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Linux Productivity Magazine

May 2012

Putting New Life in Your Old Laptop

Copyright (C) 2012 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Linux Productivity Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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Don't upgrade to Ubuntu 11.10 before first deciding exactly what to do about Kmail!  --  Steve Litt.


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
November 24, 2006, during the Black Friday sales, my wife Sylvia bought her Compaq Presario v5000 laptop. As I remember, it was somewhere around $300. A real steal back in the days when $700 was a good laptop price.

It worked well for the first year or so. But gradually, with our kids using it, all sorts of Windows XP problems began slowing it to a crawl. Finally, the laptop got into a Catch 22 in which the when you changed the password, it said the password was changed, but the password didn't change. Finally Sylvia couldn't log in at all.

I offered to install Linux on it, but my wife didn't want that. She likes Windows (she liked it much better back then than now), this was a rugged, good computer, with 375 MB ram, a 32 bit, 2000Mhz single core Sempron 3300+ processor, a 60GB PATA hard drive, and Windows XP.  It had a sticker that said "Designed for Windows XP, Windows Vista compatible".

The real problem was that there was nobody in the house who understood how to troubleshoot Windows XP. The kids and I did our best to fix it, but all of us were Linux users and knew little of Windows XP. We tried and failed several times. By this time the computer was too old and obsolete to spend money to take it to a repair shop -- it languished.

April 2012

Some time in early 2012 my wife said "if you can throw Linux on my old laptop, why don't you do that?" I'd been waiting a long time to hear that. In April 2012 I had a few hours to spare, so I whipped out my Ubuntu 11.10 disk (32 bit), and my System Rescue CD CD, and got to work. First task -- back up the laptop's old data files. After finding which directories contained videos and documents, I rsync'ed them all to my desktop computer. But late in the rsync process read errors began cropping up. A quick view with System Rescue CD's smartctl showed the hard disk was hosed. Not surprising for a hard disk that hadn't spun up in 4 years.

$40 at Newegg bought an 80GB replacement. I swapped the drive and installed 32 bit Ubuntu 11.10. The computer was pig slow -- not surprising for a computer with 1/5 the RAM of a modern $400 laptop. When I tried to do the mass-update that must be done on any newly installed Ubuntu, it took forever and then froze. Ugh!
Why Ubuntu?

The obvious question is, why did I install Ubuntu? Why not DSL, or Puppy, or Slitaz, or even Slackware or a BSD? To say that Ubuntu isn't optimized for an underpowered computer is an understatement. I had two reasons:
  1. My desktop computer is Ubuntu. My laptop is Ubuntu. One of the kids' desktops is Ubuntu, and as soon as I upgrade the other two kids' computers they will be Ubuntu. Life's too short to maintain five different distros. I'm getting pretty good at Ubuntu, and that's a big time saver.
  2. My experiences with lightweight Linuces is that they make lousy desktops. With off-the-beaten-track browsers (Dillo -- really?), and other never-heard-of-it apps, it seems to me like just when you want to get productive with your lightweight computer, it blocks your path. Most lightweight distros have limited package systems, so it's hard to get special apps running.
Or, why not an old version of Ubuntu designed for computers made in 2006? That question's pretty obvious -- security. Having an ancient OS is tantamount to enlisting in the zombie bot army and spending most of your cycles sending out spam or DOS attacking a website.

So I decided that if this laptop couldn't perform well with Ubuntu 11.10, it would be converted to an OpenBSD/pf firewall appliance, saving a fortune in electricity over the desktop now performing that job.

Luckily, once a few obstacles were overcome, it performed quite well with Ubuntu 11.10.

So, sitting there with a pig slow, half updated computer, my thoughts went back to 2002, when an underpowered 20th century computer choked on Mandrake. It was slow, glitchy, and couldn't run more than 20 minutes without a reboot. As a last ditch Hail Mary, I had switched my desktop from KDE to the much lighter IceWM, and bang, it worked like a normal computer. So on my wife's Compaq, I installed and switched to LXDE,  a lightweight, intuitive, handy window manager.

What a difference a window manager makes. After repairing the damage of the aborted update, I updated all the important security updates in a half hour or so, then the other updates in even less time. No hangs, no problems. Her computer could now do any one task as well as you'd expect any computer to do, and it could have several programs running and waiting for input. It was a practical laptop.

