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Help me Geek Squad these laptops!
April 8, 2008 5:00 PM   Subscribe

2 used laptops: what to do with them? One will be new to me (from my wonderful girlfriend), one will be new to my grandma (from me)

Part 1:
I'll be getting a ~2 year old Toshiba Satellite laptop, a pretty basic model with probably 512 mb of RAM and a smallish hard drive (no big deal, I have a My Book and am willing to upgrade RAM). What would you do with this machine, that has been taken care of very well - no downloads, etc., and only used for typing papers and surfing the web? I'm down for anything-I just want to make sure I optimize this computer as soon as possible. I'm into web surfing (generally 10-15 Firefox tabs open at a time), watching DVDs, and typing papers on the go (I have MS office). I'm also into photography, burning DVDs, and listening to a ton of music on itunes-but I deal with all of that on my high(er) performance desktop. Would Photoshop kill this machine? What are some of the applications you can't live with out? This will basically be a backup, take to school, and travel computer for me.
Part 2:
I'm going to give my grandma my 4.5 year old Compaq 2100. It's not in the best shape (I can no longer watch movies on it, probably a software problem I haven't taken the time to fix) and it runs slow. I'm thinking I'll re-install XP and start over from scratch-but what should I do after that? Does your grandma have a computer? She's kind of wary, but she's willing to give it a try. I'd like to make this as simple for her as possible: a gmail account, something to play DVDs, maybe something to help her with recipes-either looking them up or storing them, and any other suggestions you guys can throw out for me.

I'm sure some creeping on the MeFi archives would have helped a little, but I wanted to kill two birds with one stone and get both of these computers working to the best of their abilities.
posted by whiskey point to Technology (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Well, if you're slightly ambitious, you could put Linux on your grandma's computer. For an older computer, it'll run faster. That, and you won't risk her downloading spywares and viruses like crazy, and further frustrating her.

Actually, if you're slightly more ambitious, you can try Linux yourself on your new laptop too. If for nothing else, to learn something.
posted by Geppp at 6:11 PM on April 8, 2008


Your question is pretty vague, so my answers may be too.

1) Photoshop won't kill that machine, but you'll find it pretty slow. I'd even go as far as to suggest that you use an older version of PS, as they were designed to have smaller memory footprints on the machines of their time. (That said, how many times have you been in class or on the road and really, absolutely had to edit a photo in PS?) You could use a lightweight alternative, like Paint.net, or photoshop elements and be fine.

If you have problems with iTunes, try something lower footprint like winamp. It'll run a little slow on newer apps, but for day to day stuff, you'll be fine.

Use Google Browser Sync with your laptop and desktop to keep your profile synced. It makes switching computers painless. You might also consider setting your desktop up with some remote access software, so that you can ssh in (or VNC in) and get important files while you're away from home.

2) For your grandma's laptop (assuming she'll have high speed internet), the best thing you can do is set up VNC, along with dyndns or No-IP. This will allow you to remotely access her computer and troubleshoot, install updates from time to time, and walk her through things while you're on the phone with her. My grandma would be lost if I wasn't able to pop in and help her get an icon back once a month or so.

Set Gmail as her start page, which makes things easy too.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:16 PM on April 8, 2008


Actually, if you're slightly more ambitious, you can try Linux yourself on your new laptop too

I emphatically second this notion. Dual booting with Ubuntu is fun and relatively painless. You may find yourself never paying for another shitty MS upgrade again (*cough*Vista*cough)
posted by chrisamiller at 6:17 PM on April 8, 2008


For your grandmother's computer I would make sure that all maintenance and background programs are set to update automatically and to do so silently--things like Windows updates, antivirus definitions, antispyware definitions, defragging, etc.
posted by aerotive at 6:28 PM on April 8, 2008


Screw dual booting. Just make Grandma's laptop a pure Ubuntu box. Install the VLC package for DVD playback - it's vastly better than the Totem movie player that comes pre-packaged on the Ubuntu CD's.

My mother has Ubuntu, and needs very close to no technical support. My Dad has Windows XP, and needs lots.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 PM on April 8, 2008


Lol, ubuntu has come a long way, but it's still not the OS of choice for computer n00bs...at least IMO.

