Putting New Life in Your Old Laptop
Copyright (C) 2012 by
Steve Litt. All rights
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Don't upgrade to Ubuntu 11.10 before first deciding exactly what to do about Kmail! --
By Steve LittNovember 24, 2006, during the Black Friday sales,
my wife Sylvia bought her Compaq Presario v5000 laptop. As I
remember, it was somewhere around $300. A real steal back in the days when $700 was a good laptop price.
It worked well for the first year or so. But gradually, with our kids
using it, all sorts of Windows XP problems began slowing it to a crawl.
Finally, the laptop got into a Catch 22 in which the when you changed
the password, it said the password was changed, but the password didn't
change. Finally Sylvia couldn't log in at all.
I offered to install Linux on it, but my wife didn't want that. She
likes Windows (she liked it much better back then than now), this was a
rugged, good computer, with 375 MB ram, a 32 bit, 2000Mhz single core Sempron
3300+ processor, a 60GB PATA hard drive, and Windows XP. It had a
sticker that said "Designed for Windows XP, Windows Vista compatible".
The real problem was that there was nobody in the house who understood
how to troubleshoot Windows XP. The kids and I did our best to fix it,
but all of us were Linux users and knew little of Windows XP. We tried
and failed several times. By this time the computer was too old and
obsolete to spend money to take it to a repair shop -- it languished.
Some time in early 2012 my wife said "if you can throw Linux on my old
laptop, why don't you do that?" I'd been waiting a long time to hear
that. In April 2012 I had a few hours to spare, so I whipped out my
Ubuntu 11.10 disk (32 bit), and my System Rescue CD CD, and got to
work. First task -- back up the laptop's old data files. After finding which
directories contained videos and documents, I rsync'ed them all to
my desktop computer. But late in the rsync process read errors began
cropping up. A quick view with System Rescue CD's smartctl showed the
hard disk was hosed. Not surprising for a hard disk that hadn't spun up
in 4 years.
$40 at Newegg bought an 80GB replacement. I swapped the drive and
installed 32 bit Ubuntu 11.10. The computer was pig slow -- not
surprising for a computer with 1/5 the RAM of a modern $400 laptop.
When I tried to do the mass-update that must be done on any newly
installed Ubuntu, it took forever and then froze. Ugh!
The obvious question is, why did I install Ubuntu? Why not DSL, or
Puppy, or Slitaz, or even Slackware or a BSD? To say that Ubuntu isn't
optimized for an underpowered computer is an understatement. I had two
Or, why not an old version of Ubuntu designed for computers made in
2006? That question's pretty obvious -- security. Having an ancient OS
is tantamount to enlisting in the zombie bot army and spending most of
your cycles sending out spam or DOS attacking a website.
- My desktop computer is Ubuntu. My laptop is Ubuntu. One of
the kids' desktops is Ubuntu, and as soon as I upgrade the other two
kids' computers they will be Ubuntu. Life's too short to maintain five
different distros. I'm getting pretty good at Ubuntu, and that's a big
- My experiences with lightweight Linuces is that they make
lousy desktops. With off-the-beaten-track browsers (Dillo -- really?),
and other never-heard-of-it apps, it seems to me like just when you
want to get productive with your lightweight computer, it blocks your
path. Most lightweight distros have limited package systems, so it's hard to get special apps running.
So I decided that if this laptop couldn't perform well with Ubuntu 11.10, it
would be converted to an OpenBSD/pf firewall appliance, saving a
fortune in electricity over the desktop now performing that job.
Luckily, once a few obstacles were overcome, it performed quite well with Ubuntu 11.10.
So, sitting there with a pig slow, half updated computer, my thoughts
went back to 2002, when an underpowered 20th century computer
choked on Mandrake. It was slow, glitchy, and couldn't run more than 20
minutes without a reboot. As a last ditch Hail Mary, I had switched my
desktop from KDE to the much lighter IceWM, and bang, it worked like a
normal computer. So on my wife's Compaq, I installed and switched to
LXDE, a lightweight, intuitive, handy window manager.
What a difference a window manager makes. After repairing the damage of
the aborted update, I updated all the important security updates in a
half hour or so, then the other updates in even less time. No hangs, no
problems. Her computer could now do any one task as well as you'd expect
any computer to do, and it could have several programs running and
waiting for input. It was a practical laptop.
My last major job was getting her Broadcom BCM4318 AirForce One 54g to
work. You know how badly Broadcom neglects Linux. A little Internet
research suggested installing Ubuntu package firmware-b43-installer, I
did so, and wifi worked.