My last major job was getting her Broadcom BCM4318 AirForce One 54g to work. You know how badly Broadcom neglects Linux. A little Internet research suggested installing Ubuntu package firmware-b43-installer, I did so, and wifi worked.

Getting Wifi, especially Broadcom Wifi, to work usually isn't that easy. This document has an article outlining tips to get Wifi working.

My wife now has a very usable laptop computer. Her 2006 Compaq Presario v5000 has risen from the ashes, thanks to Linux. If you're looking for ways to use Linux for practical benefit, kick back and enjoy this issue of Linux Productivity Magazine.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

The Process

By Steve Litt
Here's a summary of the process of Ubuntuizing an old laptop:
Steve Litt is the author of the Rapid Learning for the 21st Century. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Exploration and Backup

By Steve Litt
Before overwriting a machine's disk, you must explore it and capture its valuable data. To do that, boot it with a live CD. I use both a  modern Ubuntu CD and a modern System Rescue CD CD. Read-only mount all the partitions you find, find out where valuable data is stored (as opposed to Windows programs and configuration), and back up the valuable data.

There are several ways to back up the data. You can back it up to an external hard disk, or a USB thumb drive, or via Ethernet you can back it up to a separate computer. For the latter I use the rsync program, usually with the -vaH arguments. Study rsync's man page to figure out the exact command.

If the old computer's hard disk is too fried to back up, you might have success with the ddrescue program that comes with System Rescue CD. This would be considered a last-ditch Hail Mary attempt to rescue very valuable data. Don't use it to rescue your five year old homework assignments. System Rescue CD has other programs that may be able to recover data from fried hard drives or filesystems, but that's not the topic of this document, so if in need, explore System Rescue CD further.

If, for diagnostic purposes, you want to find out if the machine has viruses, you can use Clam-AV from System Rescue CD.

One of the toughest tasks in Linuxizing a laptop is getting wifi to work, especially with Broadcom wifi chipsets. Therefore, during this investigative period, find out the type of wifi on the laptop. Perform the following command as root:
sudo lshw | less
Now you have all the hardware in the less pager. In order to search case insensitively in less, press the dash and then uppercase I (-I). Now use slash to find things, just like in Vim. Search the string "wir", and look around. You should find the make and model of your wifi chipset. Write it down for later.

Once you've rescued what data you can, your last task is to test the computer's hard disk and RAM. System Rescue CD has a program called smartctl to check the disks for problems, and one called memtester (memtester-64bit for 64 bit machines) to check memory.  When using memtester , keep in mind that you have to tell it how much memory to test. If you tell it way too much, it fails to allocate -- no problem. If you tell it too little, it simply tests less memory than you have -- no problem. But if you tell it an amount that's near the max, it allocates it, and then the System Rescue CD Linux operating system is memory starved and slows to a crawl. So you might want  to instead use the memtest86 that's a boot selection on Ubuntu CDs.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Economic Analysis

By Steve Litt
Test the battery. My research tells me that laptop batteries are over $100, at least locally here in Orlando. It looks like they're just under $100 online, except for the cheapo bargain ones. Except used as a firewall, a laptop without a battery is pretty much useless. With modern laptops costing $400, you might not want to spend $100 on a new battery.


The battery doesn't necessarily need to be good-as-new. It doesn't need to run the laptop for two or three hours. If the battery is capable of covering the time it takes to unplug the laptop, walk from one meeting to another or one class to another, and then plug the laptop back in, that's probably good enough.

Another must for a laptop is wifi. If you can't get your wifi to work with Linux, it's useless as a portable machine. Wired network access is getting rarer and rarer. One workaround is to use a travel router that can convert Wifi radio waves into wired ethernet to plug into your laptop. BE SURE the travel router supports WPA and WEP security in that mode. Travel routers cost $50-$150, but in my opinion everyone should have one.

Another wifi workaround is to use a known-Linux-friendly USB wireless NIC. These are hard to find, and typically cost between $30 and $60. They're good to have around though, because you never know when you'll get a laptop with a Linux-ornary wifi chipset.

Finally, use System Rescue CD's smartctl to test the hard disk. If you need a new hard disk, that's between $40 and $120.

