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Tech Review: Reviving an old PC with Linux Ubuntu

By Ron Scopelliti

I was recently given a rather nice old laptop PC. The problem is that its Windows 7 operating system was seriously corrupted, and I didn’t want to reinstall the aging version of Windows, or incur the cost of upgrading the hardware to handle Windows 10. Instead, I went for an option that wouldn’t cost me anything at all – Linux.

Linux is a free, open-source operating system for PCs, Macs, and other computers that was first developed in 1991. Since then, a number of developers have taken the basic system, and created their own variations. Popular versions include Ubuntu, Debian, Mint, and Fedora. After reading about the pros and cons of different versions, I chose Ubuntu, due to its ease of installation, and the user-friendly website that walks you through the details of downloading and installing the operating system.

Linux Ubuntu offered a number of advantages over my Windows options. In addition to being free, the system requirements are low, so it runs well on older computers. And for a number of technical reasons, as well as the fact that Linux is so much less popular than Windows or iOS, viruses are extremely rare. Once the system is installed, you end up with a graphic user interface that lets you point and click, and drag and drop, just like you would in Windows, Android, or iOS.

The installation process is pretty straightforward, but not something to undertake lightly. In my case, I had no data to lose, but if I was doing this with any of my other computers, I would have made a comprehensive backup of everything on the computer I wanted to save, and anything I might need to reinstall my existing operating system.

The process starts by downloading the Ubuntu installation software and storing it on a medium your computer can be booted from – typically a USB flash drive or a CD. While the installation program offers the “dual boot” option to keep your existing operating system, making your computer capable of running from either Ubuntu or Windows, I chose to go all-in, letting it erase Windows and completely replace it with Ubuntu. Even moving as I did with excessive caution, installation took less than two hours from the time I started downloading software to the time the system was up and running. This was, however, preceded by quite a bit of research, to be sure I was making the right decision.

The standard installation includes the Libre Office productivity suite which has word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, the Mozilla Firefox web browser, the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client, and a variety of utility applications and solitaire games.

It also comes with a built-in firewall to prevent unauthorized users from remotely accessing your computer. Despite Linux’s reputation for virus resistance, I decided to take the extra precaution of downloading and installing an antivirus program called ClamAV, which I’ve been running manually through a single terminal command every few days. I also added the GIMP image processing program, and Scribus page layout software. And so far, none of my software has cost me anything.

So far I’ve used the computer for word-processing, web-browsing, light photo-editing, watching Netflix, listening to music, and remotely operating a Raspberry Pi. As of yet, I haven’t run into a glitch and the computer has run been running quicker and more smoothly than my Windows 7 laptop, which has a faster processor. Moreover, I haven’t had to deal with annoying pop-up ads from Norton, asking me to sign on for additional services.

Using Ubuntu’s graphic user interface after using Windows or iOS is like going to a another state and finding that things are very much the same as home, except there’s a Hardees instead of a Burger King, and a Hannaford’s instead of a Stop & Shop.

Switching over to a Linux system like Ubuntu does have its downsides. Linux systems don’t support as wide a range of software as Windows. And they don’t have the “plug-and-play” ease of a Windows or Mac operating system. Installing a printer required a few extra steps, as did installing a Flash plug-in for the web browser. Each instance saw me making a few trips to FAQs and forums, followed by a few line commands in Ubuntu’s terminal window. I’m currently in the midst of a similar process to install “Shadowrun Hong Kong,” one of the few games I own that have a Linux option.

If you’re looking for an operating system with a “wizard” to lead you through every process, and if you’re not willing to occasionally open up a terminal window and type in esoteric commands, then a Linux system probably isn’t for you. But, if you’re a little bit adventurous when it comes to computers, and you want an operating system that lets you take more control, and explore territory that other operating systems go out of their way to wall off, Linux Ubuntu may be just the thing for you.

Before deciding whether Ubuntu suits your needs, I suggest visiting the Ubuntu forums at Ubuntu.com, and the help site AskUbunbtu.com. And look into some other versions of Linux, to see if there’s one that better suits your needs. Also, do some web searches to make sure the software you need is available for your new operating system. I found that even when specific software that I use isn’t available, there are usually suitable substitutes.