Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Linux is often a viable alternative to extend the life of older machines. We'll look at some of the issues involved in switching to Linux.

I gave my eleven year old son my old laptop to surf with but it's too slow with a 1 gigahertz CPU, 384 megabytes of RAM (maxed out)and running Windows XP. With 1 PC and 3 laptops in the household upgrading isn't really an option, and besides, it's a great laptop.

What do you think about converting it over to Linux, or am I wasting my time? What applications and utilities are compatible ie. browsers, anti spyware, virus protection etc.. How would you go about setting the computer up. I have moderate experience, utilizing forums and sites like yours when encountering major problems.

Linux is a great way to extend the life of older computers, simply because the resource requirements of many Linux distributions are so much less than that of Windows.

There are naturally a few "gotcha's" along the way.

But before we even go there, we need to make sure that we're solving the right problem.

Many people often fail to realize that for web surfing it's often not their computer that's the choke point but rather the internet connection itself. Depending on what you do online speeding up your existing computer, or even getting a new one, won't necessarily improve your internet experience or improve it much.

So before embarking on anything major like an operating system switch, I'd make sure that it's the machine that's at fault to begin with. It may well be, but it's best to make sure. Since you have other machines in the home, some presumably newer, you can do a side-by-side comparison.

One other thing I'll recommend before the switch is to clean up the old machine. Normally I'd say things like clear your browser cache, defragment the hard disk, consider running a utility like SpinRite, and so on, all of which can improve performance depending on the state of the machine without destroying any data.

But if you're willing to install another OS, erasing everything isn't apparently an issue for you. Hence, what I would do first is reinstall Windows from scratch, having it reformat the entire hard disk as it does so. I'd deselect options you don't need as you install, and then revisit what's running automatically after it's done. A lot of "stuff" accumulates over time as a machine is used, and much of it can affect performance. A reformat and reinstall clears it all away.

"The real answer of whether Linux will do for you at all really depends on exactly how you will use your computer."

With that, you might once again have a nicely workable system without having to switch.

If all that didn't help, then let's move on to Linux.

First, a word about distributions: there are a ton of them. I tend to gravitate towards Ubuntu for its large installed base, relative ease of installation, and a fair amount of available support. Because not all packages are available for all distributions, I'm assuming Ubuntu as I discuss Linux below.

The real answer of whether Linux will do for you at all really depends on exactly how you will use your computer. If it's just web surfing and email, then I think you'll be very happy. Packages like Thunderbird or Firefox are cross-platform and work equally well on Windows and Linux.

If you need to do word processing, spreadsheets and the like, OpenOffice is available, and it can exchange files with its Windows counterparts and Microsoft Office. Note, however, that it "feels" different, and you'll find yourself relearning how do to things and find features the Open Office way as opposed to the Microsoft Office way. Again, depending on your own style and needs that could be a problem, or not at all.

If you're a gamer, the news isn't so good. Granted, you have an underpowered machine for current games as it is, but even many of the games that worked on your machine running Windows will not work in Linux.

Current thinking is that anti-virus and anti-spyware isn't as critical on Linux, and as a result while there are packages out there for both, they're typically not as mature as their Windows counterparts, and to be honest most people don't bother. Most spyware and viruses are Windows-specific.

I've personally looked into moving to Linux or a Mac. In both cases I'm thwarted by some of the applications that I need for my daily work that simply aren't available on either platform in a cross-platform way. That includes things like Microsoft Money (or Quicken, for many people), Truecrypt, roboform, and my video editing software. In some cases there are quite viable alternatives but in my case I need to be able to switch back and forth, hence I need alternatives that are cross-platform compatible like Thunderbird or Open Office.

So your usage plays a role here too. If you, for example, regularly need to share data between your different platforms as I do, then your needs are more complicated than, say, if you could just do a one-time conversion to a Linux equivalent and then move on from there. And again, it depends on the specific applications involved.

The short answer is that depending on your needs, and if you're willing to take a little time to learn a few different ways of doing things, Linux can be a very viable and cost effective way to extend the life of an older PC.

Article C3222 - November 29, 2007 « »

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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?

Richard Chapman
November 29, 2007 10:22 AM

I think Ubuntu would have a hard time in 384MB of ram. It would still work but it would not be as nimble. I would first try SAM Linux. It's a derivative of PCLinuxOS. I would download the Live CD and give it a whirl. It has most of the multimedia codecs and plugins baked in or at least readily available with the package manager. The next step down in hardware requirements is Puppy Linux and after that DSL (Damn Small Linux).

Sam Linux
DistroWatch Page:
Live CD iso:

Puppy Linux
DistroWatch Page:
Live CD iso:

Damn Small Linux
DistroWatch Page:
Live CD iso:

I would be happy to have a laptop with any one of these distributions on it. Just remember that the world of Linux is very different than that of Microsoft Windows. Sometimes people trying Linux for the first time will make the mistake that if Ubuntu doesn't work for them, then Linux doesn't work for them. That's like saying if Chevy doesn't work for you, then neither does Honda, Ford, Toyota or any of the other makes and models of cars. We've been trained by Microsoft to believe that one size fits all, their size. It's not true with cars and it's not true with operating systems. Good luck.

