Installing Linux on an elderly laptop

Published on 17 May 2008 in , , ,

It was a couple of months ago that I finally grew weary enough of Catherine’s muttering about the slowness of our seven year old HP laptop, that I dug around online and ordered a new one. And verily did it arrive, complete with Vista. And lo, it seemed slower than the old one did… And I did mutter something about putting a nice copy of Ubuntu on it, but never did.

At the same time there have been a couple of changes in the household. Catherine has been increasingly using the new laptop wirelessly downstairs rather than sat at the twin desks upstairs. The fact that we currently only have one desk chair has also not helped. And whilst my desktop Dell, with its Wacom tablet and nice monitor, is a good PC, sometimes you just want to lazily slouch on the sofa and check your emails there. A spare wireless laptop would be handy…

HP Omnibook XE3

The HP Omnibook XE3 – known to friends as Muffin the Wonder Computer

The old laptop, a wonderfully rugged Omnibook XE3 (known here-on-in by it’s name – Muffin) obviously doesn’t have wireless built in, but it was recently furbished with a dodgy Wireless USB dongle which worked well enough in Windows.

But Windows was slow, and whilst I felt that re-installing Windows XP might help, Muffin is only a 900Mhz Celeron with 384meg of RAM and a 20Gb hard drive. And I don’t like Windows (although XP is far better than Vista) – I’m a Linux user and have been for years. And it was time for Muffin to get a conversion.

I knew Muffin would be a reasonable machine for Linux to run on – the reason I’d originally got that model was a friend telling me that HP tended to use good, solid, commodity parts that would be well supported by the 2001 versions of Linux. Indeed for a bit, Muffin dual booted with a copy of Mandrake Linux.

Talk Talk USB wireless dongle

The dreaded USB wireless dongle

I was more cautious about the Wireless. I tried plugging it into my desktop PC (called Humbug since you ask) and using ndiswrapper, managed to get it working using the Windows drivers. One snag was that it seemed to conflict with my Wacom tablet, but the mouse was fine.

Next to find an appropriate Linux distro. My demands on Muffin would not be particularly arduous – a simple beast for checking email and surfing would be the main thing. Mail could be handled via the web using Google Mail, hence a copy of Firefox or Opera would suffice. Word processing would be a maybe for a few tasks. Google Docs was a possible, but I’d prefer something else for offline times. The PC would be mostly networked, so huge amounts of spare hard drive space weren’t a priority – most file storage would be on Humbug instead.

I normally run Ubuntu and love it too bits but keeping in mind the age of the PC, a lightweight Linux distro would be a good bet.

I dug a few out and prepared to go.

Vector Linux

Vector Linux The first try was with Vector Linux which had recently appeared on a Linux Format cover disk and was apparently supposed to be a very good lightweight distribution. It’s based on Slackware. I downloaded a recent Live CD and gave it a whirl.

The Live CD seemed okay, although with some performance issues that I attributed to being run that way. The Wireless dongle didn’t seem to work properly in Live CD mode, so I hit the install option and went on my way.

Install seemed to be fine, until it came to writing the boot loader. This completely refused to install – in the end I worked out that the installation script was trying to install the boot loader onto the CD-ROM! There seemed no way to force it to actually use the hard drive instead and my attempts to do so via the command line continually failed.

Not deterred, I downloaded an installation copy of Vector and tried that way. This time, installation worked a lot smoother and we were in.

Wireless also worked fine – a nice Wireless Wizard guided me through installing the Wireless dongle’s Windows drivers using ndiswrapper and within minutes I was connected to the net. We were off!

The working wireless however was about all that worked well. Vector continued to be dog slow for me – far worse than Windows was on the same machine. Using the web was also rather tortuous, with both Opera and Firefox suffering glitches were chunks of text would not be rendered unless you tried to highlight them.

With a heavy heart, it was back to the drawing board.

Ubuntu and SuSe

Riffling through my DVD collection, I decided to shove in a copy of the Ubuntu 7.04 Live CD I happened to have just to see what happened. My thoughts about it potentially being a bit slow proved to be founded, but knowing that the Wireless should work, I installed from the Live CD anyway. Unfortunately installation failed on every attempt with the install crashing during a hardware probe.

Similarly I found a recent copy of OpenSuSe off a Linux Format DVD. SuSe was the first Linux distro I ever tried back in the late 1990s (and the one where I managed to trash my Windows setup losing all my data). I’ve tried it recently but have always found it a bit awkward in configuration, but decided to give it a try none the less.