Getting Wifi, especially Broadcom Wifi, to work usually isn't that easy. This document has an article outlining tips to get Wifi working.
My wife now has a very usable laptop computer. Her 2006 Compaq Presario
v5000 has risen from the ashes, thanks to Linux. If you're looking for
ways to use Linux for practical benefit, kick back and enjoy this issue
By Steve LittHere's a summary of the process of Ubuntuizing an old laptop:
- Exploration and backup
- The firewall alternative
- Installing Ubuntu
- Do these things before logging in
- Install LXDE
- Install touchpad-indicator
- Install ssh
- Install vim and vim-gtk
- Install Broadcom drivers if necessary
- Log in for the first time
- Switch to LXDE
- Discussion of lightweight desktops
- Install touchpad-indicator on the desktop
- Disabled while external mouse
- Be careful, this is persistent
- Log out and log in
- Update software with Update Manager
- Get Wifi working
Exploration and Backup
By Steve LittBefore overwriting a machine's disk, you must
explore it and capture its valuable data. To do that, boot it with a
live CD. I use both a modern Ubuntu CD and a modern System Rescue CD
CD. Read-only mount all the partitions you find, find out where
valuable data is stored (as opposed to Windows programs and
configuration), and back up the valuable data.
There are several ways to back up the data. You can back it up to an
external hard disk, or a USB thumb drive, or via Ethernet you can back
it up to a separate computer. For the latter I use the rsync program, usually with the -vaH arguments. Study rsync's man page to figure out the exact command.
If the old computer's hard disk is too fried to back up, you might have success with the ddrescue
program that comes with System Rescue CD. This would be considered a
last-ditch Hail Mary attempt to rescue very valuable data. Don't use it
to rescue your five year old homework assignments. System Rescue CD
has other programs that may be able to recover data from fried hard
drives or filesystems, but that's not the topic of this document, so if
in need, explore System Rescue CD further.
If, for diagnostic purposes, you want to find out if the machine has viruses, you can use Clam-AV from System Rescue CD.
One of the toughest tasks in Linuxizing a laptop is getting wifi to
work, especially with Broadcom wifi chipsets. Therefore, during this
investigative period, find out the type of wifi on the laptop. Perform
the following command as root:
sudo lshw | less
Now you have all the hardware in the less pager. In order to search case insensitively in less,
press the dash and then uppercase I (-I). Now use slash to find things,
just like in Vim. Search the string "wir", and look around. You should
find the make and model of your wifi chipset. Write it down for later.
Once you've rescued what data you can, your last task is to test the
computer's hard disk and RAM. System Rescue CD has a program called smartctl to check the disks for problems, and one called memtester (memtester-64bit for 64 bit machines) to check memory. When using memtester
, keep in mind that you have to tell it how much memory to test. If you
tell it way too much, it fails to allocate -- no problem. If you tell
it too little, it simply tests less memory than you have -- no problem.
But if you tell it an amount that's near the max, it allocates it, and
then the System Rescue CD Linux operating system is memory starved and
slows to a crawl. So you might want to instead use the memtest86
that's a boot selection on Ubuntu CDs.
By Steve Litt
Test the battery. My research tells me that laptop batteries are over
$100, at least locally here in Orlando. It looks like they're just
under $100 online, except for the cheapo bargain ones. Except used as a firewall, a laptop without a
battery is pretty much useless. With modern laptops costing $400, you
might not want to spend $100 on a new battery.
battery doesn't necessarily need to be good-as-new. It doesn't need to
run the laptop for two or three hours. If the battery is capable of
covering the time it takes to unplug the laptop, walk from one meeting
to another or one class to another, and then plug the laptop back in,
that's probably good enough.
Another must for a laptop is wifi. If you can't get your wifi to work
with Linux, it's useless as a portable machine. Wired network access is getting rarer and rarer. One workaround is to
use a travel router that can convert Wifi radio waves into
wired ethernet to plug into your laptop. BE SURE the travel router
supports WPA and WEP security in that mode. Travel routers cost
$50-$150, but in my opinion everyone should have one.
Another wifi workaround is to use a known-Linux-friendly USB wireless
NIC. These are hard to find, and typically cost between $30 and $60.
They're good to have around though, because you never know when you'll
get a laptop with a Linux-ornary wifi chipset.
Finally, use System Rescue CD's smartctl to test the hard disk. If you need a new hard disk, that's between $40 and $120.
