Breathing Life Into Older Laptops. Part 1.
This article started, as the title suggests, as an expose of the way to use Linux to get an older laptop functioning in a more modern world. The experience that I accumulated with my own situation became the basis for what I write. Over twenty years of Linux experience made me go a certain way, a need to keep costs reasonable confirmed it. To keep it simple to read and understand I have uses an equally simple approach to entice both technical and non technical readers.
Death of a Network.
In the last 12 years I have gradually become totally portable. Well, not me, my computing environment. As a result I am immersed in the laptop culture. I am now an advocate of having all my computing eggs in one rich “laptop” basket.
Laptops have several distinct advantages. Your monitor, keyboard, CPU and – lets face it – your computing life are in one nicely portable and compact package. Laptops take up less desk space. With wireless features they avoid messy wiring problems (except for the inevitable wall plug). Fitting into a convenient and decorative luggage style bag, they can be moved and set up almost anywhere, speedily and without too much fuss. Tablets have some of the features of a laptop, portability needs make them less powerful. I now have a couple and they also communicate (Android seems to love Samba).
I still have my old mid 1980s Toshiba 3100, it still fires up and runs but with some screen damage, it is definitely old technology. The orange screen was a problem for me but it lasted for almost 8 years in active use. Crossed the Atlantic about 10 times, replacing a “luggable” at about one eighth of the weight.
I used to own a house. In that house I built a network with internet connections and a firewall to protect against cyber unpleasantness. Came time to contemplate a move and (gasp) downsize, my ego, my hobbies and what remained of my business, were encapsulated in a motly collection of hardware. I had two desk tops for playing with Windows and Linux, some debelopment work, one smaller desktop as a data storage system (less than 500Gb of storage on any of them. For convenience I also maintained a laptop (yep, only one). This equipment was set up as a home network, down sizing meant a severe process of elimination, the only part that stayed was the laptop. Oh, I also had a smaller older desktop which was set up as a Linux based firewall. That was the situation half way through the first decade of the new millenium. Working with several clients over the preceding 25 years raised a new scenario as the end of that decade came. The new millenium saw a number of changes in both equipment and work.
In 2010 my hand was forced, my network faced the chopper! Retirement crunch time loomed. I had to move in early 2011 now retired. I found a way to move my network. Laptops were the game I chose, Linux was the team I made my own. However, the actual business of downsizing was not an instant solution, the process evolved over several years of experiment and trial. My history with Linux helped and broad computer experience aided an abetted the process. None of these were strictly essential but did smooth the way. To duplicate this process for yourself: well all that experience helps but success is possible even for a rank amateur as improvements in Linux have made a change so much easier.
Life After Death?
As a precursor and fortuitous action I bought (relatively inexpensively) another laptop. It was a refurbished 17” HP Pavilion, a huge beast. The “beast” had Windows Vista loaded, not one of Microsofts best offerings. I lived with it for about three months, realized that getting it usable was going to be costly, risky and frustrating. At that point I made up my mind to rely on Linux for day to day use.
Is the same period – 2007-9 – I acquired or was given three older laptops. These units had older versions of Windows which were no longer viable. The Linux daylight dawned. I started to experiment with Linux as a laptop operating system, including my recently purchased “beast” I soon had al these machines loaded and communicating via ethernet. A few bucks and some agony later the cables of ethernet were replaced with wireless. What made this easy was the discovery that Linux worked very well over a wireless network. I already had done that with one laptop but needed to make it happen for several! It was not the easiest thing to do at that time. At this date in 2017 it has become very easy to set up Linux for wireless, also it has been the easiest networking approach I have found. Samba is the software which makes a hybrid Windows/Linux network function well. In 2006-7-8 it has had minor setup difficulties which disappeared by 2010. If attempting this hybrid networking feat always load Samba to avoid frustration. Instruction on its use is beyond the intended scope of this rather simplistic discussion.
What did all this cost? Relatively speaking, a pittance. Linux was downloaded over the Internet for free. Being already a Slackware user I actually had the CD/DVD media on hand but went for a newer version. The downloads were free. I purchsed wireless adapters for two of the older laptops, the “beast” and one of the others already had built in adapters (all 802.11B, 2.4Ghz). I already had a wireless router, an Internet connection and one wireless connected Windows laptop. Connecting the lot went well and the extended laptop network came together. The beast now had Linux. Slackware 11. Four Linux laptops, one Linux desktop, worked well together. Using Samba, one Windows laptop and the Windows desktop were soon talking accross the network, happily exchanging files, all connected to the Internet through the common router.
Thus was the seed from which I then cultivated my new moveable feast the new transportable network was born.
Warnings Of Doom.
