Linux on Old Devices
I believe that people who do not have an information technology background can get to know their devices better by taking small steps. One approach is to browse second-hand stores and markets for older laptops, notebooks and desktop computers. You can pick up old hardware for next to nothing, and for me, the low financial risk helped remove some of fears and barriers to installing software myself.
I already had some experience with a mainstream Linux operating system, Ubuntu, in an effort to bring down the cost of laptops for my children. This was a fairly safe first step to take, since Ubuntu is widely used, and therefore works well with most older hardware. There is a lot of help available online.
Linux is an operating system, which is software that functions as a user-friendly, graphical interface between the user and the more complex elements of a computer. MacOS and Windows are operating systems as well. The key difference is the MacOS and Windows are proprietary, closed operating systems, whereas Linux is mostly open and free. The Linux community is a complex web of paid developers and volunteers who work in teams on their own branch of the core Linux software, each of which have their own look and feel and pre-installed software packages. These subdivisions of the main Linux operating systems are called distros. It's a miracle to me how all this development and upkeep is coordinated.
Most of these distros are installed in the same way: you download an image (a .iso file), burn that onto an 8GB USB stick, and insert that into whatever computer or laptop you want to install the distro onto. When starting up the computer, select the USB stick to boot from instead of the internal drive. Linux installations are quick, and often result in a much more responsive experience.
The combination of having freely available Linux distros and picking up old laptops or computers for very little money allows a beginner to start messing around with hardware and operating systems without any major risk. For me, this is how I built more confidence with Linux, with the command line, and with later feeling brave enough to wipe proprietary software from laptops that did cost a bit more.
I highly recommend the 'baby steps' approach for people who think they don't have technical skills and see computers as closed systems that need to be sent to experts when things go wrong.
For the remainder of this post, I will briefly summarise some of those experiences I went through, but they will of course be different for you, depending on whatever old junk you have lying around at home or find in the second hand stores.
An old MacBook
We had an old Macbook at home, one of the white ones. No one was using it, because it was too slow. I tried Linux distros, did some research, but got nowhere. As it turns out, MacBooks are not great companions to Linux, in general. Lesson learned. I eventually discovered one distro that ran on the old Mac, called Solus Mint, but I continued to run into problems.
The significance of the MacBook experience was that it helped me take an important first step: overcoming the fear of deleting proprietary software from store-bought devices. I don't think I would have dared to flash a custom ROM on my Android device much later if I hadn't first gone through this low risk experience; the MacBook was a lost cause to begin with, so I could do little harm.
A second important lesson was that most Linux distros are not customised to one specific hardware device, so you are going to run into driver problems. With the white MacBook, I found that it would start up, but only with half a screen, or with no working Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
A Hercules netbook (second hand market)
This tiny notebook appealed to me, when I saw it sitting among lamps and other junk at an outdoor market. I bartered the price down and took it home very cheap. This, as it turned out, was not such an easy project either. I spent many nights reading online, and looking for distros that would work on really old, slow computers. From this, I learned that some very old computers run on a 32 bit system (whereas most relatively old to modern computers run on 64 bits). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a strong recycling ethic in the Linux communities, which has resulted in developers maintaining 32 bit versions of their distros. I also learned that some distros are 'light', which means they don't have too many applications pre-installed and work well with older hardware.
For the netbook, there were several solutions, but I landed on a distro called Antix, the desktop of which looked endearingly ancient. The main thing is, it worked! I could write text files and go online. I was also beginning to understand that there are many different versions of any particular software tool (browser, text editor, photo application) and that it is perfectly OK to step away from the mainstream and try something different.
I have bought so many ThinkPads over the years. Linux developers seem to generally write their operating systems so they work well with ThinkPads. There is a bit of a subculture around refurbishing old ThinkPads, evidenced by the many tutorials and websites dedicated to these laptops - their keyboards in particular! - but I'd say it's harmless, not too tribalist. Older ThinkPads are beloved for their modularity. In the early 2000s, Lenovo as a company seemed keen to encourage customers to open up their products replace older memory and even CPUs with more modern ones. This is clear from their instruction manuals, and by how easy it is to open up these laptops. There is a real thrill that comes from experiencing the noticeable improvement in speed you get when you've manually swapped in better ROM sticks, and from the snappy responsiveness that a Linux installation will produce on these older devices, which worked sluggishly on Windows previously. Breathing new life into old hardware feels a bit magical, especially if you never considered yourself a tech-savvy individual.
I discovered that Ubuntu is a version of an umbrella category of Linux distros called Debian, and that there were a few other categories like that. I bought a ThinkPad x200s and installed Manjaro Xfce, and Arch Linux distro. The Xfce desktop looks and feels very different to the Debian desktops I was used to, and Arch Linux uses a different 'package manager', which is basically the updating software. I had built enough confidence experimenting with Linux at that point not to be deterred, and had fun discovering Arch.
As I've already mentioned, you see computers do weird things when you start wiping their operating systems and installing various Linux distros. All of this takes a bit of patience and perspective. I have at times been frustrated, or worked late into the night without good outcomes.
You may begin to see computers in a new light, where what's inside them matters more than how sexy the exterior looks. I love my ThinkPad T440p for what it is able to do for the price, and for what I know is inside, and for the fact that it's neat I was able to get one with a full HD screen, but not many people share that view. My partner thinks it is a clunky, dated-looking thing. So it can be hard to persuade people of the legitimacy of your passion.
Once you go down this path, you have to keep an eye on 'gear-lust'. Some people buy old racing bikes, more than they could ever ride. Some stringed instruments. I always have several laptops going, but there have been times when I felt I had too much junk in the house. What works for me is to repair and improve old beaten up laptops the best I can, and then give them to a charity shop. I've kept a couple of old favourites.
Current use and looking ahead
Discovering the ease of wiping a hard drive and give an old device a new life with a Linux distro was the beginning of a long, fun journey that continues today. There were a bunch more steps leading to my current setup. It's all quite 'Zen' in that your current best system is just one more step in the journey to learning more about how computers work, and controlling how you set them up.
I love that Linux has allowed me to break away from from the false idea that the choice between Mac or Windows was the only one I had. It has given me a sense that it is possible to have agency and control over your tech, even if you are not a programmer.
OctoPerf's Thinkpad T440p Ultimate Buyer's Guide
Published after this: "8 steps to refurbish an old computer with Linux" on opensource.com.
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