Reviving an Old Computer with Ubuntu

Old computers can be a bit of an annoyance. They tend to lock up often, won’t run the newest software, and if it is one of those off-white boxes that were so common around the turn of the century, it may have even turned yellow by now.

While there’s not much you can do about yellowed plastic (although I’d venture a guess that bleach would work), there is an option other than the trash heap. After all, you paid so much for that computer back in 2001 it just doesn’t feel right sending it to its grave when all the parts are still working. Is there any hope?

Our old Compaq Presario 1200 laptop (circa 2000) was on its last days. The Windows 98 operating system had atrophied to the point where it took 5-6 minutes to boot. Once booted, there was about a 50% chance that it would lock up soon after you began doing anything. If that happened, of course, you would have to re-boot, which would take yet another 5-6 minutes. In short, running the machine with an 8 year-old operating system was an exercise in futility.

Enter Ubuntu, the free Linux distribution that purports to be a “humane” version of the open-source operating system. Fed-up with waiting so long to get a computer operational, I decided to give it a whirl. I backed up my important files to our desktop computer, and inserted the Ubuntu CD into the laptop. An hour and a half later, installation was complete — and it was surprisingly easy. At any rate, it was no more difficult than a typical Windows installation.

Now for the big test: would it recognize my Netgear wireless network card? Once again, Ubuntu came through. Aside from having to reconfigure my router with fixed DNS numbers from my ISP, connection was a breeze.

There has been a noticeable change in the speed and stability of the computer. It hasn’t once crashed, and it boots in about half the time it took Windows 98. Ubuntu manages the battery life much better as well — it lasts almost twice as long.

Neither I nor my wife use the laptop as our primary computer, and we only use it for occasional web surfing or word processing. The Ubuntu distribution includes OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox (which I upgraded to 1.5 via the Automatix script), and even a decent Tetris clone. There’s much more, but those are the essential programs I use.

If you’ve got an old computer sitting around collecting dust, and you want to breathe into it some new life, and you’re a bit adventurous, I suggest giving Ubuntu a try.

5 thoughts on “Reviving an Old Computer with Ubuntu”

  1. Hi,

    Putting Ubuntu on an old computer is a great idea. I would also say Linspire would be another option as the friendly end-user option.

    One thing with Ubuntu–I was teaching for a client last month using Ubuntu, and discovered they were having some problems because the distro actually had prerelease 1.9. The latest version of, 2.0.1, can be downloaded from, of course.

  2. Hey there,

    I’m glad that Ubuntu managed to revive that machine for you.

    I too have been impressed with Ubuntu and am using it to revive an old laptop like you did. I have it running and everything but the wireless card I have I can’t quite get to work. It sounds like your Netgear one worked well and that it was immediately recognised. Could you please tell me what card it was? Was it a PCMCIA one?

    I ask because I’d be interested in buying one if it worked with no problems so that I could get the laptop to have access to my wifi network.

    I hope you could email a response to me (matthen at



  3. Hey Matt,

    I have a Netgear WG511T 108Mbps Wireless PC Card (PCMCIA) working with my Ubuntu laptop. I didn’t have to add any special drivers, and it pretty much worked right out of the box with Ubuntu.

    The only problem I had was having to set my ISPs DNS numbers up on the alptop itself, rather than having the router set it up — but that was probably more a router/networking issue than a wireless card issue. Other than that, it works great.

    Hope this helps, and best wishes with your setup.

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