November 29, 2007 10:24 AM

One of the nice things about Ubuntu is you can run it from its own CD without actually installing it on the computer. And if you want a very lite Linux version, take a look at Puppy Linux.

November 30, 2007 5:04 AM

I think that installing Windows 2000 is still a very good option for this laptop! I have several older machines running this version of Windows. Even on an old P1 233 Mhz. - 128 MB RAM it runs quite well!

Dan Ullman
November 30, 2007 10:02 AM

I second the suggestion of trying out Ubuntu with a "Live Cd" . If you do not like it or if it does not meet your needs then all you have to do is get rid of the CD. Other Linux distros also have "Live CD" so you can easily test any number of them.

John Clemens
November 30, 2007 7:28 PM

I see someone beat me to the suggestion to just go back to Windows 2000. Which I run with 512mb RAM on a P3 1000mHz computer, and I shamelessly overload it with live stock market data coming in and many programs running at the same time. Occasionally the overload boggles it down, but in general it does very well.

Which brings up a question for you Leo, why XP? Can you tell me what advantage a person would gain by switching from Win2000 to WinXP?


December 1, 2007 7:57 AM

I agree with Richard about trying the small linux distros. I have been looking for a couple of months at different linux distros. Those he mentioned would be a great place to start.

December 1, 2007 8:38 PM

When you're running from LiveCD, loading of programs will be quite slower than normal because it's loading from CD. After you load it once, it'll load from RAM. (In Ubuntu) You can add a system monitor on your panel and change the preference to show the memory. Then you can see how much RAM is used while you're doing your usual work. Note that "cached" doesn't really count as being "used". I personally would recommend Ubuntu. I've used it for 5 months and never gone back to Windows. Good luck.

Michael Horowitz
December 3, 2007 10:12 PM

If you are considering using Linux on an old computer, this article of mine might be useful.

Is Linux right for your mother?

December 4, 2007 1:56 PM

I'm suprised Leo!?! There a number of emulator/virtual machines for Linux! I personally use Ubuntu 7.10 and tried Linux Mint, Mandrake, and kubuntu! On my current Ubuntu based computer I'm using Wine for Windows media Player and a few other apps! And Im using Innotek Virtual box to run XP inside Ubuntu! I use Compiz fusion which a desktop manager basically gives you 4 desktops in the form of a cube and on one side of the cube is XP (Would be vista but my 64-bit Vista isnt supported yet) and on the other 3 desktops I play with internet or whatever! I have a Matrix animated background for all the desktops play music surf the internet with Linux and inside the xp virtual machine I encode video or anything else while my system is faster than Windoze would
be as the host system! Did I mention this is all on my HP laptop lol! I have to say I havent been able to play Battlefield 2142 online in the xp box tho! Heres is an attempt at posting a screenshot!

February 23, 2009 5:32 PM

In your opinion, what should I do? I am a complete green pea!!

I'm running an old Dell w/ a pentium III processor. The OS is Windows XP. I have a ton of files I want to keep on this computer, and never want to lose.

How can I convert to Linux? How would I import my files to the new OS? If I have cleaned up my disks and the computer still ran slow, would it run faster with Linux? Would I have more space...??? Do I have enough in my old processor to handle the use of both Windows XP and Linux?

Please help. I'm broke and need some tips. I heard something about being able to do all this for free, just by downloading, and tweaking. Is this true?

Thank you!!!
-slow computer user

First, BACK UP THOSE FILES. Burn them to CD or do something so that you have them somewhere safe in case your computer dies or otherwise has problems.

Second, yes Linux may well be a viable alternative. Without knowing exactly what kinds of applications you rely on it's hard to give you a definite yes or not. I will say that most Linux installations will reformat (erase) your hard disk as part of the installation process. There are ways around it, but if you have your files BACKED UP it's often still the right thing to do.

Good luck!

- Leo
R. Tarun Handa
July 29, 2009 3:23 AM

I just bought a Toshiba NB205-311/W netbook with Windows XP home and trial versions of Norton, Works, etc, none of which I am enthused about paying for. I already have an assigned work laptop (personal use discouraged seriously) and a home desktop, which has all the addons and memory I require for most purposes, which I am not ready to part with yet. So this netbook is going to be used for my weekend-away-from-home, holidays where weight is at a premium, checking my e-mails in bed or surfing-the-net on the verandah. I really am quite frustrated by the bloatware that Microsoft is creating not to mention the instability issues that I see on my work laptop and my home desktop frequently, so want to try Linux, etc. Do you think Linux + Openoffice would be a viable trial environment for the new Netbook? And if so, what browser will I need to download?

Yep. My little Asus eeePC is running a version of Ubuntu. I think you'll find most come with FireFox for a browser.