Once you have the facts, decide whether to spend the money to make it a
full-featured laptop, convert it to a firewall, or just throw it in the
The Firewall Alternative
Let's say your exploration shows that the laptop has only 64MB of RAM.
It's going to be hard to run any modern full-featured Windows or
GUI-equipped Linux on such a machine. You could probably install one of
the stripped-down Linuces such as DSL or Slitaz, but often those give
you less than desireable apps.
Or, you could make the laptop into a OpenBSD/pf firewall. Because
firewalls run 24/7, and because laptops burn a lot less electricity
than desktops, replacing an existing desktop based OpenBSD/pf firewall
with a laptop could save you a lot of money, especially in the summer
when you need to crank the air conditioning to get rid of the heat from
the firewall. Laptop firewalls have the further benefits of tiny
physical footprint and an always available dedicated monitor.
To learn how to install an OpenBSD/pf firewall, go to http://www.troubleshooters.com/linux/pf/.
By Steve LittFrom your exploration, you know whether the
laptop is 32 or 64 bit. Download and burn the most up to date stable
Ubuntu ISO for the architecture. Be sure to check the "Install third
party software?" checkbox so that, after installation, you can listen to Youtube and interact
with proprietary formats. For times sake, also check the box asking
whether to install updates while installing the software.
Most of Ubuntu is on the web, not on your CD. You're going to need the
fastest Internet connection you can get. I'd suggest using wired rather than
wireless. Not only is wired generally faster, but more importantly,
it's much more likely to work during installation.
During your installation, I'd suggest having other family members
refrain from watching videos or listening to web music. Every kilobit
of bandwidth they use is a kilobit you can't use, and it slows you
down. If you have dialup, and a lot of rural people have no economical
choice but dialup, Ubuntu isn't the distro for you. Choose one of the
multi-dvd distros instead.
Given that you're going to completely blow off the laptop's Windows
system, and you've (presumably) backed up its data, and given that the
laptop's hard disk is probably small, my recommendation would be to
take the Ubuntu installer's default, which is "use whole hard drive."
When asked for a login name and password, be sure to remember what you put, so you can log in later.
When the install process is complete, it will want you to reboot, and
after rebooting, you'll be brought to a login screen. DO NOTHING until
you've read the next article...
Do These Things Before Logging In
By Steve LittModern Ubuntu versions come stock with only two
desktop managers: Unity and Unity 2d. Both are bloated, neither is
appropriate for an old laptop. Most old laptops are underpowered by
today's standards. NEVER run an underpowered laptop with either
Unity version -- you could get yourself stuck in a bad state.
After installation, when your laptop asks you to log in, instead press
Ctrl+Alt+F2 to reach a text terminal. Then log in, and become root with the following command:
sudo su -
The sudo command will ask you for the password for your username -- type it in. Now do the following commands:
apt-get install lxde
The preceding gives you the all-important LXDE lightweight desktop,
enables ssh both directions, and gives you Vim both CLI and GUI. DO NOT
install vim-gnome -- you want to stay as far away from Gnome as possible on an old machine. And for gosh sakes, install NOTHING
KDE. KDE is all-bloat-all-the-time and, at least for me, an almost
guaranteed two crashes per day. For me, KDE is everything I left Windows to
get away from.
apt-get install ssh
apt-get install vim
apt-get install vim-gtk
Most laptops have truly obnoxious touchpads, and with Linux it's often
hard to find a way to shut them off. I recommend Ubuntu's Touchpad-Indicator.
Here's how you install it:
If you really hate the new Ubuntu Software Center and prefer the old Synaptic package manager, you can install it now like this:
apt-get install touchpad-indicator
apt-get install synaptic
When the rest of this document refers to "your package manager", it
means either Ubuntu Software Center, or Synaptic, depending on which
One last thing. Humor me. Reboot your computer. Yes, yes, I know, I
know, rebooting is just for non-hotswap hardware replacement or
knownothing knewbies. But I'm an elder in the Church of the Known
State, and to me it's a whole lot easier to reboot and know where you
stand rather than to encounter a problem and wonder if it was caused by
a config that wasn't reset by a mere logout.
Now you have everything you need to proceed...
