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Putting an old IBM ThinkPad back to work

A self declared noob's learning experience

This article is current as of March 2014

Just in case somebody doesn't know what a terminal is

It occured to me after writing this that someone inexperienced with linux may have no idea what a command prompt is, and therefore not know what I meant when I say to enter lines like sudo dd, and mount.

A terminal is a little window that lets you talk to your computer using your words.

It is a program that presents you with a command prompt, which is where you enter commands that direct the computer what program to execute. There isn't much you can do graphically that you can't also do with your words on a computer, if you needed. A terminal can present you with different kinds of command prompts, linux uses a bash prompt, and I use bash commands in this tutorial/narrative/ramble.

Moving on

Recently I had the interesting task of restoring my friend's nearly ten year old laptop to functioning condition software-wise. I didn't mess with trying to clean the hardware and restore the machine physically. But I thought I would share some of what I gleamed in the process.

“Dude, I'm tired of looking at that old malware ridden XP-running laptop serve as a paperweight,”

There was a little bit of resistance to change, as most people will have…

“Let me necro it, after I mess with it long enough it'll kind of feel like a Mac, it'll do what you want it to, and you won't have to worry about viruses.”

This is a living document, and I am not an expert.

The computer was an IBM ThinkPad. A line of laptops which seems to have earned itself a small following of enthusiasts over the years for dependability and durability. It certainly struck me as a little tank.

These old ThinkPads can apparently take a beating

I know my friend, and I knew darn well that the T42 2373-CTO he had presented me with must have sustained a killer beating over the years. It still functions near silently, still holds a charge, not a pixel burnt out in the monitor. The only hiccup was that something seems to be wrong with the DVD drive.

It looks and acts like a ROM drive, and I've even sucessfully, albeit with much patience, booted it into a live instance of Lubuntu from a DVD. It only seems to be detecting the drive at boot, then none of the distributions I tried found it after having had the respective operating systems loaded up, and I couldn't use it to transfer information from my computer. It would spin and light up, but if there was any communication after the computer first starts up then my motherboard wasn't hearing it.

So I tried out Lubuntu and learned how to make Live USB drives

The DVD drive took forever, and I was properly motivated to start booting through a USB drive for the other distributions that I would end up trying. I was impressed with what I saw when I finally got it installed. It felt like a lighter Ubuntu, which was my goal.

I liked it so well I decided to install it. I used UNetbootin to copy the data from the appropriate iso file, not having yet learned about the bash command dd. Which I stumbled across just after installing Lubuntu.

What I should have done for Lubuntu instead of uNetbootin:

sudo dd if=/home/merockstar/nameOfIsoFile.iso of=/dev/sdb

I'm not certain if it would have helped or not, but I had better luck with all the other distros I put on a flashdrive in that manner. Note: Google search for a dd command that might be better tailored to whatever distribution of linux you're trying to put on a flash drive.

This process will take a few minutes.

The above command assumes that your usb drive is mounted at /dev/sdb – if you're not sure that this is the case, run this in a terminal:

mount

This will produce a list of all the devices mounted on the computer. Look for the name of your device somewhere in that gibberish to figure out where your drive is mounted at, if you need to.

Then I tried LXLE

Everything was smooth and I was content to just stick with Lubuntu. Until I tried to turn my computer off and back on again. On the very first restart it outright failed to boot. In hindsight, I am glad for this. I got to meet a bunch of better operating systems.

LXLE felt really crisp. It had the same basic layout as ubuntu except with less graphic intensive resources. It certainly did load and function sharp compared to what had been running. I liked the layout, it reminded me of a more minimalist Unity design, except with the action bar at the bottom. I think it was more tailored to the age of the hardware I was using, and so was able to boot quicker. It seems that LXLE is basically Lubuntu, except with a dock and prettier layout, and it's more oriented towards non- PAE machines, like this one.

Then I tried Damn Small Linux

Lubuntu was the only OS I actually attempted to install to the hard drive. LXLE and all the other ones I looked at afterwards were only loaded into RAM until I decided which one I wanted to go with.

That said, next on my list was DSL. It seemed like each operating system I tried booted up faster than the last. DSL is barebones to the max. It lacked features that I've come to completely take for granted. If you've forgotten how the first graphical operating systems handled and felt, or if you weren't old enough to remember, then running this one might be worth it just for the learning experience. It was smooth, everything I tried out seemed to work. DSL certainly lives up to it's namesake, it's under 80 megs. It literally took seconds to copy to my USB drive, and was probably the fastest booting of all the distributions I tried.

Ultimately, the reason I chose not go with DSL on this one was because it's not based on Ubuntu. The friend I was working on this computer for isn't that big of a computer nerd, so I wanted the distribution I chose to be based on the one that's most common and most well documented.

Puppy Linux and Crunchbang

Puppy Linux and Crunchbang I would categorize as a step up from DSL in features, but a step below Lubuntu and LXLE.

Puppy Linux confused me for a good twenty minutes as I attempted to figure out which of the distributions, Quirky, Racy, Wary, or the original Slackware Linux based Slacko, would be best to try on this computer. Quirky is a Puppy Linux variant based on Ubuntu. Racy is a Quirky variant tuned for newer machines, and Wary is tuned for older machines. Eventually I figured out that Wary, which happened to be based on the LTS release of Debian, made the most sense to use for this particular computer.

Puppy seemed like a slightly scaled up version of DSL. Slightly more feature rich but still noticeably still bareboned. Crunchbang seemed like a another step up in feature richness from Puppy.

So far I've liked every operating system I tried.

Then I came around to trying Bodhi

Bodhi blew me away though. It booted up only a little bit slower if at all than all the others, but in return I got just the perfect balance of features and utility, and lightness. I needed an operating system that could be set up and configured to be easy enough for my friends to use, but light enough to run swiftly on their old computer. I'm not saying Bodhi will necessarily be the operating system of choice for you for any old computer that you refurbish, but it's definitely a great one to try. I spent about five hours playing with, tinkerering, creating desktop icons, and configuring it until I deemed it just right for my friends to use. This wasn't because it didn't work right out of box, it surely did, but because I simply wanted it to feel a certain way. Much of that time was spent working throught the tutorial that comes with the OS.

I would encourage anybody thinking about trying this on their own old laptop to try booting into several distributions to see which feels and functions best for you.

If anybody reading that has any input into the subject of an operating system that might work better for my friends' computer I would love to hear from you. Contact merockstar on peercointalk or bitcointalk forums.

Computers | Hardware | Reference | How To | Software | Unix/Linux


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