Once you have the facts, decide whether to spend the money to make it a full-featured laptop, convert it to a firewall, or just throw it in the trash.
Steve Litt is the author of the Thriving in Tough Times. Steve can be reached at his email address.

The Firewall Alternative

Let's say your exploration shows that the laptop has only 64MB of RAM. It's going to be hard to run any modern full-featured Windows or GUI-equipped Linux on such a machine. You could probably install one of the stripped-down Linuces such as DSL or Slitaz, but often those give you less than desireable apps.

Or, you could make the laptop into a OpenBSD/pf firewall. Because firewalls run 24/7, and because laptops burn a lot less electricity than desktops, replacing an existing desktop based OpenBSD/pf firewall with a laptop could save you a lot of money, especially in the summer when you need to crank the air conditioning to get rid of the heat from the firewall. Laptop firewalls have the further benefits of tiny physical footprint and an always available dedicated monitor.

To learn how to install an OpenBSD/pf firewall, go to
Steve Litt is the author of the The Key to Everyday Excellence. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Installing Ubuntu

By Steve Litt
From your exploration, you know whether the laptop is 32 or 64 bit. Download and burn the most up to date stable Ubuntu ISO for the architecture. Be sure to check the "Install third party software?" checkbox so that, after installation, you can listen to Youtube and interact with proprietary formats. For times sake, also check the box asking whether to install updates while installing the software.

Most of Ubuntu is on the web, not on your CD. You're going to need the fastest Internet connection you can get. I'd suggest using wired rather than wireless. Not only is wired generally faster, but more importantly, it's much more likely to work during installation.

During your installation, I'd suggest having other family members refrain from watching videos or listening to web music. Every kilobit of bandwidth they use is a kilobit you can't use, and it slows you down. If you have dialup, and a lot of rural people have no economical choice but dialup, Ubuntu isn't the distro for you. Choose one of the multi-dvd distros instead.

Given that you're going to completely blow off the laptop's Windows system, and you've (presumably) backed up its data, and given that the laptop's hard disk is probably small, my recommendation would be to take the Ubuntu installer's default, which is "use whole hard drive."

When asked for a login name and password, be sure to remember what you put, so you can log in later.

When the install process is complete, it will want you to reboot, and after rebooting, you'll be brought to a login screen. DO NOTHING until you've read the next article...
Steve Litt is the author of the Troubleshooting: Just the Facts. Steve can be reached at is email address.

Do These Things Before Logging In

By Steve Litt
Modern Ubuntu versions come stock with only two desktop managers: Unity and Unity 2d. Both are bloated, neither is appropriate for an old laptop. Most old laptops are underpowered by today's standards. NEVER run an underpowered laptop with either Unity version -- you could get yourself stuck in a bad state.

After installation, when your laptop asks you to log in, instead press Ctrl+Alt+F2 to reach a text terminal. Then log in, and become root with the following command:
sudo su -
The sudo command will ask you for the password for your username -- type it in. Now do the following commands:
apt-get install lxde
apt-get install ssh
apt-get install vim
apt-get install vim-gtk
The preceding gives you the all-important LXDE lightweight desktop, enables ssh both directions, and gives you Vim both CLI and GUI. DO NOT install vim-gnome -- you want to stay as far away from Gnome as possible on an old machine. And for gosh sakes, install NOTHING KDE. KDE is all-bloat-all-the-time and, at least for me, an almost guaranteed two crashes per day. For me, KDE is everything I left Windows to get away from.

Most laptops have truly obnoxious touchpads, and with Linux it's often hard to find a way to shut them off. I recommend Ubuntu's Touchpad-Indicator. Here's how you install it:
add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
apt-get update
apt-get install touchpad-indicator
If you really hate the new Ubuntu Software Center and prefer the old Synaptic package manager, you can install it now like this:
apt-get install synaptic
When the rest of this document refers to "your package manager", it means either Ubuntu Software Center, or Synaptic, depending on which you're using.

One last thing. Humor me. Reboot your computer. Yes, yes, I know, I know, rebooting is just for non-hotswap hardware replacement or knownothing knewbies. But I'm an elder in the Church of the Known State, and to me it's a whole lot easier to reboot and know where you stand rather than to encounter a problem and wonder if it was caused by a config that wasn't reset by a mere logout.

