Resurrect old hardware with Linux

Dell Inspiron 3500
Xubuntu desktop
Say goodbye to virus, malware, and license problems.

A customer came to me with a low-mileage 1999 vintage laptop which she wished to use for occasional web browsing. (specs: Dell Inspiron 3500. 333 MHz CPU, 64 MB Ram, 4.7 GB disk. Every spec was about one-tenth of today’s PCs!). It was running Windows 98 Second Edition. Microsoft stopped providing Windows 98 updates years ago, and Windows 98 is now very vulnerable to attack. Worse, today’s anti-virus and anti-spyware programs won’t run on it. Shouldn’t she just scrap the laptop?

A very limited resource laptop, but Xubuntu runs fine

Since the laptop was in like-new condition, we decided to extend its life by injecting some 21st century blood into it. We topped up its memory slots with the maximum RAM (a mere 256 MB!) and replaced Windows 98 with Xubuntu 8.10. It’s not Microsoft Windows, but to a user it appears similar, and includes a word processor, spreadsheet, graphics / photo editor, and Mozilla Firefox web browser. I’ve not been able to get its onboard soundcard to work, but everything else works.

There are three big upsides to any Linux-based desktop operating system when compared to MS Windows:
  • It frees the user from constantly worrying about Windows Updates to patch vulnerabilties
  • No anti-virus or anti-spyware programs are needed (Yay! )
  • There are no Windows licensing headaches.
A potential downside is that Windows applications won’t run on Linux without the assistance of either Wine or running a copy of Windows XP within a virtual machine.
If you have a tired desktop or laptop PC — especially one without a legitimate Windows license — consider breathing new life into it with some form of Linux. Most are available for free, such as I tried Damn Small Linux (too minimal for this case), Puppy Linux (it was okay, but just barely), and Xubuntu 8.04, 8.10, and 9.04. Xubuntu 9.04 added some features but did something to slow response to user inputs. I settled on Xubuntu 8.10. (Xubuntu imposes a lighter load on the hardware than Ubuntu because it has a leaner desktop.)

Try it before you install it

You can first just boot with the Xubuntu (or Ubuntu) Live CD, to see whether it’s acceptable and runs okay on your hardware. (Of course it’ll be slow when booting off the CD-ROM drive.) If so, you can install it on your hard drive from the same CD-ROM.

Oh — one caveat: Xubuntu and its siblings may not install without problems on all hardware. I’m now fighting to get it to install on a 1.1 GHz AMD Athlon desktop PC — I have no idea why it won’t install on this system, yet it installed with almost no problems on the old laptop. Let me know of your Linux adventures, please.
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