Linux was the savior in all this exercise and the basis of my portability to come. Initially, although this started as a need to dispose of Windows Vista, I soon generated personal enthusiasm. I exhanged the hard drive (320Gb) in the beast for a larger drive (750Gb) and loaded Slackware. The system set up easily with the network connecting almost immediately. The only variation was to load Libre Office in place of Open Office. I use Kmail as part of Kontact, a truly excellent PIM package included in the Slackware distribution.
Before I got that far I read a lot (mostly nonsense) about how badly laptops respond to Linux. The nay sayers cited examples of missing drivers, incompatible hardware and lack of software. Some brands apparently do have problems, I have not encountered any myself that have not had a relatively simple answer.
All the older laptops and the beast were HP or Compaq productes. All four – no exceptions – loaded the OS and ran wihout problem. I will concede that some brands pose a bigger challenge, I have found a couple. But, generally., laptops I have loaded have run immediately and required very little or no tweaking. There were a couple of nervous days early in the game. Minor problems I have run into related to manufacturers who bought into Windows supremacy propaganda, placing Windows related “features” on their systems. I have generally ignored these “features” with impunity, occasionally bemoaning wasted keys and opportunites.
The horrible doom and failures I read about did not materialise. What eventually condemned the older laptops in the end was they wore out. It became impossible to fix problems and new technology replaced how they operated. Linux has kept pace with that technology and now handles most situations with built in drivers and inclusions in the “kernel”. So new hardware parts were a problem. Linux was not.
The Great Operating System Scam.
So by the time my 2010 crunch hit me I had learned a lot, but my test beds were not the real answer, too slow or had need of unavailable or over priced parts.
I ended up doing what I wanted, changing over my network to laptops but had to acquire new hardware. In 2011 I acquired a new HP Pavilion 17”., an Acer 15.6”, and a netbook. The netbook was a mistake I will tell about that another time. My Windows laptop started to fade (screen failure) and I looked at completely abandoning Windows. The “beast” soldiered on and is still going, now almost nine years old, but display brightness is an issue as it fades..
Buying new hardware meant that I got pre loaded Windows whether I wanted it or not, so I had Windows 7 Home in triplicate! Considering that all were going to be Linux soon and there is no way of getting that cost back I lay back and accepted my fate. I did need to replace my dying Windows XP syatem so I intended to use one of the three new devices. When the smoke cleared two devices went to Linux. Other arrangements were more convenient than Windows but I keep it around to educate myself and for som devices which have overly complex Linux connection issues.
Most devices, especially printers do connect to recently released Linux distributions, that “tame” Windows system is becoming less necessary. Six years later I have got Linux working happily for all that I need. I have no desktops and I can reach all my printers except one, without buying extra software or getting special drivers. In 2009 I actually purchased a Linux printer handler to simplify multiple systems using them. By 2015 I no longer need that as Linux inclusions can access all the printers I have tried except my label printer. A Linux solution is available for that label printertoo, but I have not used it because the label editor software seems to be restricted to Windows.
I have found that complete flexibility needs an available Windows system. I do not usually work on my Windows devices as I am not entirely comfortable with Windows 10. This comes from the unfamiliar and rather awkward UI style. I know some people who really do like it. This problem is a very much a matter of taste.
So my intent of becoming entirely Linux has not been realised. I actually have two Windows 10 units.
One (Windows Pro) acts as a peripheral server for the label printer, a large (5 Tb) backuo storage device and a Canon printer which seems happier with Windows. The second is still Windows 10 Home used almost entirely as Google Earth tool. I got it to raise my understanding of Windows 10 and it has been very good for that.
Recently I have also acquired a Chromebook (also HP but not the latest model. I found one at a very good price and wanted to see what it could do. This is NOT part of my network as it is not a sophisticated communicator. It does some things quite well and I use it for a quick Utube or Facebook access when I am otherwise involved with other activities. I also use a diary app which I can bring up on any device through Chrome, it can be used with that too. The problem I found is related to the fact that I am aging. The Chromebooks are generally small and my eyesight is getting weaker. Therefore I am not likely to adopt that model as my main workstation. To be fair, newer version are now appearing with larger displays, so even an old fogey might look at the simplicity and be happy with a purchase. In fact, the ease of use and simplicity may well a good move for any of my peers who do not feel computer literate, but better manuals are needed to provide for that type of user.
I also have that netbook that came with Windows 7 Home. It was an early convert to 32 bit Slackware and I use is rather less that I originally expected. A mistake in purchasing which has taught me a lot but – surprisingly - cost very little! The problem with netbooks is the very small screen and poor resolution from my point of view. Also there was noCD/DVD drive so I purchased an inexpensive USB accesory, this proved far more useful than the netbook so that mistake actually did some good.
While photography is much more my current bent, I do love computers and my techie roots still need feeding. So my hobby is also hybrid – computers/cameras. Now that most photography is digital and computing oriented, the mix is an obvious move for me.
In part 2 of this rather wordy (now 3 part) article I will discuss in greater detail the Linux saga with my laptops, along with the surprisingly few problem.