How, why, and what OS for my old notebook...
April 7, 2009 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What OS should I put on my aging laptop? How do I do it?

I have an old hp pavilion ze5700 that was given to me. It's as slow as Christmas, and has recently started shutting itself down... :P

I have another computer, but I'd like to keep this one around for emergencies, travel, whatever. I was thinking of just wiping everything out and installing a new OS, Linux I guess. I've never done this before, so I have some questions. I'm no technophobe, and am a quick learner, but am new to this aspect of computers, so...

Which Linux should I use? I see there's a Damn Small Linux, and that it's fast, but is that too minimal? How do I get rid of Windows and install Linux? Will things like my wireless connection still work, or do I need to add a program or something for that?

I would appreciate answers, tips for newbies like me, or links to websites that would help. Thanks in advance for the expertise!
posted by SuperErin to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Burn an UBuntu live CD, boot up from it, and try it out. If you like it, and everything on your laptop is working (sleep, sound, video, wireless?) you can then install it from the CD if you want.
posted by zippy at 2:12 PM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

That machine shouldn't be all that slow. Maybe try a fresh install of XP? Damn Small Linux is pretty minimal. I'd go with Ubuntu. Ubuntu doesn't work with the wireless on my laptop, but it's newer hardware than yours.
posted by DarkForest at 2:18 PM on April 7, 2009

What are the specs on the machine? If it's low on RAM (anything under 1GB), you might want to consider Xubuntu instead of Ubuntu. Its window manager is a little more light-weight
posted by chrisamiller at 2:25 PM on April 7, 2009

Linux. Probably Ubuntu. Here:

As zippy said, get a live CD. Go to the website, follow instructions, download a live CD. Get 8.10 for desktop, 32-bit (should be self-evident, but if you run into options, that's what you should choose).

Will say that it might take some work. So if it's old, you should be prepared with the possibility of it not working, or not working smoothly.

Once you put in the CD, reboot, it should tell you what to do, and it'll get rid of Windows and everything for you. Have your ethernet cable plugged in at first.

If Ubuntu doesn't work or work well, there are others flavors of Linux, which I've never tried, but one of them is sure to run on your laptop.
posted by Busoni at 2:31 PM on April 7, 2009

It is light on RAM. 512 i think. I don't really need it to do anything special. Just internet, word processing, playing some music, maybe uploading some photos while on vacation.

I'm not sure about reinstalling XP. Its a good suggestion, but I'm interested in learning about Linux, and this seems like a good opportunity to do so.

It seems like ubuntu is the favorite. Any other recommended Linux flavors?
posted by SuperErin at 2:45 PM on April 7, 2009

For learning, you can't go wrong with Puppy Linux.
posted by notned at 2:51 PM on April 7, 2009

I know that this isn't really your central question, but people are often surprised at how inexpensive it is to upgrade memory these days.

The ze5700 can support a maximum of 1GB of RAM and shipped stock with 256MB. Are you sure you have 512MB?

Regardless, you can buy 512MB sticks from Crucial for $40 a pop. For $80 you could pop in two and, regardless your OS, have a much zippier experience.
posted by kbanas at 2:59 PM on April 7, 2009

512 ram is quite a bit for a small distro and XP. I have a couple xubuntu servers on machines with 256 megs of ram. That's more than enough. That hardware can easily handle XP. Your choice, but Id go with xubuntu before trying something thats purely command line.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:00 PM on April 7, 2009

I run Xubuntu on my laptop. It is just the distro that I prefer. DistroWatch has more information about all of the various Linux distributions. You might also consider FreeBSD or one of the other BSD's. If you really want a hardcore introduction to Linux, Linux From Scratch will guide you through the process of building your own version of Linux.
posted by calumet43 at 3:03 PM on April 7, 2009

Don't use puppy linux, it is a root user only distro, which is insecure, teaches you bad linux using habits, and makes it easy to mess up your own system.

Regarding the wifi, there are very few, if any, wifi cards that will not work with ndiswrapper.

Regarding sleep / suspend / etc. this varies enormously and is mostly dependent on how cooperative the folks who made your bios are with the linux developers. With most laptops getting sleep / suspend / etc. will be a pain in the ass if it is possible at all, in my experience. I see that you have an HP. Most likely you will have issues with making suspend and sleep work, because HP hates linux, but you can always try it out.

The optimal combination of easy to install and small resource usage is probably xubuntu (for extra credit you can install regular ubuntu and strip it down even smaller than xubuntu - I did that even though I have 2gb of ram, I just don't feel like feeding all the ram to gnome).
posted by idiopath at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2009

The thing is, with Ubuntu, even Xubuntu, a full install is still pretty fat.

If you know a lot about Windows and don't know much about Linux, you might be better off with a tweaked-out NT/2k/XP setup (LitePC, services disabled, the works).
posted by box at 3:18 PM on April 7, 2009

Or buy two 512MB sticks of cheap RAM for $20 each.

You don't need a tiny Linux distribution; with 1GB RAM, any Linux or Windows XP will do just fine on this machine.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:18 PM on April 7, 2009

On the other hand, if you don't know a lot about either, then, yeah, Xubuntu is probably the sweet spot. Nthing the max-out-the-RAM thing, too.
posted by box at 3:20 PM on April 7, 2009

The main reason everybody's piling on Ubuntu is that it's a very easy distro to work with. Lots of things Just Work out of the box, it's got Debian's rock-solid update mechanism underneath it, Canonical has a rather more pragmatic political stance than Debian (Iceweasel??) and of all the presently available distros Ubuntu is probably the easiest one to find online expertise about.