Here I met some off problems where I managed (probably my fault) to end up in the frankly horrible FVWM window manager, and my attempts to change it refused to work. Trying to install some new packages meant I had to wrestle with YaST’s package management which would throw up confusing and cryptic errors about conflicts and missing packages without helping me through the process of finding and installing them – someone at SuSe needs desperately to look at how Debian handles these things and learn some serious lessons, because the package management alone was enough to make me give up there and then.

CD writing problems

The switch at this stage from lightweight to conventional distros was a purely practical one – they were what I had lying around, as, for reasons best known only to it, my desktop PC had suddenly stopped recognising blank CD-Rs when I inserted them. Still isn’t doing – blank DVD+Rs fine, bit not CD-Rs.

At the same time, when I burnt ISOs from the new laptop, they were proving to be unbootable from the old one (but would be fine on the new). In the end, I found out it was something wrong with Roxio Creator which was installed on the new PC – changing to a different DVD/CD burning programme, the same ISOs suddenly became bootable again.

And with that, I tried two off the best known lightweight distros – Damm Small Linux and Puppy Linux.

Damm Small Linux

Logo for Damm Small Linux Damm Small Linux is just that. It’s small. Very small. But it packs a serious punch and upon inserting the Live CD, it booted fast. Very fast. In fact the whole thing just zoomed along – a joy to use and was the fastest disto I tried out. The initial set up, complete with dark colour scheme, even put up a laptop monitor on screen with useful stats like battery life.

Although designed as a Live CD, DSL can be installed so I did just that. As it’s less than 50 meg, installation was very quick and very soon I was in there trying to set up the wireless.

Wireless was where things began to fall down. For starters, the GUI config tool would only use WEP encryption for wireless whilst my network uses WPA (which is more secure). My hunt for details of how to configure via the command line didn’t help. You also had to know the name of the network, rather than a nice tool searching out what was available. Not surprising given the small size of the distro, but I would have preferred to have had a wireless network scanner.

However that wasn’t the end of the problems because every time I tried to use ndiswrapper to use my wireless dongle’s Windows drivers, the keyboard completely locked up. Even trying to configure it by the command line caused the same problem. The only cure was a reboot.

Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux logo With DSL out of the frame, I had high hopes for Puppy Linux which is another small distro intended to be run from a Live CD, but which also has an install option.

Again the Live CD seemed a trifle slow, but with nothing to lose, I installed anyway.

On the Wireless front, things seemed more promising. The wireless dongle drivers were installed correctly, and had a little tool to show me available networks in the area. Connecting to a neighbours unsecured network (whoever you are, you really shouldn’t do that…) worked fine.

Connecting to my own (secured) network however was not as forthcoming. Every time I entered my network’s password, Puppy told me it wasn’t valid – it wasn’t long enough and that it needed to be at least eight characters long. Unfortunately for Puppy, my password IS eight characters long exactly.

I did contemplate changing the password to a longer one but decided not due to other problems with Puppy – namely that it was slow and would randomly pause every 30 seconds or so. Just a few seconds pause, but incredibly frustrating and frankly unusable.

Why this should be the case, I’ve no idea. I know other people who run Puppy with no problems, and the problem also existed before I installed the Wireless dongle so I knew it wasn’t an ndiswrapper related problem.

Sadly I was getting no where fast.


Xbunutu logo Everynow and then, you do something and you think… well why didn’t I do this before?

I’m an Ubuntu fan – I’ve used it on my main PC for about two and a half years and it just keeps getting better and better. Things have an amazing tendency to work nicely – configuration is usually easy. In short, I like it.

Ubuntu however would be too heavy for my elderly laptop – just not enough RAM, so I’d downloaded a copy of XUbuntu 8.04 – a spin-off which is less resource hungry.

I’d originally downloaded it early on, but it had got caught up in the CD burning issues, and also I’d read that XUbunutu’s memory usage was still a tad high so I’d put it on the backburner.

However these were desperate times. Nothing was working. So it was time to burn a new, bootable CD, and give it a go.

I loaded it up from the live CD. Boot time was a tad slow but it loaded and performed okay. As I’d recently read (or thought I’d read!) that Ubuntu live CDs didn’t allow access to some USB devices, I hadn’t bothered plugging in the USB dongle, but on the off chance, I plugged it in to see if I could get it working.

Within seconds, XUbunutu had recognised the dongle, installed the drivers and was searching for available networks. Within a minute I was connected and on the internet.