Log In For the First Time
By Steve LittAfter your reboot you're at Ubuntu's login
screen. If during installation you enabled only one username, that
username will be defaulted now. Otherwise you'll need to pick a
username, so pick one. Once your username is either defaulted or
picked, a field will open up for you to type a password. DON'T TYPE IT
Before typing the password, notice a tiny, circular gear like thing in
the upper right corner of the password input field. Click the gear and a
list of possible window managers appears. Click LXDE, or another
lightweight one like Xfce, rxvt or fvwm2. Now your username defaults to that
window manager, and Unity will no longer slow your computing to a
crawl. You can now type in your password, and you will be brought to
the desired window manager. From now on, every time you log in as that
user, you'll be brought to the same window manager, which you can
subsequently change by once again clicking on the gear.
Update Software with Update Manager
By Steve LittMass-updating a just-installed distro is a long,
drudgerous process, especially on an anemic computer. Try to have a
speedy Internet connection. If possible, use a wired rather than
wireless network connection. Make absolutely
sure you're using a lightweight window manager such as LXDE. If you do
this step with Unity on a memory-starved machine, it will take forever
as it continually swaps between RAM and your swap drive.
Do the updates in steps. First, do only the important security updates.
You can quickly check only these by unchecking the catagory headings
for the other types of updates. Once only the important security update
category is checked, run the update. It might take an hour or two unattended. Go off and do some other work. Once
it finishes, run the next category. Then the next.
Once all the security updates have been completed, you can rejoice in
the knowledge that the riskiest and most time consuming part of
installation is behind you.
Choose a Window Manager
Personally, I like LXDE. Straightforward, no-nonsense, hierarchical
menu user interface. Plus the fact that it has a CPU graph in the
taskbar, and you can put a battery gauge in the taskbar. And its run
function on the first menu hierarchy acts a lot like Unity's "Dash
Home" search facility.
But you might prefer other light window managers, such as Xfce,
fvwm2, and the like. Feel free to install and try them. Just don't use
Unity, Gnome, or for gosh sakes KDE on an old, underpowered computer.
Get Wifi to Work
By Steve LittA laptop without Wifi isn't too useful in today's
world. Wired Internet connections are becoming rarer and rarer. If you
have a Linux friendly Wifi, like the Atheros Wifi on my Asus laptop,
the computer might fire up with wifi enabled.
Before going any further, make
sure the hardware switch for your Wifi is turned on. You might not be
familiar with this laptop, and if the Wifi is turned off in hardware or
Bios, you could spend hours or days uselessly trying to find just the
combination of drivers to enable Wifi. Check the bios, and check the
case for a switch. Use a flashlight to read the small print and/or
symbols indicating Wifi enablement.
If Wifi isn't working, Google is your friend. Look up your Wifi make
and model, and Ubuntu 11.10 (or whatever version you're using). One
thing you should try is Ubuntu's "Additional Drivers" program. If
there's one for your Wifi and it isn't already enabled, try it.
If you have a Broadcom 43xx and the "Additional Drivers" driver didn't work, try this:
- Be sure the Wifi is switched on in hardware. If not, start over.
- Disable the "Additional Drivers" driver
- sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-installer
- sudo apt-get remove bcmwl-kernel-source
- sudo reboot
Encrypted WifiIt's reckless today to use Wifi that isn't
encrypted. And the encryption must be better than WEP. If your wifi is
encrypted, you need
to put its password in the password section of the security tab. So it
looks something like this:
The preceding directions should enable you to log into an encrypted
Wifi if your notebook's wifi is configured correctly, and if the
house's or business's wifi is configured correctly. You can judge the
house or business wifi by whether other devices can log into it. If you
have a Wifi equiped Kindle, it makes an exceptionally simple test for
your local wifi.
- Right click the network icon and choose "edit connections", or run the nm-connection-editor program as root (or sudo). A GUI program comes up.
- Click the Wireless tab. You see a list (possibly empty) of wireless connections.
- Either edit one or click the Add button. You're presented with a form in which to place the connection's info.
- Click the Wireless tab on the connection editing window
- Input your house's or business's SSID name in the SSID field.
- Use mode Infrastructure unless you have a reason to do otherwise.
- Leave the rest of this tab alone.
- Click the IPV4 tab.
- Choose Automatic (DHCP) for the method unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise.
- Click the Wireless Security tab
- Select the security you have. If you're using WPA security (a
very good idea -- WEP is insecure junk), then unless you're also using
a Radius server, choose WPA and WPA Personal. If you're using a Radius
server, choose WPA and WPA2 Enterprise. The configuration of the
Enterprise WPA is beyond the scope of this document and the rest of
this document assumes WPA and WPA Personal.
- Input the password for your house's or business's Wifi transmitter.
