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Bringing old computing kit back to life with Linux


Come on then, own up. How many of you have a pile of slow laptops gathering dust in a cupboard or a line of old pcs that no one will touch because they take over two minutes to start up? Well, before you remove their hard drives and consign them to the junk pile you should really take a look at Linux.

Linux is an operating system, just like Windows is an OS that the majority of schools use on their computers. Chances are, the old computers in your school run Windows XP and run it very, very slowly. Linux can help to speed those pcs up and make them almost as good as new (apart from the obvious signs of wear and tear, no OS can remove that).

Linux is freely available and as its an open source operating system it is continually being developed, improved and upgraded to make it even better. But Linux comes in many different distributions (distros) - my favourite is Ubuntu but you can also have Edubuntu, Xbuntu, Fuduntu, Mint, Debian, Fedora...the list goes on but two for beginners are Ubuntu and Mint. For this article I will focus on Ubuntu but most Linux distributions can be used.

What do I need to do before I get it?
Make sure your old pc or laptop has at least 1GB of RAM - I have used Ubuntu on a laptop running 512MB of ram but it is slow and defeats the purpose of breathing new life into one. At least 1GB or more is best. RAM is quite cheap and it is more economical to buy some extra RAM for older pcs and laptops than buying new equipment. RAM is located on the bottom of a laptop, usually under a screwed in plate. You can either add extra RAM or replace the one that is there. Use to pinpoint the exact RAM you need. As for a PC, you will need to open the side of the computer and locate the RAM sticks - YouTube has plenty of video walkthroughs to guide you along.

How to get a Linux distro like Ubuntu.
It’s quite easy actually. You can either download one of the distros to a pc (one that is still functioning as it should) and create a LiveCD/DVD of the distro; this is a CD/DVD that lets you play with the Linux OS without having to install it, great to make sure it will function on old pcs and laptops before installing it. You can even download a USB version of the distro and use a USB pendrive to test out the OS before installing, but you will need to make sure you can boot your laptop or pc from a USB drive first before using this route. You can do this quite simply by starting up the laptop or pc, pressing either the ESC key or F2 to enter the Bios menu and changing the boot order there.
To get Ubuntu go to this site and follow the instructions. To install a Linux distribution onto a memory pen the easiest tool for the job is UNetbootin (available free from their site)

So I’ve got it installed, now what?
Well, play with it. Be amazed at how fast your previously defunct and dusty kit has become and how everything you plug into it just works. You will need to get to know your way around and the Ubuntu site has excellent information regarding tips, resources, applications to download, where to download them from and an amazing responsive and helpful community that are there to answer any of your questions. A word of warning though - if your school internet lies behind a proxy then I suggest you stay away from Xubuntu as it requires some coding to get it to work.

My own story.

I’ve installed Ubuntu onto 5 old laptops that I found cast aside in different cupboards in the school. Installing Ubuntu onto them has meant each is now fully functional and used daily by children in my class. We don’t have access to many of the software titles that we have installed on our Microsoft PCs in school but we have found as a school we are gradually moving away from many of those titles in favour of online tools. A Linux OS is perfect for that. The children took very little time to get to grips with Ubuntu and now actually prefer using it to some of the Windows XP machines. Some children have enjoyed using so much that they have installed it on an old pc at home much to the delight of their parents.

My favourite Linux Distributions

This article was originally published in Teach Primary magazine.

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