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Breathing Life into an Old Laptop with Linux

Old laptop running Freespire LinuxI’ve got an old Averatec 3150P laptop that came with the original release of Windows XP. With only 256 MB of RAM and a 30 GB hard drive, every update to XP dragged the little laptop down to the point where I just couldn’t use it anymore. It crawled, taking a full ten minutes or more to boot. Multitasking became nearly impossible.

I tried making XP as “lite” as possible, removing anything I didn’t need, defragging, whatever I could think of but the laptop still worked as though it was submerged in mud.

This laptop is a really nice, compact size and works well. It has a CD writer, can play DVDs, speakers, built in wireless-B and is lightweight. While it’s not worth anything at this point (which is why I don’t want to spend money on more RAM), it’s perfect for those times when I don’t want to lug the work laptop and just want to take something light that can run Skype and pull up a web browser to access Google Docs or Google Apps, since I just moved my e-mail over to the “Don’t be evil” monster. If it got lost at an airport, oh well…

So, I’ve heard Linux is good for old hardware. Being a total novice at Linux, I had to do some research. Yes, I’ve played with some Linux CDs that came with magazines or that could be downloaded in the past, the kind you can run by booting to the CD without disturbing anything on your hard drive. They were fun, but not spectacular enough to make me a convert.

I ran numerous Google searches for phrases like “linux for old hardware” to narrow things down a bit. For those not aware, there are a zillion Linux distributions out there, some for specific purposes like development or bare bones use. I came up with a list of several to try, including Gentoo, Zenwalk, Mandriva, Knoppix, wattOS and Unbuntu.

I first tried Unbuntu, but quickly found that my 256 MB laptop did not really have a full 256 MB. Apparently something on board takes the first 34 MB because a check of the system only shows about 222 MB. The “live” CD required 384 MB to run the demo and 256 MB to install. I tried several times, but gave up. What I could see looked good, but I just couldn’t get it to work.

I moved on to the other distributions mentioned and attempted all of their “live” CDs. Again, I ran into problems. For whatever reason, none would run properly on the laptop. When I tried to boot, I got various error messages, probably due to the low RAM.

I was about to give up, contemplating wiping the drive and replacing XP with Windows 98, when I came across a post about Freespire. What the heck, one more shot.

It worked and looked good. Frankly, some distro interfaces are still kind of clunky. Freespire’s is very nice so I took the plunge and installed it on the laptop, wiping all traces of XP from it. I figured if it didn’t work, I had nothing to lose at this point.

Not only did it install, it works quite well. The interface is slick and so far all of my plug and play devices are working, even my Buffalo g54 wireless-G card that I prefer to use over the built in wireless-B. Even Windows XP wouldn’t work with that card without installing the software and drivers.

Freespire includes Firefox and OpenOffice and a link to CNR.com, which houses a ton of free and paid software and updates. I snagged Skype and some antivirus software first thing.

The best part? The laptop is peppy, faster than it ever was under XP, despite the “Designed for Microsoft Windows XP” label on the front of it.

Downside? There are still a few clueless web sites out there that insist on Internet Explorer to work properly (That is SOOOOO 1998!). Some even require Windows Media Player for videos, so you just have to work around them. I tried WINE, which is supposed to let you run some Windows software and managed to get Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player installed, but actually getting them to run apparently requires some tweaking that I haven’t had time to do yet.

But, I’ve got a new toy to play with. I’m a believer!

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