Now you have everything you need to proceed...
Steve Litt is the author of the Quit Joblessness: Start Your Own Business. Steve can be reached at his email address

Log In For the First Time

By Steve Litt
After your reboot you're at Ubuntu's login screen. If during installation you enabled only one username, that username will be defaulted now. Otherwise you'll need to pick a username, so pick one. Once your username is either defaulted or picked, a field will open up for you to type a password. DON'T TYPE IT YET!!!!!

Before typing the password, notice a tiny, circular gear like thing in the upper right corner of the password input field. Click the gear and a list of possible window managers appears. Click LXDE, or another lightweight one like Xfce, rxvt or fvwm2. Now your username defaults to that window manager, and Unity will no longer slow your computing to a crawl. You can now type in your password, and you will be brought to the desired window manager. From now on, every time you log in as that user, you'll be brought to the same window manager, which you can subsequently change by once again clicking on the gear.
Steve Litt is the author of the Rules of the Happiness Highway. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Update Software with Update Manager

By Steve Litt
Mass-updating a just-installed distro is a long, drudgerous process, especially on an anemic computer. Try to have a speedy Internet connection. If possible, use a wired rather than wireless network connection. Make absolutely sure you're using a lightweight window manager such as LXDE. If you do this step with Unity on a memory-starved machine, it will take forever as it continually swaps between RAM and your swap drive.

Do the updates in steps. First, do only the important security updates. You can quickly check only these by unchecking the catagory headings for the other types of updates. Once only the important security update category is checked, run the update. It might take an hour or two unattended. Go off and do some other work. Once it finishes, run the next category. Then the next.

Once all the security updates have been completed, you can rejoice in the knowledge that the riskiest and most time consuming part of installation is behind you.
Steve Litt is the author of the Thriving in Tough Times. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Choose a Window Manager

Personally, I like LXDE. Straightforward, no-nonsense, hierarchical menu user interface. Plus the fact that it has a CPU graph in the taskbar, and you can put a battery gauge in the taskbar. And its run function on the first menu hierarchy acts a lot like Unity's "Dash Home" search facility.

This content was written in April 2012. In May 2012 Xfce became my favorate window manager, so the June Linux Productivity Magazine is devoted to Xfce.

But you might prefer other light window managers, such as Xfce, fvwm2, and the like. Feel free to install and try them. Just don't use Unity, Gnome, or for gosh sakes KDE on an old, underpowered computer.
Steve Litt is the author of the Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Get Wifi to Work

By Steve Litt
A laptop without Wifi isn't too useful in today's world. Wired Internet connections are becoming rarer and rarer. If you have a Linux friendly Wifi, like the Atheros Wifi on my Asus laptop, the computer might fire up with wifi enabled.

Before going any further, make sure the hardware switch for your Wifi is turned on. You might not be familiar with this laptop, and if the Wifi is turned off in hardware or Bios, you could spend hours or days uselessly trying to find just the combination of drivers to enable Wifi. Check the bios, and check the case for a switch. Use a flashlight to read the small print and/or symbols indicating Wifi enablement.

If Wifi isn't working, Google is your friend. Look up your Wifi make and model, and Ubuntu 11.10 (or whatever version you're using). One thing you should try is Ubuntu's "Additional Drivers" program. If there's one for your Wifi and it isn't already enabled, try it.

If you have a Broadcom 43xx and the "Additional Drivers" driver didn't work, try this:

Encrypted Wifi

It's reckless today to use Wifi that isn't encrypted. And the encryption must be better than WEP. If your wifi is encrypted, you need to put its password in the password section of the security tab. So it looks something like this:
The preceding directions should enable you to log into an encrypted Wifi if your notebook's wifi is configured correctly, and if the house's or business's wifi is configured correctly. You can judge the house or business wifi by whether other devices can log into it. If you have a Wifi equiped Kindle, it makes an exceptionally simple test for your local wifi.

