Many older PCs will perform well using a lightweight Linux distro. Learn about what you should keep in mind when refreshing older hardware.
- [Instructor] A lot of people have an old PC sitting around, usually an old Windows PC that can't quite keep up with what it needs to do. Rather than throwing it away or, worse, keeping it around and taking up space and collecting dust and spiders, you might consider giving it a new lease on life as a Linux machine. Of course, you'll want to clean it safely and gently first if it's accumulated a family of dust bunnies. While current versions of operating systems, Windows and Linux included, have become pretty, let's say, feature-rich, many old systems can't quite keep up with them.
So just going and installing the latest version of Ubuntu Desktop on a seven year old machine might work, but the experience may not be too great. In this episode, we'll take a look at installing a lighter weight distro on older hardware. In preparing this video, I installed Linux on two old laptops. The first one, an old HP dv2050us, worked basically perfectly with the new SSD and the 32-bit version of Lubuntu. And that's no fun really, so I scrounged up another old laptop, a Dell Inspiron E1505, which was somewhat more of a project, but we'll get into that later.
Many older desktops will work fine and lots of laptops will too, though those can come with a few extra issues to resolve. I should mention here, while the general process for setting up Linux on an older machine is pretty universal, there are some things you'll need to figure out on your own for your hardware. The first thing to do is make sure your system physically works. Linux won't make a broken video card come back to life or keep a machine from randomly shutting off if it has a dodgy power supply. After you know all the parts work, or at least the parts you want to be able to use, it's time to consider upgrades.
Yes, this is an old machine, but it's not necessarily doomed to stay how it is. If you don't want to upgrade anything, that's perfectly fine, but consider adding RAM if there's space and if the system supports it, or consider adding an SSD. Far and away the best upgrade for an old computer is a nice fast SSD to boot and run from. Usually one on the smaller side is fine. That won't be great for storing a huge photo library, but it'll really help out the speed of the system for light use. But before you order anything, make sure it'll work with your old system. Check out the drive connectors, make sure you're getting the right kind of RAM, and so on.
The next step is to gather the system information. Most importantly, whether the processor is 32-bit or 64-bit. The older a system is, the more likely it'll be 32-bit, and this will influence which installer we'll need to download. Also try their discover what kind of other hardware the system has. If the system boots, you can take a look through the hardware manager for whatever operating system it's running, or you can search online for the model number and find out the hardware parameters that way. What we're looking for here primarily is the system controller, the video card, and network interfaces.
A lot of old hardware has specific or generic support right in the Linux kernel or can work with drivers that are commonly available. Some other hardware needs to have more specific drivers installed, and some hardware just doesn't have drivers for Linux. So do some searching to learn about compatibility information before you spend time installing. There are a lot of helpful resources online that people have put together to cover the compatibility of popular older hardware models with Linux. Sometimes there's even full guides on how to get particular computers or particular hardware working. Again, I can't cover all the variables and all the different models here.
It's important to make sure that you've copied any data you want to save from this machine somewhere else. When we install Linux, we'll wipe the drive. Once we have the specs of the machine and we've researched whether the machine supports Linux to the degree we want and we've backed up the important data, it's time to consider which distro to install. The older the computer, the more you should look into running a lightweight distro like Xubuntu or Lubuntu or other lightweight variations of other distros. Lightweight in this context means a distro that doesn't come with too many bells and whistles, like a fancy graphically-rich desktop manager or big suites of applications.
The Xfce and LXDE desktops are designed with low resource usage in mind, which is great for systems with comparatively little RAM and processor power. Lightweight software will help to conserve the resources of the computer so the user has a chance of getting some work done on this older hardware. If you don't need a desktop, you can conserve even more resources. But think of who will be using the computer. If you're passing it to a relative or a computer novice, they may not be comfortable without a desktop environment. I chose Lubuntu for my system, precisely because I haven't used LXDE very much and I wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about it.
I won't go over the details of installing in this episode. I've covered installation in other episodes and courses, and it's pretty straightforward. I chose to allow the installer to use the whole disk, and I accepted the options to install additional drivers where possible. Once you log in, it's time to start troubleshooting and making sure that things work. In my case, the Wi-Fi card didn't work because it needed a driver. Luckily for me, searching for the computer model number and the terms Wi-Fi and Linux got me to a helpful answer on Stack Overflow. I needed to install a driver and some other software, enable the module, and restart.
It was also helpful that my ethernet port worked without issue, letting me install software from the internet. Otherwise, I would've needed to download files somewhere else and copy them here to install them. With the exception of the 12 year old battery, this machine works fine for me now. With laptops, there's a whole bunch of other things to consider compatibility-wise: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth hardware, how the system behaves when the lid is closed, screen and keyboard backlights, special keyboard keys, and so on. And sometimes you may need to make some accommodations for hardware that doesn't work with Linux.
If you just can't get your built-in ethernet, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth adapter working, consider buying a USB version that does work with Linux. It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of what it's worth to get an old machine working again. An old desktop could be repurposed as a Linux server running without a screen. An old laptop could be your couch computer, your kitchen computer, or could be given to someone who maybe can't afford to buy a brand new one. Taking on getting an older system up and running with Linux is a worthwhile project to learn about how Linux works with hardware and how to troubleshoot issues.
Sometimes it goes smoothly and sometimes it's a lot of work, but you'll almost always learn something new.
Note: Because this is an ongoing series, viewers will not receive a certificate of completion.