Would that I were you, I'd install something like TinyXP or something and preload some fun things like Avast/AVG/Clamwin, firefox, pidgin (with accounts set up!) and simple desktop shortcuts to get her rolling.

I realize all those options have *nix variants, but come on...granny at the command line? Pretty cool, pretty 21st century, but maybe not really practical.
posted by TomMelee at 7:55 PM on April 8, 2008


ubuntu has come a long way, but it's still not the OS of choice for computer n00bs...at least IMO.

That's where you're wrong. Linux is great for two types of people: The uber-nerds, and the complete novices. The former because they like to tweak too much, and the latter because they aren't already sold on the windows paradigm.

Ubuntu these days doesn't involve putting "granny at the command line". She'll be able to do everything she needs (dvds, firefox, email, word processing, etc) from graphical menus. She'll also be almost completely virus free, so you don't have to worry about getting the latest patches every day.

That said, if you aren't comfortable setting up a linux box in the first place, it may not be the right solution for you. It's come a long way, in terms of graphical installers and ease of use, but get comfortable yourself before you put it on anyone else's computer.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:37 PM on April 8, 2008


See, granny doesn't need to be at the command line. You can be at Granny's command line, if you feel motivated, via ssh. But as chrisamiller points out: Ubuntu, out of the box, just works; and there is, as yet, no Linux malware problem at all.

Theorise all you like, and make all the standard objections you want; I remain convinced by my own fairly extensive experience with setting n00bs up with new computers. People who run Ubuntu will very occasionally contact me to ask how to do something or other, and generally one email reply will sort it out. Those who chose Windows will frequently contact me saying that their kids have broken their computer again, and I will generally need to visit them.

There is a very specific way you can run a Windows box and keep it safe indefinitely: use a single password-protected Admin account for computer housekeeping, use nothing but limited accounts for day-to-day work, keep your anti-malware software up to date, and don't let the kids use the admin account. Unfortunately, this is never the way Winboxen are configured when you buy them, and it runs across the grain of the prevailing "everything is always permitted" Windows application development culture. Many popular apps simply won't work in this environment without fairly extensive tweaking. The net result is that the overwhelming majority of Windows boxes run with admin rights all the time, and this is what makes them so vulnerable to malware penetration. Windows Vista's "User annoyed constantly" privilege-elevation kludge is really nothing more than a failed attempt to wish this issue away.

Unix-family systems have always made a distinction between administrative activities and day-to-day use, and this distinction is reflected in the culture of Unix application development. It's very, very rare to find a Unix-family system that runs with elevated rights all the time (the Linspire distro is the only one that comes to mind) - the standard configuration for a Unix box is for the inbuilt security stuff to be actually turned on. That, and the fact that Linux has such a small market share that it's really not worth malware developer's time to target it, makes it a much, much more hassle-free choice for Grandma from a security point of view.

Make your own laptop a dual-boot, learn enough Ubuntu to feel comfortable with it, and then give Granny an Ubuntu-only one.
posted by flabdablet at 9:11 PM on April 8, 2008


@Geppp:
I have zero experience with Linux but have been very curious about it, any ideas on that one? I'd most likely put it on the older Compaq, but if there was a valid reason for the Toshiba I'd consider it.

@chrisamiller:
(That said, how many times have you been in class or on the road and really, absolutely had to edit a photo in PS?)
Good point, point taken.
For your grandma's laptop (assuming she'll have high speed internet), the best thing you can do is set up VNC
Another excellent point, I can see myself doing a lot of troubleshooting and being able to take over would be huge.
Dual booting with Ubuntu is fun and relatively painless. You may find yourself never paying for another shitty MS upgrade again (*cough*Vista*cough)
How do you go about dual booting? I've heard of boot camp for Mac OS/Windows, but again, I don't know anything about Linux or how to run both. Also, I use Apple computers at school, and I love them-just can't afford one, in case that matters for ease of Linux use.
if you aren't comfortable setting up a linux box in the first place, it may not be the right solution for you.
I have a few good friends who are more computer savvy than I (I'm not as dumb as I sound in the question though, I was at school and wanted to ask this question tonight-sorry for the vague-ness) and very determined, but I don't know anyone who has experience with Linux. This might be our chance to learn, considering the amount of people suggesting it. MeFites are just about the smartest people I know.

