Adventures in Linuxland: the background

Every few years my employer throws out old laptops. This time around, I managed to get my hands on one before all the other cheapskates. It's a Dell Inspiron 3800 running Win 98 with Microsoft Office and a pile of other useful software.

Or rather it was.

Soon after getting it home, I discovered why they were going to throw it out: there was no way to connect to the web.

The PC-Card (PCMCIA) slots were not working at all, and there was no ethernet socket. The only way to get online seemed to be through a port replicator (my employer was throwing a couple of those out as well) that had an NIC and ethernet socket on-board. Unfortunately, the BIOS refused to allow the machine to connect to the port replicator. On the good side, I was able to get the single USB slot to read a memory stick, so I could transfer files from one machine to another.

I thought it would be a breeze to get the thing working again.

Long story short, it wasn't.

After re-installing the PC-card drivers, re-writing the BIOS to allow the port replicator to work, and finally reinstalling Windows, it remained stubbornly offline.

I'd been thinking about getting to grips with Linux for a while, but needed a low-risk, low-cost way of doing it. The fact that Microsoft no longer supports Win98 was another factor in the decision to embrace the penguin. There is a real need for a stable operating system that can drive low-specification hardware and thus give a new lease of life to old equipment.

The broken laptop looked like an ideal opportunity to load up Linux and learn some new skills. It was cheap (as in free beer) and there was no need to back up any data from the 4GB hard drive. Fortunately for me, Dinde's writeup (above) came just after I had spent a whole weekend failing to get the laptop to see the web via Windows.

Installing Linux

Despite having a respectable processor (650MHz Pentium III), the machine had only 96Mb of memory. That was fine with Win98, but it seems that it's not really enough for the full Ubuntu package as recommended above. After some swift research on the web, I tried Xubuntu, an Ubuntu variant designed for low-specification machines. I burned two CDs (a breeze, by the way). One was the standard Xubuntu setup, the other was the alternative arrangement, aimed at older systems with limited memory (like mine).

The first step was to use a modern desktop machine and fire up the LiveCD disk to find out if it worked and to see what an Ubuntu desktop looks like. That was one of the first inklings that a lot of thought has gone into this package. The LiveCD alllows you to run Ubuntu from the CD and find out if all the hardware is compatible. There's no risk of damaging the existing data on the computer hard drive, unless you hit the 'install' button. Don't do that until you're ready for it.

The desktop looked good.

Dinde said Ubuntu won't really work with less than about 192Mb of RAM and the web seemed to confirm that. There were a few sites where users claimed to be running Ubuntu on a machine with a similar specification to mine, so I cranked up the laptop, hooked it up to the port replicator, connected that to the router and fired up the LiveCD to see what would happen.

It started well enough, but eventually slowed down to a crawl. I guess the memory thing was a real issue and not just a techno-mirage.

After a re-start I tried installing the full version of Xubuntu without sampling it through the LiveCD. Again, it didn't really work, so I followed the recommendations and used the alternate disk.

I had nothing to keep on the old disk, so I used the 're-format' option during installation. That felt scary, knowing it really was the point of no return for this machine. Well, I suppose I could have re-installed Windows (yet again) but there seemed little point, if the thing could not connect to the web.

First time through, Xubuntu didn't see the NIC, so I was unable to connect to the web.

On a whim, I tried to install it once again over the top of the first installation. During this second attempt, I saw that it was getting an IP address from my DHCP router. This was starting to look good. I had not configured the router or the network in any way. That was the first big clue as to why enthusiasts get so enthusiastic about Linux.

Within an hour or so of starting the installation process I was online and surfing using Firefox on Xubuntu. Compare that to losing a whole weekend attempting to fix Windows.

Ubuntu 1 : 0 Windows

The system had automatically recognised and loaded suitable drivers for the graphics, the sound system, the port replicator and the ethernet connection. Then it had configured the network settings and got itself online. All with no help or input from myself. That's impressive when you compare the lengthy process of adding drivers and configuring the network during a Windows installation.

One thing that is not noted above: it helps a lot if you have a web connection as you are loading the OS. Not all the software can fit on a 700 MB CD-Rom, and some components need to be downloaded during installation.

Linux in use

As an operating system, Ubuntu Linux is easier and faster to install than Windows. On the other hand, it's much less intuitive to add packages at a later date. However, given that many of us only use computers for web browsing, writing and a few other tasks, that's not such a problem. All these applications come ready-packaged on the Ubuntu disk.

