Friday, 16 September 2016

Breathe new life into an old computer

Do you have an old computer that is just sat around doing nothing? Maybe it still has Windows XP on it. Perhaps you really liked that computer and can't bring yourself to throw it out, besides, it still works, why not find a use for it?

The most common use of an old computer might be just for casual browsing the web. After all, you don't need a powerful computer to do that and often you just want to browse on a reasonably sized screen with a good old mouse pointer. If you use cloud services like Google Drive or OneDrive then you can access your files from anywhere. You might consider buying a Chromebook because it offers this kind of functionality but why not use that old computer you no longer use...

But before you blow the cobwebs off your old Windows XP computer and start browsing away... stop and consider a few things:
  • Windows XP, Vista and similar operating systems are not updated any more, there are no security patches. Using such a computer will leave you, your home network and your files vulnerable to attack by malware (malicious software such as viruses). 
  • Your old Windows XP or Vista computer is probably very slow due to lots of programs installed on it over time. Maybe it even has spyware or other nasties lurking on it, perhaps this is why you bought a new computer?
  • Older operating systems take a long time to start up. Windows XP would certainly take a couple of minutes or so and in that time you might just reach for your smartphone or tablet. To make your old computer truly useful it does need to be fast and accessible.

Because of the above points I have a recommendation, install a new operating system. In doing so everything on the computer is wiped clean. It will wipe off the old Windows XP or whatever you are using. Any previous malware will be removed. In software terms you will completely clean the computer from top to bottom. The advantage is that it'll run faster and maybe even just as smooth as it did when you first purchased it all those years ago.

IMPORTANT: Backup before you begin!
In the above paragraph I did say that installing a new operating system will wipe off all the existing software. That means your data files will be wiped too!!! So be careful, maybe check your old computer first, see if there are any old photos, documents, etc, that you might want to copy onto a USB flash drive before you install a new operating system on the computer.

New Operating System
Your old computer from five years ago wasn't designed to run Windows 10 and in any case it is likely you'd have to pay to buy it and it may not even work very well on your old computer. But fear not, to have an up-to-date operating system that costs nothing is easy, there are many available for download. Of course they are often based on the Linux operating system so the programs you are used to on Windows may not be available. However, on Linux you can get Chrome and Firefox. At least you are probably already familiar with those browsers and if all you'd like to do is some casual web browsing, all you need is a good browser.

Linux comes in different flavours called "distributions". Each distribution looks a bit different and has its own ecosystem. One of the most popular is Ubuntu. Ubuntu rivals Windows 10 for features and comes bundled with a lot of useful software such as a word processor, spreadsheet, etc. Ubuntu is also very well supported, with lots of software available in easy to install 'packages'. This is also true of driver support which means that typically it'll run on your old computer without a lot of fiddling.

However, I've found that Ubuntu can be sluggish on older computers. This made me look for alternatives. But I still like the simplicity of installing and support there is in the world of Ubuntu.

Lubuntu is a 'lite' version of Ubuntu. The interface is different but the underlying operating system is the same. This means it's easy to install and use. You'll get all the support and security updates as Ubuntu but Lubuntu will run faster on your old computer hardware. That's the theory, I tried it out for myself.

Lubuntu running Firefox
The above shows Lubuntu running Mozilla Firefox. Chromium is installed as standard but Firefox can easily be downloaded and installed - use the package available for Ubuntu.

I have a Lenovo Thinkpad X300 dating from around 2008. It has 2GB RAM and it's a 32-bit computer only. It's still working well, a very nice computer, good keyboard, well built and a good size. It is from the era of Windows Vista although originally I ran Windows XP on it. I first tried Ubuntu on the X300 and it worked well. The most important thing is that Ubuntu recognised the audio, the screen, the WiFi adapter, etc. This is important because I didn't want the hassle of looking for the drivers and installing them - that kind of thing can take time and with Linux can sometimes be a bit of a pain. With Ubuntu everything just worked immediately! But my X300 was a bit slow with Ubuntu.

I replaced Ubuntu with Lubuntu and my X300 works faster. I still have the compatibility and updates of Ubuntu (anything marked as compatible with Ubunbtu is compatible with Lubuntu). I've not really lost anything. Right now I am writing this blog article on the X300 with Lubuntu and Firefox. There's no lag in general or with connecting to WiFi. It all works rather well! The interface is similar to Windows, there's a Start Menu for example. It's a very clean interface and there are lots of software applications pre-installed.

From the above screen shots you can see how Lubuntu has a nice clean interface. I think it's easy to use and not a huge leap for a Windows user new to Linux. There's a Trash can that acts like the Recycle Bin. The main menu is like the Start Menu and the Home is like Windows Explorer or My Computer.

To download and learn more about Lubuntu please visit website here:

Here are a few tips on installing Lubuntu:

  • Download from and click Download
  • I would recommend you use the 32-bit version as it is less heavy on resources and in most cases your computer will only support 32-bit anyway. For me with my X300, it's 32-bit.
  • You can install using a DVD or USB flash drive. I would recommend the USB flash drive as it is faster and sometimes with old computers the DVD drive doesn't work or is unreliable.
  • For USB a 4GB USB flash drive is recommended. Before you begin make sure the USB flash drive is empty - everything on it will be deleted so make sure you don't have any files on the USB flash drive before you start, copy them somewhere safe first!
  • You'll need to download a small utility called UNetbootin available from
  • With UNetbootin on a Windows computer you can write the Lubuntu installation ISO file to the USB flash drive.
  • When you start the installation I recommend you choose to replace the entire contents of the C: drive with Lubuntu. Select the default partition options. Of course, as mentioned before, this does destroy everything you currently have on your old computer, make sure you first backup any files you want to keep. 
Full instructions on installing Lubuntu can be found here:

Follow the steps on the above page and you'll be fine. It is much less complicated than it may first appear.

Alternatives to Lubuntu
Ubuntu of course but there are many others such as Puppy Linux, MintOS, etc. If you have a NetBook like an ASUS Eee PC, consider EasyPeasy.

If you don't mind having to tinker a little, I recommend Crunchbang. It's not as user friendly or as polished as Ubuntu/Lubuntu. But it does work on very old hardware, here's an article I wrote explaining how I installed it on an old IBM T42 and an ASUS Eee PC:

I wrote a number of articles about how to set it up, share files and work with Crunchbang, you can find them here:

In recent times Crunchbang almost died but it was rescued by a new team of developers and you can find out all about the new Crunchbang++ here:
I've not tried this new version yet but when I do, I'll be sure to write something here on my blog.

If you do have an old computer, installing Linux on it makes a lot of sense. You can use it for some basic browsing, writing letters, etc. If you use Lubuntu the process of installing, using and maintaining the old computer is relatively easy. Lubuntu is a very polished professional operating system, it's fast and has a clean modern look. It's close enough to Windows for it to be a good place to start if you are new to Linux. Have a go and I'm sure you'll be happy surfing with some speed on that ancient computer you had previously written off.

I do not accept any liability for any loss of data or problems you may face. Proceed at your own risk! Of course if it's an old computer then the risk is not high but please don't blame me for anything that goes wrong, I am just here writing about my own experience and opinion. I hope I've been able to help and inform, that is all. Good luck and feel free to write you own experiences in the comments below :-)

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