Handmedown Laptop Reborn Under Ubuntu Linux

Recently we came into possession of an old Dell Latitude laptop that my mother finally replaced with something more functional. By the time it came into my hands it was not doing too well. Loading a browser and trying to get to a web page took several minutes. Slow doesn't begin to describe it. That was a shame, as I'd kind of hoped to give it to the eight-year-old as a homework machine, which would have allowed me to give my equally creaky old laptop to the eleven-year-old for the same purpose.

The laptop was running Windows 2000, but the chip was a hardy PII/400, so that shouldn't have turned it into such a slug? Poking around a bit, I learned that it had only 128Mb of memory, which seemed like the likely culprit. Fortunately the 128Mb was all in one bank, leaving the other free. Last week I filled the empty bank it with a 256Mb SoDIMM, and all of a sudden the machine came to life. Sprang to life would be an exaggeration, but it was functional instead of a doorstop. But it didn't run win98 games or run fast, so it didn't seem the ideal machine for an eight year old.

For my next trick, I got a copy of the Ubuntu Linux Live CD. Ubuntu is an especially user-friendly Linux distribution built on the solid foundation of Debian. A Live CD is one you can run as a program, instead of as an install, to see if your devices will be recognized and to see what the look and feel will be like.

Ubuntu seemed to recognize everything out of the box except the wireless cardbus card. Unfortunately, there is no Ethernet connection on this elderly model, and I was a little nervous on relying on my limited nonexistent Unix configuration skills to make the wireless card go. A little Internet shopping revealed that the docking stations that used to sell for well over $100 now are being dumped, used, for peanuts, so I got one of those. Ubuntu saw the docking station port off the Live CD without a hitch.

Providentially, this week my kids both decided to learn HTML (I have studiously avoided prodding them to get interested in computer stuff; either they do or they don't). So when I told Younger Son that I could turn the machine into something that was “very good for web pages” and which had this fun worm game on it too (“Gnibbles”), he liked the sound of it.

So this weekend I installed it. No dual-boot, the hard drive is too small, just pop it in and go. The install took a long time, there was one error message about fonts, but everything seemed to Just Work when it was over — including recognizing both the Ethernet port AND the wireless card.

It's pretty cool. So far there have only been four minor problems:

  • There was no documentation that I could find on how to get the laptop to see my network printer that runs off a print server. I finally guessed it was a “Linux printer” (not the default choice), entered the IP number as the “host” and the obscure queue name in the queue, told it I had an HP1200, and bingo! up came a list of drivers, with the first on the list marked “recommended”. That didn't work. Choosing the second on the list, the first one with an “hp” name, did work.
  • Somehow, the eight-year-old managed to drag one of the menu bars off to the left side of the Gnome desktop, where they blew up into giant icons which chewed up a third of the desktop real estate. I was utterly unable to drag it back. Some googling found that someone else had this Gnomish issue, and that the only fix is to copy the icons to the main desktop, where the shrink to normal, delete the icons on the left, then create a new menu bar on the top. I did that, and it worked, but it was a very frustrating experience until I found the fix in a discussion group online.
  • Synaptic is a powerful and (relatively) friendly package manager, but it's not perfect yet. I tried to install a bunch of things onto the machine, and I have no idea where half of them went. They claimed to download fine, but when the install was over, for half of them there were no icons on the desktop, nor in the applications drop-down menus. Maybe if I install them one at a time….

Update (5/4): I think the problem has something to do with this Desktop file thing. But what if anything I can do about it remains opaque.

  • None of the firefox internal upgraders like “get more extentions”, “get more themes” or the firefox updater itself seem to work at all. They start up a window, but it stays resolutely blank. How do I install firefox extensions under Ubuntu?

But the eight year old seems very happy.

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2 Responses to Handmedown Laptop Reborn Under Ubuntu Linux

  1. blunted says:

    Thanks for the link to the Ubuntu software… I’ve been planning on building a Home Theater PC, but was a little wary, since my knowledge of Linux/Unix based systems can just about be fit in a thimble.

  2. I’d check carefully how this works for DVDs and other potentially proprietary media formats. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work 100% out of the box but will need tweaks.

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