Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Linux: An Old Computer’s Best New Friend

June 24, 2014

"What to do with an old pc?"

Aging computers are problematic when they still work.  An older one can remain useful, however if the operating system and antivirus software cannot be updated, which is a serious problem using systems past their prime, there will be huge problems.  It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
One very serious pressing obstacle confronting Windows XP users is that Microsoft no longer supports this operating system.  Updates and security fixes have ceased.  This renders XP particularly dangerous. 
Depending on the age and specs of some machines, current XP users can potentially upgrade to Windows 7, perhaps even Windows 8.1, without too much difficulty   But, for rapidly aging processors, limited memory and no real hardware upgrade options, migrating to a new these operating systems  simply is not possible. 

So what is one to do with a working pc that cannot run Xp or upgrade?  The answer is surprisingly simple, free but not without some possible complications.    
The Windows XP dilemma became mine when I opened up my old, but still perfectly functional, laptop.  My system, a Gateway configured with a 1.5 GHz Intel Celeron Processor and 512 MB of Ram with a 60 GB hard drive, was never a powerhouse.    When various upgrades to Windows XP arrived, the system slowed appreciable.  Before obsolesces rendered it impractical, I had moved my mobile computing elsewhere.
What compelled me to look at this old system was a “What If” scenario.  Should my current notebook slash laptop fail, could this old system be a backup?  
As I was considering what to do, I started to think about what other people might do in similar situations.    Simply buying a new laptop is not always an option for some users.  For others the idea of buying something new when something old still works feels wasteful.   I also wondered about use and function.  Some end users do not need complex expensive new software to do what they need to do.
Like most users, I live in the Windows world with occasional encounters with Apple computers.  As the dominant players in the computer world, nearly everyone online is familiar with one or the other or both. 
Parallel to the world of smartphones, a world dominated by Android and iOS and then populated by other lesser known and less popular operating systems, the computer world looks similar. There are the two giants and a number of other lesser known operating systems. 
The one standout alternative to Microsoft and Apple’s offerings would be Linux. A favorite among technophiles and those seeking something different, Linux is an open source operating system that has built up a sizable following.  
One salient feature of Linux is that it comes in numerous “flavors.”  What this means is that there are various iterations available that differ in size, appearance, system requirements, features and included applications.  What the open nature of Linux has done is that it has created a sizable presence of support resources that provides choices.
I had never “dived” into Linux until I decided to venture into this new world when it seemed like Linux could be a solution to my problem of what to do with an old  computer.
What began as a simple exploration morphed into a full blown Saturday afternoon and evening project.  One quickly learns that Linux comes in an almost overwhelming number of variations.  Some are bundled as entire suites filled with individual applications along with the OS.  Other versions are stripped down to the most basic elements without frills.  
My online exploration of Linux revealed so many options that I was not sure which version would work with my system.   Searches online and reading reviews from industry online publications, I discovered one Linux version that would appear to be the right solution for me. 
LXLE, an acronym for Lubuntu eXtraLife Extension is a version of Linux designed specifically for older systems.  Another feature of the program is that it was conceived as a “drop and go” release.  Nearly everything your average user would need would be included so that end users would not be placed in the position of having to hunt for useful software.
As it turned out LXLE 14.04 was what I was seeking. 
One very important lesson I absorbed early on was finding a site rich with support information and easy access to it.  It also helps to know the philosophical foundation for your release of Linux.  Each one seems to have its own direction, and that can make the selection process a bit easier.
Transforming a Windows XP computer into a Linux machine is not as simple as it may appear.  The installation was not without issue. In between my struggles with installing LXLE, I tried another version of Linux.  It was less than satisfactory.  The screen resolution was poor. On the plus side, this was a small install at about 500 MB. Unfortunately, the road to Linux can be a bumpy ride.
 Driver compatibility is a huge problem with Linux.  The vast array of drivers available to windows simply does not exist in the Linux world for a variety of reasons.  Some may have to deal with rights and proprietary intellectual property, whatever the reason, there is hope in online resources. There are literally slews of support sites that can help with finding solutions to driver issues.
Overcoming the installation hurdle, I ran into an issue with a disappearing task bar.  Nothing I did returned it.  After some stumbling and head scratching, I figured out I could delete a profile, create a new one and the menus returned.
As I was reading about Linux, one of the problem areas that arrives with the program are problems pertaining to smooth functioning.  The rocky hardy qualities of Windows and the Mac realm are not there with Linux, at least not with my limited experiences. This is not to imply that Linux is so unreliable as to be impractical.   That is not the case. But, it is something to keep in mind that you may run into potential problems that may arise that require some effort to solve. 
Encountering problems with an Os is not unique to Linux.  To be fair, any number of things can make computing difficult.  But Linux is not without special problems.  There could very well be instances where you need to hunt for solutions and do some leg work.
One thing to keep in mind with Linux is what it is. Composed of extensive labor, time and pure effort, Linux is built on noble ideals.  What it is ultimately is an OS that is accessible, relatively easy to install and offers up a slew of options.
With all of that said, Linux may not be for everyone.
If your computing depends on business solutions, specific graphic design needs, high end professional video editing, or very specific mainstream titles, Linux is probably not for you as a primary operating system.   Linux requires titles designed to work with it, and as far as I know there is no emulation software that allows you to run windows programs in Linux.
Microsoft and Apple share some common ground.  Since most of us are familiar with their respective conventions, getting used to these systems is not too jarring for most people.   Even if you are familiar with both, Linux is an entirely different kind of animal.
For me the most frustrating part was finding where everything is located.  It does take time finding out where the inner workings are and locating settings.   Be prepared to be a bit potentially disoriented with Linux.   Again, taking advantage of the help systems and being prepared for some time to research solutions and problem solving.
At this point in its development, I seriously  doubt if Linux is in a position to be competition to mainstream operating systems.  Linux for most end users can be seen as a cost cutting alternative to other operating systems, a technological long term project or a way to provide extended life to old equipment.  
For Windows XP users hesitant to divest themselves of their computers, Linux is one avenue that will add extended life to a system, even one  that has some very low end specs.  One thing to keep in mind is that there are some compromises that need to be made.
 If you are willing to make adjustments, this is a good solution.  However, do make sure you have plenty of time set aside to locate the right distribution of Linux and deal with some potential issues during installation.