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What's most important is whether Ubuntu Linux will meet your needs; whether it will have software that does the things you need it to do.

I have laptop - an IBM Thinkpad. It's running Windows XP. As it's an old model, the memory on the laptop is very low, only 50 GB. My question for you is can I install Ubuntu on my Windows XP operating system? Is there any harm to the software?

In this excerpt from Answercast #68, I look at technical issues around replacing an older XP operating system with Linux Ubuntu.

Disk space and RAM on old machine

So there are a couple of confusions here that I need to clear up before I address the question.

50GB is not your memory. 50GB is the disk space on the machine.

Memory is referred to usually as RAM and on an older machine, it could be anywhere from something like 128 or 256MB up to maybe one or 2GB. So, without knowing exactly how much true memory there is in your machine, I can't really make any assumptions about that.

What I can tell you is that the 50GB that is your hard disk can absolutely be upgraded. You can get yourself a larger hard disk and have more disk space.

I do have an article on the difference between memory (RAM) and disk space. It's very important to understand that those are two completely different things.

Replacing XP with Ubuntu

Now, Ubuntu. Installing Ubuntu.

You don't install it into Windows XP. Ubuntu is an operating system. The traditional way to install it would be replace Windows XP.

What that means is that after installing Ubuntu on your machine, you would no longer have Windows XP. You would have Ubuntu Linux. It would be Ubuntu Linux that would start running when you boot your machine. It would be Ubuntu Linux that would run the programs:

  • Not Windows programs (because it's not Windows);

  • Linux programs (because it's running Ubuntu Linux).

So like I said, it's also an important distinction to understand that when you install another operating system (unless you're taking some special measures that clearly are not going to work on an older machine like this anyway), you're replacing the operating system that exists.

Whether that will work for you? My guess is technically it will probably work just fine.

Will you like Ubuntu?

What's more important is whether Ubuntu Linux will meet your needs; whether it will have software that does the things you need it to do.

If all you're doing is surfing the web and reading email, not a problem. Ubuntu will work just fine for you.

What I would suggest you do (and I would strongly recommend you do this before you consider or before you actually install the replacement operating system) is back up what you have. Create an image backup of the system as it is the moment before you install a new operating system.

Why do I say that?

  • Because the operating system replaces what's on the hard drive.

  • A backup saves what's on the hard drive in case you need it later.

So if you install Ubuntu Linux, and are tearing your hair out, and you finally decide you can't use it anymore for whatever reason, you can restore your machine to the state it was in before doing that. By restoring it to this backup, that would then replace Windows XP the way it was at the time you took the backup.

Article C6006 - November 8, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

November 8, 2012 5:06 PM

One of the nice things about Ubuntu is you don't have to install it to see if you like it. You can create your own live DVD.

November 9, 2012 8:25 AM

On my beater computer the HDD is partitioned so that at boot up, I can can choose either XP or Linux. I've found that I absolutely have to keep XP on hand to run some programs. Linux runs quite a bit faster.

November 9, 2012 10:22 AM

In addition to what was already said, Ubuntu offers the option of being installed (and uninstalled) within Windows just like any ordinary application. At booting time you will be given the choice to start with either Windows XP OR Ubuntu.

November 9, 2012 11:37 AM


Be careful with your statement:

"What can I tell you is that the 50GB that is your hard disk can absolutely be upgraded. You can get yourself a larger hard disk and have more disk space."

That actually might not be the case. If his laptop hard disk interface is not a SATA (Serial ATA) and is the older PATA (Parallel ATA or IDE) the maximum size that you can upgrade to is a 320GB. (I think that the most of the laptop vendors switched to the new SATA interface in the 2006-2007 time frame.)

If he has an 80GB, 120GB, 160GB or 250GB PATA, he will be able to upgrade. But if he already has a 320GB PATA, there are no other upgrade options since that is the largest size.

Keep up the good work.

November 9, 2012 11:48 PM

How to do a Macrium 3 backup is a bad link !

Mark J
November 10, 2012 1:03 AM

Thanks for catching that. It's fixed now.

A Richter
November 10, 2012 12:18 PM

Several points:

50 GB (unusual figure, I believe) hard disk will handle any Linux just fine. What could be at issue, though, is the memory. In case of Ubuntu 12.04, and by trial and error, I find that RAM at 512 MB barely suffices, and that 1 GB is the minimum for smooth running; 2GB would be preferable. It all hangs on the RAM, really, not HDD.

Installing Ubuntu alongside XP, thus having a dual system, is advisable with at least 80 GB hard disk.

Running Ubuntu live off a DVD, not so good due to speed and response issues. Just to get a taste of it, perhaps, and see how it goes with the system; otherwise, it is plain cumbersome.

Much, much, and I will say it again, much better option would be getting a live CD with Puppy Linux. If there currently is a Linux to fall in love with, this is the one. Lightweight, nimble, fast, and no install is needed since it gets stored in the memory (RAM again, mark), not on hard disk.

So the XP could stay, untouched, as long as the boot hierarchy is set to give preference to CD-ROM over HDD. One needs to get used to Linux, e.g., no Internet Explorer, MS Office, and the proprietary likes. Plenty of impressive equivalents, though.

April 25, 2013 2:19 PM

I have only just read this article and hope it is not too late to comment.

Am I right that a downside to installing Ubuntu is that there is no Macrium/Acronis/Ghost equivalent, so the only way to do image backups is via the command line.

If I'm right, that's one reason for thinking twice before installing a Linux distro

Linux is ... different. So, two points. Unlike Windows, it actually is reasonable to backup your entire system using the equivalent of a ZIP of the entire drive. (A more Linux native command would be "tar" instead of zip). This actually does 99% of what an imaging tool might do. It's worth researching this online. Second, I believe some of those Windows imaging tools can in fact be used to image your Linus system. Not from within Linux, but by booting from the "rescue" media and running the backup tool from there. But yes, in this later case there is no automation.

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