@aero:
I would make sure that all maintenance and background programs are set to update automatically and to do so silently
Good idea. I really don't want her to have to do ANYTHING...just start using it and enjoying it.

@flabdablet:
Install the VLC package for DVD playback
I've had trouble with VLC on my desktop and actually on the laptop when the DVD playing software stopped working (I may just need to re download it), but if you say it works well with Ubuntu we'll give that a try. Your second answer has good logic as well. I'll start throwing up some best answers after I see what the morning MeFites have to say, I get my Toshiba tomorrow night!
posted by whiskey point at 9:51 PM on April 8, 2008


How do you go about dual booting?

Install Windows first, on a partition that doesn't occupy your entire disk; then install Ubuntu, letting its installer automatically partition the remaining free space for you. Ubuntu will install GRUB (the GRand Unified Bootloader). The first thing you see when you boot will be the GRUB menu, and you can pick Windows or Ubuntu off that.
posted by flabdablet at 10:10 PM on April 8, 2008


Two more notes:

1) If you have windows already installed, Ubuntu will let you resize your windows partition and install that way. (otherwise, what flabdablet said). It's all pretty easy with the graphical installer, and there's more help than you'll ever need over at the Ubuntu Forums.

2) You can give Ubuntu a try just by popping the install CD into the drive and rebooting. The liveCD will be much slower than an actual install, but will give you an idea of what the user experience is like without any commitment.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:43 AM on April 9, 2008


wait for about 15 days, the new version of ubuntu(8.04) is coming out.

Why wait when you can get the previous versions??

well for one wubi: Wubi allows you to install ubuntu in existing windowsas a program without going through the hassles of partitioning etc... hence no geeky knowledge required. When its not working or you messed up somehow.. just uninstall wubi and you have windows to fall back on.

Ubuntu comes with the most basic apps like open office, firefox and pretty fast in old computers.
posted by radsqd at 7:42 AM on April 9, 2008


Sorry, I should have been more clear.

Give granny Ubuntu and you will be the only person she knows who can possibly POSSIBLY give her tech support. Any new hardware, any issues, any anything is all going to be on you, because she can't call your mom and say "now how do I send this email?" because she won't have a clue. She won't get man pages, and she won't be able to find tech support on websites. I doubt she'll really get how to comb through forums and use bayesian searches to find the string that answers her question.

I agree that nix is great for ubernoobs, because they haven't been crippled by learning something different. If I was going to make an ubernoob computer though, I'd use the ubuntu distro that's designed for children. I forget what it's called but I know it exists.
posted by TomMelee at 1:05 PM on April 9, 2008


It's called Edubuntu, and it's got a lot of specialized teaching stuff in it, and it isn't as good a n00b distro as plain vanilla Ubuntu.

Any new hardware, any issues, any anything is all going to be on you

In my experience, this is going to be the case anyway for Designated Family Tech Support Person.

Something important about Ubuntu is that it runs the Big Three cross-platform apps that people are already switching to in droves on Windows - Firefox web browser, Thunderbird email (you should install this and make it the default mail handler, since the Evolution mail client that Ubuntu comes preconfigured with looks and feels like a clunky Outlook, and we clearly don't want to go there) and the OpenOffice.org office suite.

I know several people who have come to me in hair-tearing despair, having been unable to come to grips with Microsoft Office 2007 on their shiny new laptops (where the hell has Save As gone? And why can't anybody else read documents I send them?). In every case, I've simply installed OpenOffice.org on their computers and showed them where the "File type" option is in the Save As dialog - and they're happy campers again.

Microsoft jumped the shark with XP SP2 and Office 2003. Everything since then has been a giant leap backwards from the n00b's point of view. Vista and Office 2007 between them are doing really good work in driving the uptake of Ubuntu. And as more and more people are becoming familiar with Firefox, Thunderbird and OOo, random tech support for Ubuntu is only ever going to get easier to find.
posted by flabdablet at 11:09 PM on April 9, 2008


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