Any of the Ubuntu family will run comfortably in 512MB RAM. You don't need a specifically lightweight version like Xubuntu for that.

I'd go with 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) unless you're particularly interested in keeping up with the six month release cycle for "normal" (non-long-term-support) Ubuntu releases.
posted by flabdablet's sock puppet at 3:22 PM on April 7, 2009

It is light on RAM. 512 i think.

Regular Ubuntu ran fine on 512 RAM on my old computer, for what it's worth.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:35 PM on April 7, 2009

I just recently jumped into Linux and went with Linux Mint. From what I've read it's pretty much the same as Ubuntu, but has a lot of stuff you're likely to need come with it, making it easier for new Linux users. I would recommend it so far.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 5:16 PM on April 7, 2009

hehe - flabdablet, I just started on Debian a month ago and never knew that about Iceweasel, Interesting. I will now rename it Icerabbit on my system (seriously, why didn't they stick with that name?)
posted by mannequito at 5:29 PM on April 7, 2009

I'd go with 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) unless you're particularly interested in keeping up with the six month release cycle for "normal" (non-long-term-support) Ubuntu releases.

I'd disagree. Go with 8.10. Even though Ubuntu ships a new version every 6 months, it usually takes an extra month or two before all the little kinks are ironed out. 8.10 is solid by now, and you'll appreciate some of the new features and bugfixes contained within.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:20 PM on April 7, 2009

CrunchBang Linux is an unofficial variant of Ubuntu which is even more lightweight than Xubuntu (although that is official) and includes all the various proprietary stuff Ubuntu requires you to install (like flash, media codecs, DVD playback, etc.). It also tries to be relatively easy to use. It also uses the Ubuntu software repositories, which means that you have access to all the software Ubuntu users do through a simple process of adding and removing programs.

It has Conky pre-installed, which can be used for various notifications and looks vaguely cool with its bundle of stats and notifications on the desktop.
posted by Gnatcho at 2:55 AM on April 8, 2009

The Iceweasel thing was at least as much down to the Mozilla Foundation being jerks as it was to Debian's internal politics. They let Ubuntu get away with exactly the things that they were saying made it impossible for Debian to use the Firefox trademark.

Back to the original question though: the machine is probably slow because the hard drive is old, slow (it's a laptop drive, it's going to be slow) and fragmented. Reinstalling anything on it will probably improve things considerably.

As others have said, burn an Ubuntu install CD & boot from it: you'll get a "Live" desktop running from the CD & should be able to test out all the peripherals etc.

The Linux on Laptops page often has useful links for a variety of laptop PCs: they sometimes need specific tweaks to get things working. Mostly stuff just works these days though.
posted by pharm at 2:59 AM on April 8, 2009

They let Ubuntu get away with exactly the things that they were saying made it impossible for Debian to use the Firefox trademark

Did they, though? If I understand correctly, the sticking point with Debian was that Mozilla considered the Firefox logo graphics to be part of its trademark, and therefore didn't license those graphics under terms compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines; therefore, Debian refused to ship those graphics, even after having obtained Mozilla's permission to use the Firefox trademark; this decision was unacceptable to Mozilla, who wanted the name and the logo used together for product recognition reasons, and withdrew permission to use their trademark.

Canonical apparently doesn't feel a need to apply quite such stringent tests to the freedom of every single byte they ship as Debian, was willing to comply with Mozilla's terms of use for its trademark, and obtained Mozilla's permission to do so in 2006. The official Firefox logo has been included in Ubuntu since 7.04 (Feisty).

An illustration of this rather more pragmatic approach is the existence of an Ubuntu package for a bunch of free-as-in-beer-but-not-as-in-speech proprietary stuff that makes Ubuntu more useful for the end user. Installing the ubuntu-restricted-extras package gets you Adobe Flash, Sun Java, heaps of useful codecs (including MP3) and other assorted goodies. Ubuntu also includes, out of the box, non-open-source hardware drivers for e.g. nVidia video cards and Broadcom wireless networking, which is basically the only way to get those things to work properly (Mint apparently refuses to countenance this - scroll down to Why does Linux Mint include proprietary drivers?).

And you can easily get DVD decryption, mplayer and its win32 codec set, and VLC from the Medibuntu repositories.

And some of us like brown :)
posted by flabdablet's sock puppet at 6:30 AM on April 8, 2009

Thanks for all the advice! There's a lot of info here, and i'm looking forward to wading through it!
posted by SuperErin at 11:31 AM on April 8, 2009

I just wanted to second chrisamiller and calumet43's Xubuntu suggestions. Ubuntu uses a window manager called Gnome, which can be kind of slow and bulky (although very user-friendly) on older machines. For something that runs a bit quicker and provides the same applications (which may require a bit more searching), Xubuntu uses a different window manager called XFCE. The latter is designed to be very responsive and to not use a ton of the system's resources. You can get it here -- just follow the same instructions as the regular Ubuntu distribution.
posted by spiderskull at 5:47 PM on April 8, 2009

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