Kids and Screens: (Used) Laptops, Linux, LibreOffice
After spending an extortionate amount of money on a MacBook for our oldest child, I decided to investigate using refurbished ThinkPad laptops and learned how to install Linux on them. Installing linux turned out to be a lot easier than I worried it might be, and I hope my children have benefited from experiencing different systems and software packages.
Years ago, my oldest child needed a laptop for school. We were under the impression an Apple MacBook was the only way to go. At the Apple store, I was genuinely shocked by the high prices of their products, but we bit the bullet and purchased one. I have to admit, it did last for many years.
Over time, I became a bit more interested in computers, and learned that what was inside a laptop is what really counts for a good experience: the processor, the RAM memory, and the type of hard disk (old: HDD, new: SSD). I discovered the older Lenovo ThinkPad range, and I was surprised to learn that their processing power and memory were often on par with those of new laptops.
I discovered Linux. Linux is an operating system, like Windows or macOS, but it has many different versions (called distros) and is mostly not owned or sold by a single company, but developed and improved by groups of programmers, some paid, some not. What is neat is that Linux, and the distro called Ubuntu in particular, works really well on used ThinkPad laptops, and often has a better performance than Windows on these older devices.
My cost-saving self fell into a bit of a rabbit hole investigating and learning about ThinkPads, but eventually I settled on a second-hand model called the ThinkPad X220 for my middle child, who was beginning to need a computer for school work. It had a decent processor and one of the faster SSD drives, all at about a tenth of the cost of a new MacBook.
I installed Ubuntu on it (it's not that scary - see Documentation below) and discovered that comes with a preinstalled office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software) called LibreOffice. Incredibly, and unlike Microsoft's Office products, LibreOffice is free, and can easily manage importing Excel, Word and PowerPoint documents and exporting to these same formats and to PDF. This flexibility with file types is especially important for school work. I discuss LibreOffice in more detail here.
The laptop booted up surprisingly fast, and the software experience was excellent; you wouldn't know you're working on a ten-year-old laptop, other than by the dated exterior, and the keyboard feels nicer than those of modern laptops. I began to wonder why this solution wasn't more commonly discussed, especially among parents.
The first hurdle to overcome is the fear of breaking (or 'bricking') a device that you've paid for. Deleting Windows feels strange the first time you do it; what happens if I mess up and can't get it back? This is why I recommend just starting with Ubuntu. It is pretty much fail-proof and very easy to install. Installation takes about 30 minutes.
Anything that's new takes time to learn. This is why a store-bought laptop with familiar, proprietary software is such an attractive option. Recently, I have seen that some companies are selling laptops with Linux preinstalled.
It helps if one adult in the family has time and an interest to tinker. I learned that Linux does not work equally well on all laptop brands, nor are all Linux distros equally user-friendly, leading to confounding hunts for some specific driver online. If you are used to devices that just work out of the box, it's quite odd to see what computer screens can throw up when the software doesn't like the hardware, or vice versa.
There was some resistance and mockery from my family. ThinkPads look and feel clunky (something I have grown to kind of love over the years) and there can be frustrations: the software is new and unfamiliar. I do still find it surprising that people in general have almost infinite patience with (sometimes terrible) mainstream software products, but are immediately skeptical about anything "off grid".
While great for regular use, including web surfing and Netflix viewing, and while many video games, including Minecraft, run reasonably well on these older devices, they cannot really handle some of the more recently published games. For children with a serious interest in gaming, you may have to look for other solutions. More about this in a future post.
Current use and looking ahead
Eventually, my kids just got used to Ubuntu and LibreOffice and now it's normal for them to use it. Sometimes I suspect Linux might have a kind of alternative cool appeal to them, but I could be imagining this. The fact one version of Minecraft works very smoothly on Linux helped a lot. We have saved a significant amount of money over time.
This experience has enabled my children to experience what it feels like to use alternative systems. I hope the take-away for them is that you don't necessarily need to use an app or system just because everyone else is using it.
If you're feeling even a little bit brave, an older ThinkPad is manually upgradable. You can open them up very easily (just two screws in some cases) and swap out the battery, RAM, and hard drives. It's no more complicated than putting together an Ikea chair (although perhaps that is not the best analogy...). It is a shame this kind of cost-saving, environmentally-friendly approach to extending the lifespan of hardware isn't the norm, though some companies (like the FairPhone) are moving towards a more modular approach.
If you don't feel like installing software yourself, or don't have the time, many second-hand stores (on the street and online) sell refurbished laptops with a Linux distro like Ubuntu preinstalled. I think this is partly because these operating systems are free. If you don't mind spending a bit more, but like the Linux philosophy (and free software that comes with it), you should be able to find companies that sell new laptops with a Linux OS preinstalled. Finally, you can download and install LibreOffice on any device, Linux, Mac or Windows.
For learning more about the different models of older ThinkPads, I love and recommend the ThinkPad Buyer's Guide.
If you do want to get your hands dirty and install Linux, here's how.
- An 8GB USB thumb drive that can be wiped
- Your own Windows, Mac or Linux device
- The second-hand laptop or PC that can be wiped
- Download Ubuntu Desktop. Pick the highest number that ends with "LTS". The downloaded file name should end with the extension .iso
- Download and install BalenaEtcher. They have a download for Mac, Windows and Linux. (See note about 32 and 64 bit below).
- Put the USB stick into your own laptop or PC and start up BalenaEtcher.
- Choose the .iso file as the source (normally, this file will be in your Downloads folder), the USB drive as the target, and hit "Flash!". You may get some odd warnings about the drive not being recognised when it is done, but you can ignore those and remove the USB drive.
- You now need to start up the secondhand laptop in Boot mode, with the USB stick inserted in the device. The Boot menu is a simple window that will allow you to side-step the normal booting up procedure and start up the device from the USB stick instead. You may have to do a little investigating here; boot mode is usually triggered by holding down a button while the device is turned on. On ThinkPads, this is usually the F12 or the F10 button, but on other brands, it may differ.
- In the Boot screen, select the USB drive. You can usually tell by the size - 8 or 16 GB.
- Now run through the Ubuntu installer, which should all be self-explanatory, but there are videos on line that show how this works if you are not sure. You can test run Ubuntu first, if you don't want to install it right away. You'll need your home WiFi password.
That should do it! Ubuntu works like any other Desktop Operating System and is fairly intuitive. There is plenty of help online, as Ubuntu is now one of the mainstream Linux distros.
Note about 32-bit computers - some devices that are very old run on 32 bits. I don't recommending buying a 32-bit device, but if you happen to have one gathering dust somewhere, you can install 32-bit versions of Linux on them; just make sure you download the correct version. While the Linux community is all about giving old hardware new life, I have found that many distros are stopping support for 32-bit technology, because that is now very old hardware.
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