Extending the Life of an Old Laptop with Linux

My parents have a number of computers at their place, the oldest of which is an 11-year old Compaq laptop. The laptop still works fine, but it’s not really usable anymore mostly because of software. Yes, all of our smartphones and tablets that we bought within the last 5 years probably has more compute power than this laptop, but the main reason it can’t be used is because it has Windows Vista. Windows Vista is so old that even Chrome or Firefox don’t support it anymore. Running a Windows machines without updated software is a bad idea. My parents still wanted to keep the laptop around just in case, so I turned to Linux to extend the life of this old laptop.

Linux on Old Laptop
Getting into the Linux game with the old Compaq A939CA laptop

Linux is the logical choice, since it is pretty popular and it’s free. I don’t have a Windows 10 license lying around and certainly not going to buy a license for an old computer. An 11-year-old laptop probably wouldn’t run Windows 10 very well. I’ve never used Linux for my everyday computer, but I dealt with Ubuntu during grad school, and I do deal with Unix-type operating systems in my current job, so at least I’m not clueless about Linux.

Linux of course comes in a lot of different distributions. Since the laptop is so old, I searched for distribution that is recommended for older machines. Distributions that came up include Lubuntu, Peppermint, Puppy Linux, and Tiny Core. In the end, I decided to try Linux Lite, because it is based on Ubuntu LTS and therefore has longer period for software updates, and it comes with a decent number of installed applications.

To install Linux Lite, I downloaded the ISO and made a bootable USB. For some reason, this did not work for our Compaq A939CA laptop, because it would complain about some BIOS related error when booting. After trying different software for making bootable USB keys, I ended up going with the old school method and burned the ISO to a DVD using Windows Vista on the old laptop.

With the DVD I was finally able to boot into Linux Lite and install onto the hard disk. Linux Lite has a graphical installer that is pretty easy to follow, although it did mess up when I tried to explore the hard disk partitioning options. After installation completed, I booted into the new desktop to test it out and see if I need install any updates or drivers. Linux Lite has a graphical interface for updates and drivers, and that was pretty easy. I was relieved that all of the hardware seems to be supported, but then again the laptop is old so the Linux community had time to develop the drivers.

With the installation out of the way, I had a few more items to work on. This include adding Chinese language input, connecting to our home network attached storage (NAS), and installing the printer. All of these items turned out to be pretty simple for Linux Lite. Linux Lite comes with fcitx installed, and that supports pinyin input. Connecting to the NAS was just typing smb//{NAS ip address and share path} and then saving the location as a favorite. The printer actually installed without much trouble too despite that our printer is a Samsung that is no longer supported by the manufacturer. The unit is a multi-function, and I got the printing to work. The scanning doesn’t work, but it’s not a big deal since we have other Windows computers at home.

After my efforts, the old Compaq laptop can be used to check email and surf the internet. The installation and setup process had some hiccups, but it wasn’t difficult and I didn’t have to manually install or compile anything from the terminal. Compared to the previous Windows Vista installation, the Linux installation actually boots slower, but once the desktop loads the applications are quicker to open. I watched YouTube on the laptop and it worked fine. The interface looks similar enough to Windows that I think my parents will be able to figure it out. Even with the new OS, this laptop probably won’t be used very much, but at least now it can be used for some light email and web browsing.

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