- Click Save
There are some diagnostic tools that might be helpful. Remember, you
can't do anything until there's a wireless NIC detectable by iwconfig.
iwconfig is a text program that, in its simplest form, tests for Wifi adapters. Here's an example:
The name could be wlan0, or rausb0, or ath0, or any number of other things. But if you see nothing but lo and eth0, your driver isn't doing its job revealing the wireless NIC.
lo no wireless extensions.
eth0 no wireless extensions.
wlan0 IEEE 802.11bg ESSID:"mybiz"
Mode:Managed Frequency:2.412 GHz Access Point: 00:18:39:EA:48:CF
Bit Rate=54 Mb/s Tx-Power=20 dBm
Retry long limit:7 RTS thr:off Fragment thr:off
Link Quality=52/70 Signal level=-58 dBm
Rx invalid nwid:0 Rx invalid crypt:0 Rx invalid frag:0
Tx excessive retries:0 Invalid misc:10 Missed beacon:0
You run this command like this:
The main value of this command is to see what wireless networks are
broadcasting in your vacinity. Under certain conditions it can do this
even when your wifi is so misfigured that it doesn't show up in iwlist. I suggest you don't try to actually change or edit anything with it -- it slows down to a crawl. With wifi-radar, my motto is "look but don't touch".
Typically Ubuntu has packages and methods to get a notebook's Wifi to
become functional if the notebook is more than two years old. For the
few cases where Ubuntu doesn't have the stuff to get the notebook's
Wifi working, use ndiswrapper. You can see a description of how to set up ndiswrapper at http://www.troubleshooters.com/lpm/200612/200612.htm#_Overview_of_an_ndiswrapper_Wireless_NIC.
Now's the time to get your wifi to work. Based on the wifi's chipset
and model as discovered earlier, see if there's a Ubuntu package for
that chipset, and if so, install it. Try finding directions to enable
your wifi on the Internet, and if you can't do it that way, you might
need to use ndiswrapper.
Tips for Operating an Underpowered Machine
By Steve LittFirst, use a lightweight window manager. Next,
don't have too many programs running at once. If you really need lots
of programs open, you need to buy a new computer. When you start
multiple programs, make sure one completely loads before starting the
other, or you might be confused whether one or both ran, or whether
your computer hung. If you use LXDE, look at the CPU graphic on the
taskbar to find out when the CPU is maxed out, and do nothing while it
source and free software
By Steve Litt
Linux is a kernel. The operating system often described as "Linux" is
kernel combined with software from many different sources. One of the
prominent, and oldest of those sources, is the GNU project.
"GNU/Linux" is probably the most accurate moniker one can
give to this
operating system. Please be aware that in all of
when I say "Linux" I really mean "GNU/Linux". I completely believe that
the GNU project, without the GNU Manifesto and the GNU/GPL license it
the operating system the press calls "Linux" never would have happened.
I'm part of the press and there are times when it's easier to
than explain to certain audiences that "GNU/Linux" is the same as what
press calls "Linux". So I abbreviate. Additionally, I abbreviate in the
way one might abbreviate the name of a multi-partner law firm. But make
mistake about it. In any article in Troubleshooting Professional
in the whole of Troubleshooters.Com, and even in the technical books I
when I say "Linux", I mean "GNU/Linux".
There are those who think FSF is making too big a deal of this. Nothing
could be farther from the truth. The GNU General Public License,
with Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto and the resulting GNU-GPL
are the only reason we can enjoy this wonderful alternative to
operating systems, and the only reason proprietary operating systems
even more flaky than they are now.
For practical purposes, the license requirements of "free software" and
source" are almost identical. Generally speaking, a license that
with one complies with the other. The difference between these two is a
in philosophy. The "free software" crowd believes the most important
is freedom. The "open source" crowd believes the most important aspect
the practical marketplace advantage that freedom produces.
I think they're both right. I wouldn't use the software without the
guaranteeing me the right to improve the software, and the guarantee
my improvements will not later be withheld from me. Freedom is
And so are the practical benefits. Because tens of thousands of
feel the way I do, huge amounts of free software/open source is
and its quality exceeds that of most proprietary software.
In summary, I use the terms "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" interchangably,
the former being an abbreviation for the latter. I usually use the
software" and "open source" interchangably, as from a licensing
they're very similar. Occasionally I'll prefer one or the other
if I'm writing about freedom, or business advantage.
Steve Litt has used GNU/Linux since 1998, and written about
it since 1999. Steve can be reached at his email address.
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