Diagnostic Tools

There are some diagnostic tools that might be helpful. Remember, you can't do anything until there's a wireless NIC detectable by iwconfig.


iwconfig is a text program that, in its simplest form, tests for Wifi adapters. Here's an example:
slitt@mylap2:~$ iwconfig
lo no wireless extensions.

eth0 no wireless extensions.

wlan0 IEEE 802.11bg ESSID:"mybiz"
Mode:Managed Frequency:2.412 GHz Access Point: 00:18:39:EA:48:CF
Bit Rate=54 Mb/s Tx-Power=20 dBm
Retry long limit:7 RTS thr:off Fragment thr:off
Power Management:off
Link Quality=52/70 Signal level=-58 dBm
Rx invalid nwid:0 Rx invalid crypt:0 Rx invalid frag:0
Tx excessive retries:0 Invalid misc:10 Missed beacon:0
The name could be wlan0, or rausb0, or ath0, or any number of other things. But if you see nothing but lo and eth0, your driver isn't doing its job revealing the wireless NIC.


You run this command like this:
sudo wifi-radar
The main value of this command is to see what wireless networks are broadcasting in your vacinity. Under certain conditions it can do this even when your wifi is so misfigured that it doesn't show up in iwlist.  I suggest you don't try to actually change or edit anything with it -- it slows down to a crawl. With wifi-radar, my motto is "look but don't touch".


Typically Ubuntu has packages and methods to get a notebook's Wifi to become functional if the notebook is more than two years old. For the few cases where Ubuntu doesn't have the stuff to get the notebook's Wifi working, use ndiswrapper. You can see a description of how to set up ndiswrapper at
Now's the time to get your wifi to work. Based on the wifi's chipset and model as discovered earlier, see if there's a Ubuntu package for that chipset, and if so, install it. Try finding directions to enable your wifi on the Internet, and if you can't do it that way, you might need to use ndiswrapper.
Steve Litt is the author of the Manager's Guide to Technical Troubleshooting. Steve can be reached at his email address

Tips for Operating an Underpowered Machine

By Steve Litt
First, use a lightweight window manager. Next, don't have too many programs running at once. If you really need lots of programs open, you need to buy a new computer. When you start multiple programs, make sure one completely loads before starting the other, or you might be confused whether one or both ran, or whether your computer hung. If you use LXDE, look at the CPU graphic on the taskbar to find out when the CPU is maxed out, and do nothing while it is.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

GNU/Linux, open source and free software

By Steve Litt
Linux is a kernel. The operating system often described as "Linux" is that kernel combined with software from many different sources. One of the most prominent, and oldest of those sources, is the GNU project.

"GNU/Linux" is probably the most accurate moniker one can give to this operating system. Please be aware that in all of Troubleshooters.Com, when I say "Linux" I really mean "GNU/Linux". I completely believe that without the GNU project, without the GNU Manifesto and the GNU/GPL license it spawned, the operating system the press calls "Linux" never would have happened.

I'm part of the press and there are times when it's easier to say "Linux" than explain to certain audiences that "GNU/Linux" is the same as what the press calls "Linux". So I abbreviate. Additionally, I abbreviate in the same way one might abbreviate the name of a multi-partner law firm. But make no mistake about it. In any article in Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, in the whole of Troubleshooters.Com, and even in the technical books I write, when I say "Linux", I mean "GNU/Linux".

There are those who think FSF is making too big a deal of this. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The GNU General Public License, combined with Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto and the resulting GNU-GPL License, are the only reason we can enjoy this wonderful alternative to proprietary operating systems, and the only reason proprietary operating systems aren't even more flaky than they are now. 

For practical purposes, the license requirements of "free software" and "open source" are almost identical. Generally speaking, a license that complies with one complies with the other. The difference between these two is a difference in philosophy. The "free software" crowd believes the most important aspect is freedom. The "open source" crowd believes the most important aspect is the practical marketplace advantage that freedom produces.

I think they're both right. I wouldn't use the software without the freedom guaranteeing me the right to improve the software, and the guarantee that my improvements will not later be withheld from me. Freedom is essential. And so are the practical benefits. Because tens of thousands of programmers feel the way I do, huge amounts of free software/open source is available, and its quality exceeds that of most proprietary software.

In summary, I use the terms "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" interchangably, with the former being an abbreviation for the latter. I usually use the terms "free software" and "open source" interchangably, as from a licensing perspective they're very similar. Occasionally I'll prefer one or the other depending if I'm writing about freedom, or business advantage.
Steve Litt has used GNU/Linux since 1998, and written about it since 1999. Steve can be reached at his email address.

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