I was stunned. Nothing I’d seen on other distros had even suggested that there was a native driver for the device (a Talk Talk branded monster, which is actually a re-badged Phillips device) – every time I’d been pointed to use ndiswrapper and load up the Windows drivers. But here I was, surfing the web, checking my email.

Why on earth hadn’t I done this before?! I couldn’t help but think about all the fuss and hassle I could have avoided. It didn’t take me long to decide to wipe the hard drive again and install it.


And so it came to pass – Muffin the wonder computer has been running XUbuntu for about two weeks and is going strong. Memory usage is still a tad high – after just booting up, it’s using about 130meg – about a third of what’s available in the PC. There’s some tweaking to be done on that front – however performance is fine. Firefox 3 runs slightly slow with about ten tabs open, so I might change over to something lighter, but even so, my seven year old laptop is giving the new one a good run for its money. So much so, that it’s convinced me that the new laptop needs a copy of Linux running on it as soon as possible.

In fact the only problem I’ve had with the old laptop since installing Linux is that, by sheer coincidence, the battery died. But spending £30 on a new battery is a lot less wasteful than spending a couple of hundred on a whole new laptop.

Muffin is unlikely to cope with some of the demands I put on computers – sorting out my photos and video tends to use lots of RAM, but for checking email and writing the odd document, she runs well. And here’s to her running Linux for a few more years yet too!

If you’re interested, Muffin is joined in our house by my main Dell PC, Humbug, and the new HP laptop which is, for reasons I can’t recall, is called Edam. You might notice some sort of theme in that – especially when I tell you that my MP3 player is called Gouda. Actually I’ve always wanted to own two servers and have them sat on top of each other. The top one would be called cheese. The bottom would be toast…


  • William T says:

    Because I had nothing to lose, and I wanted to see what Linux was like (the GUI, I mean, I’ve used the Debian command line to write code and manage webservers for over a decade) I had a go at installing it on a laptop even more modest than yours.
    Specifically, whilst Muffin boasts a “900Mhz Celeron with 384meg of RAM and a 20Gb hard drive”, my (unbranded!) “Millennium 1001” machine (system build date 1998) has a Pentium II 266mhz processor, 12GB disk space and 144MB RAM – the latter, you should note, is the maximum possible you can install: 16MB on board RAM plus 2×64 expansion slots.
    Unfortunately I gave up with Damn Small Linux – I’m sure it would have been promising, except that as soon as it got to launching the GUI bit it always locked up, and I gave up after trying various switches.
    Xubuntu, on the other hand, whilst it took a long while to get there, had an effortless install process, didn’t ask me any questions about my display or my PCMCIA ethernet card (the machine has two PCMCIA slots and a single USB port – that’s it) yet set it all up perfectly when I booted.
    Unfortunately it takes a little over 3 minutes to boot the machine, I get the problem a lot of people do in that my hardware doesn’t support suspend or hibernate, and opening any new window is very slow – once you’ve got Firefox open (and its fortunate it comes with the latest version pre-installed) you can browse around on the slow side of comfortable, and the word processor is OK, but you’d have to be pretty desperate to use it on a regular basis. The CPU copes reasonably but the hard disk is slow which doesn’t help when it keeps needing to use swap.
    BBC iPlayer framerate test? 1 frame per second. (comparison: my Nokia N810 manages 4-5 fps, and that’s pretty frustrating…)
    Its a shame because I was looking for a reason to postpone buying an eee PC for a month or two to allow Asus to invent a few more varieties and perhaps get some of the models they have already announced actually into the shops, but I can’t really use this for a week in a hotel. Nor can I sell/give it to anyone when it can’t cope with a slimline linux install. And this was a purchase of over £1,000 8 or 9 years ago…

  • fleming says:

    Nice review!!!
    Heplful and informative.

  • may tinh xach tay says:

    Riffling through my DVD collection, I decided to shove in a copy of the Ubuntu 7.04 Live CD I happened to have just to see what happened. My thoughts about it potentially being a bit slow proved to be founded, but knowing that the Wireless should work, I installed from the Live CD anyway. Unfortunately installation failed on every attempt with the install crashing during a hardware probe.

  • Cock_E says:

    …after reading this post, I hope to get it right with Xubuntu 8.04.
    XE3 is pretty robust piece of hardware, so I asumed that it should last more than few weeks after leting it to my neices – just to get familiar with another OS 😉
    So thnx in advace, cause you’ve made my decision about which distro to install.
    Thnx man!

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    This post was from 2008 so you might want to go to go a little newer – XUbuntu 11.10 is out now.