February 26, 2010 6:47 PM

I have a Belkin Wireless G Windows -comp 802.11g comp notebook card. Can I download something to convert it to a linux card?

Jeff S
March 16, 2010 11:32 PM

I have just tried the Live CD version of Mandriva Linux 2010, and not only does it recognize all my hardware on both machines, it also will let me import my Windows Xp data. I for one cannot lose 1.5 Tb.'s of data, as it is important to my work.
yet out of all the latest distro's available, this one simply works, with out breaking my exisiting Xp install /stored files.
i hope this helps anyone considering the switch to linux.

November 30, 2010 10:25 AM

Surely (almost) the easiest thing to try is installing more RAM? Assuming you're not running more stuff in the background that's doing you no good at all. I run a 1 GHz Athlon WinXP in 1 GB of RAM and have nothing to complain of.

Many machines, particularly older ones, are already maxed out on the amount of RAM they can hold.

November 30, 2010 11:02 AM

i have an older computer 1gb ram, and my dedicated video card died. so playing Diablo II on bnet became a lag problem. using game booster and process explorer, i was able to get my Xp installation down to use 44% of my ram, still lagging on Bnet, i wondered if vista would do better i installed it, but it used over 68% of my ram no matter what i did and bnet was even worse. then i switched to win 7, i got the resources down to about 56% of my ram, which seemed to fill up quickly when using programs. then i found a win 7 installation that has the cache turned off. (is it true Leo, win 7 reserves 512k for caching???) not only does my computer fly now, i can play on Bnet, and using game booster and process explorer i can get win 7 down to using 22% of my ram!!!!!!!!!! it handles memory so much better that my old intel 945 video adapter has plenty of spirit and i dont have to switch to linux now!

Carol Putman
November 30, 2010 12:20 PM

Here's my cautionary tale. Having recently reinstalled Windows XP after trying Ubuntu 10.10 from the Live CD, I must warn anyone trying it out to check first before installing Ubuntu to see whether your printer (or other hardware) is supported by whatever installation you choose. I ran Ubuntu alongside Windows for a while and liked it, so I decided to install it (alongside Windows, I thought), but during the installation I guess I agreed to having Ubuntu reformat the hard drive and it removed Windows.

I wasn't too upset because I still liked it and thought it would work fine until I tried to print a letter and found that it did not have a driver from Canon that would support my printer and after visiting forums and searching for an answer found that Canon had no plans to develop one for Ubuntu or any other Linux installation, as far as I could tell. So, this put a tremendous dent in my ability to use Ubuntu and I would have to have Windows on the computer, too, for those times when I needed to print something. Either that or buy a new, supported printer which I did not want to do. So, I had to remove it and reinstall Windows XP.

During the installation process, however, Ubuntu deleted a FATS partition from the hard drive that I had wanted to get rid of for a very long time but couldn't in Windows XP. So, everything turned out ok. I just wish I could have installed it to run inside Windows, or alongside without having to use the CD each time I wanted to use it. That slowed the whole process down so much, it wasn't really a solution to my "old computer" problem.

November 30, 2010 8:59 PM

I cannot stress that more. I am posting this from a pentium 3 running at 450 MHZ with puppy Linux, a distro designed for older PC's. As of version 5, puppy is binary compatible with Ubuntu. What ubuntu can run, puppy can also. Go ahead. There is nothing to lose...

Dick Parker
August 5, 2011 10:44 AM

I've been studying the various Linux Distros for at least 6 months and have tried several of them as live cd's including among others Mandriva and Ubuntu. Then I tried Linux Mint. Currently my choice is Linux Mint Xfce. I'm running a pc with a 1.4 GHz Athlon, 512 RAM, and a 320 Gig HDD. It is set up to dual boot with Windows XP since I have 2 programs which won't tun on Linux (my J Rivers Media Jukebox and movie organizer.) Otherwise I'd have completely switched since I'm tired of dealing with the Windows cost and other issues. In fact, to upgrade to Windows 7, will take new computers for our family, not an insignificant cost.

April 24, 2012 5:57 PM

One issue to know about before hand:

Flash is generally unusable on Linux. Some flash sites run slow, and others not at all. Some streaming sites will check your OS and refuse to stream to a Linux computer. It is not a good option if you plan on using a lot of streaming video such as Hulu, Youtube and Netflix.

April 25, 2012 6:12 AM

Hi Leo . Thanks for your interesting and informative news letters.
Just want ask, in light of the recent malware attack on Mac O/S, surly you would revisit your comment and emphasize the need for anti virus/ anti malware for both Mac and Linux O/S? I know the recent incidents must have put a little dent on the smugness of some Mac users, is it not possible that Linux could be a future target as well, after all no system is 100% safe out there.

Mark J
April 25, 2012 6:58 AM

in Are Macs inherently safer? Leo points out that because of a smaller market share, Macs aren't targeted as much as Windows PCs. This is still somewhat true. Targeted less but still targeted. Linux has a much smaller market share than Mac, so it would be even less a target. But you are right. There's always a chance of malware in any system.

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