to run or install on such "slow" PCs (by anyone's standards!) As others like me have found, even the Lxde and Xfce forms of Ubuntu simply fail to work here, although the superlight WattOS based on Ubuntu *might* work on such PCs. And you fail to mention that there are better and worse versions even for Puppy (Puppy which I think makes MUCH more sense to try first instead of *buntu!) For instance here, you don't mention Wary Puppy which was essentially *created* for old PC such as I have described above.

    If anything, you should probably go back to the Distrowatch Search page and try some of the *other* distros than *buntu and Puppy listed under its Distribution Category of Older Computers!!

  3. I don't consider my laptop to be old, as I bought it only 10 years or so ago. It has a Celeron 2000 CPU, 1GB RAM, a PCMCIA WiFi card and no video acceleration. It runs fine on Debian sid with LXDE, maintained with smxi. The Hard Drive is only 40GB, but that's plenty for most purposes and I can plug in various thumb drives as required. I don't have, or need a fondle-slab until it dies.

  4. Libre Office 3.5 is much better than open office ever was. Give it a try. :)

  5. If youre going to switch someone from Windows, might I suggest a KDE based distro?
    The paradigm between both desktops are much more familiar than the aping of Mac that Gnome embarked on and Im not sure what to make of Unity really so I still offer newbs a choice of KDE, GNome and XCFE (I use E17 also but I stick with these three). The choice of distro is secondary to the DE choice and there are quite a few of each, there is no THE one. Its like going to Baskin Robbins.

    I switched a few years ago when Vista came out and I wasnt plannnig to spend more money to upgrade our hardware. Of our old hardware, I still have a T21 Thinkpad (P3-800) and a Celeron based Acer laptop-tank that we call Frankenstein Linux. Its being slowly falling apart and we keep it still around. The Wifi died a while back and bought a 10$ USB one, then the trackpad started having problems and I use a USB or wifi mouse with it. Then the HD started giving it up and youd think wed finally call it a day but no. Got myself a USB hub for another 10 bucks and plugged in the two other devices as well as a USB key where I installed Puppy and it runs off the key, stores settings there too as well as files I want to save. Zombie Linux or Frankenstein Linux is what we call it. My eldest has a nice XPS laptop that runs Kubuntu and PCLinuxOS and he still loves to use it the patched up one with Puppy. My youngest inherited his netbook that runs Kubuntu Netbook very nicely.
    All of my USB sticks always have either DSL or Puppy on it as well as regular files in case of emergency and I cant say enough good things about them.
    Yes, at first you might be taken aback by the graphics quality until you see an old copy of Win98 to remind you how the graphics were back when you used it.

    Oh yeah, choice. Had there been no desktop choice my family would have stayed on Windows. My first Linux was the Dell Mini 9 that came with Ubuntu 8.04 and it was so depressing looking that my wife kept asking when we could put Windows on it.
    Luckily a friend at work had a teenage son who gave me a primer on Linux choices.
    The most amazing thing is that my wife and kids use the same distro and yet their screens look nothing alike. Sure, they all have different backgrounds but my wifes fluffly pink bunny theme is as distinct as my son's black background with red highlights.
    My wife likes her panels to disappear when not in use, one of my sons like Cairo Dock while the other uses a big taskbar at bottom (like 1 inch high) and three panels on the side and to that also disappear. Not too mention they all love different eye candy.
    Even with a same desktop, youo have enough options to change every single thing on the desktop to make it truly your own.
    Throw in the other desktops and you are bound to find something that you like.

    We came to Linux because we didnt want to upgrade out computers just because a new OS version was out (my friend bought the last of the Macs before they went to Intel, paid it about 2200$ plus taxes and Apple hooks and it was over 3000$ and they just sold those people out quickly when the upgrades came and they were told, oh too bad, but you need an Intel Mac for the newest OS upgrade. I eventually installed Linux on that laptop when he got pissed off enough) but when came time for new desktops and laptops, we decided to keep Linux as our primary OS. (I build my own desktop so I didnt pay an MS license and my newest laptop was 1yr old when I bought it from my friend so Redmond is getting no more money from me hopefully. I do like the european court case where the guy won his MS refund from Lenovo.)

  6. Thanks for the article, now that I am aware of all the benefits of Linux, I will consider switching to it from my Windows Vista... I will also be grateful if someone provides useful links to Linux tutorials, as this OS seems to be rather complicated for those who have no experience with it.

    1. There are plenty of books: look at the left column of this site. Read reviews of each book on Amazon and decide yourself which level is for you.