The browsing works well. Websites using Flash, Macromedia and other web apps work just fine. If I'm honest, the browsing seems slower than when I could use the machine using Windows and Internet Exploder. But maybe that's more perception than reality. Also Open Office is fully compatible with Microsoft Office and the search and replace functions in Open Office are more powerful than their equivalents in MS Office.

In terms of use, therefore, the two systems are pretty much equivalent for everyday applications.

However, when I tried to install a USB-based WiFi stick. I hit a block. I've since resolved it, but I suspect that this kind of thing will put off less determined users.

Linux is inherently safe. You don't immediately get access to the root directory on the disk. Trouble is, to install the drivers, you need to use a terminal window and type in commands, including the location of the relevant files. So either you type in long strings of filenames and paths (a pain in the ass) or you find out how to root your box and drag the files to the root directory. That means easier typing and shorter strings.

When this (former) Windows user tried to move a file from the desktop to a folder in the root directory, (using the graphical interface) the system did not give a warning or suggestion about 'Insufficient access privileges". It simply failed to carry out the request.

Anyway, I resolved that one by doing some lengthy typing, but as I had expected, the USB WiFi connection didn't work: it needed USB 2.0, but the 'puter only has USB 1.0. No worries, I can still connect over the wired network.

Getting the bug

I figured that a working laptop is worth £30, so I went to eBay and bought a 256 Mb memory chip, to boost the memory well above the recommended minimum. I can always sell the chip again on eBay if it all goes wrong.

That allowed me to install the full version of Ubuntu. It's not a huge amount faster than Xubuntu, but it's the start of a journey. I'm learning more about the computer and the settings all the time. And that in itself is a major advantage over Windows.

I'm still a n00b, but the benefits have to be worth it. Once I feel a bit more confident about this, I'll be able to buy (or build) better value computers and install my own OS and software and then have total control over how that software behaves.

Ubuntu 2 : 0 Windows



One week later

Now that I have added enough memory to make the computer work properly, I loaded up the full version of Ubuntu, and it is a revelation.

I'm (almost) a complete convert. It is superb.

I can say with confidence that it works. It just works. In almost every case, the software and installation work at least as well as on Windows XP. The graphical interface works well. The procedures for loading new software work very well. The amount of memory, disk space and processing power work extremely well compared to Windows XP.

After a bit of fiddling with hardware I got the PCMCIA cards to work and installing a Netgear card was astonishingly easy. It was a breeze to add WEP security and connect to my router and thence to the web.

Even more surprising was that the Ubuntu machine would connect to my Windows-based network and share files with Windows-based machines. I'm lucky, I guess that all the disks are formatted to FAT32. Furthermore, it could see and talk to the Laserjet printer attached to a Windows XP print server running in another room.

I am, frankly, astonished that the new Ubuntu machine finds it so easy to fit in with the existing network.

Next step is to use the laptop to replicate some web content filtering software that I have running on the print server, If I can do that, then I'll wipe WinXP and convert that one to Ubuntu as well. The print server is a second-hand machine with only a 10 GB dive that is almost full with goodness knows what after I upgraded it from Win98 to WinXP.

We won't convert completely to Ubuntu. The teenagers in the house like to use Windows-based systems for playing games (Sims 2 and suchlike), but the aim is to get them dual-boot machines and to move pretty well everything else over to Ubuntu

Final words of advice.

If you have been considering this, but remain nervous about it, then don't be. It really is astonishingly easy to make it all work. And it works surprisingly well, pretty much straight out of the box.



User comment

Random Reader says "lengthy process of adding drivers and configuring the network during a Windows installation" - uh no. unless you have wacky hardware, Windows XP will detect all of your hardware just fine. Of the five PC-compatible computers I currently own, ALL of them will take Windows XP without additional drivers. One is a laptop, one is a dual processor dell, and two are 1U form factor systems based around clone motherboards. also, this is not a "how to", it is a "how I". It doesn't tell how to, it chronicles your experience.

I guess you are right about that. But the other ones up there say how to do it. I followed the instructions and discovered that it is not nearly as frightening or geeky as one might imagine.

That's the thing about instructions. You never know, as a user, if they work or not. I'm putting my own personal experience in there to show others that the instructions are good. They look simple, and the process is surprisingly simple.

Hope that explains it.