Magical pen drive to resuscitate ancient PC - a fake?
November 26, 2016 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Seen a lot of advertising recently for a pen drive costing €25/30 (various brands) which claims to put new life into an old PC. Has anybody used this, and if so what is your assessment?

In theory it's something I would find very useful to revive an old PC, if it really works, but the claims shout "fake!". So I looked for some reviews, and found only positive ones (again suspicious). However, one serious-looking review (which I can't find again) claimed yes, it does work, and it's quite simple: it's just Linux on a stick, pre-set up for non-tecchies like me, and anyone with Linux experience could DIY it.
I know nothing about Linux, no yearn to learn, and would be prepared to spend this relatively small sum if it does what it says on the tin.
Grateful if anyone who has used this product could comment - thanks in advance.
posted by aqsakal to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If it's Linux on a stick, then yes, using it will (probably) run faster than Windows did on an old machine. The limiting factor may be the speed of the thumbdrive, in fact, since you'll be running everything live from there.

But you won't have the same experience you are used to. It won't be your same software, files, and workflows, just faster. You will need to use different apps for things like email, writing, and other key tasks. It's more like getting a new computer with a different operating system (e.g. switching from windows to mac or the reverse) than it is like speeding up what you already have.
posted by lollusc at 10:23 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

You don't really need to know much (or anything) about Linux to make a bootable USB stick with a version of Linux on it--it's mostly following some pretty simple directions on a computer that has an internet connection. There are different versions of Linux but instructions for making an Ubuntu USB stick are here.

One downside of running linux from a USB key is that any tweaks you make to your settings, any bookmarks you try to save in your browser, etc only last as along as you have the computer on. Once you reboot it's back to square one.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:37 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

What lollusc said. Depending on the Linux distro and how it's setup, it's also portable, in that you can carry the stick around, and boot any computer from it, with your files etc. on the stick - I carry a stick with multiple distros for different scenarios. Most will also have the ability to install the distro on the computer harddrive - this would remove the USB bottleneck lollusc alludes to, but probably not necessary if you're just using it for basic internet/simple tasks.

(On preview:
One downside of running linux from a USB key is that any tweaks you make to your settings, any bookmarks you try to save in your browser, etc only last as along as you have the computer on.
You can have the stick remember settings/bookmarks/docs etc., as long as you enable 'persistence' during setup - this creates a file that acts like a partition, and is saved to at end of session.)

Can you share a link to the actual product you're looking at? (memail if you like.) Do you just want 'internet basics' or do you need to, say, edit Microsoft Word files?
posted by quinndexter at 10:44 PM on November 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh, also, you might not be able to boot your computer from USB. I have owned several computers in the past for which that isn't possible, even after tweaking the BIOS. If that's the case for you, you won't be able to use this pen drive.
posted by lollusc at 10:45 PM on November 26, 2016

I doubt it's fake - it can also be easily done yourself for free (modulo cost of the flash stick itself, of course)

One downside of running linux from a USB key is that any tweaks you make to your settings, any bookmarks you try to save in your browser, etc only last as along as you have the computer on. Once you reboot it's back to square one.

not exactly true. it's entirely possible to have persistent saves/changes across reboots, if you create the USB flash/stick/whatever using something like unetbootin - it will let you choose exactly how much space to set aside to store changes, new files you downloaded, etc. and then a unifying/merging fileystem will be used to (transparently, i.e. you don't need to do or know anything special, it simply works!) layer your saves and changes over top of the base system.

I promise it is not rocket-surgery to DIY this, and it is really hard to mess up:
- 20-25Euro ought to get you a nice 128GB USB stick, or maybe you have a stick already - even 16GB will work (or even 4GB will work but pushing it.)
- download e.g. ubuntu .iso image which is about 1GB (I might recommend an older but still current version like 14.04 simply because it may run a little faster than the current v16)
- use unetbootin to image the .iso you downloaded, onto the USB. and at the bottom of the window choose how much space to set aside for persistent changes.
- boot your computer from USB, method varies; the default selection should be something like "try ubuntu without installing", which is what you want.
- success. it comes with firefox already installed and I think even LibreOffice (mostly-compatible with MS Office products/files)
- profit! (...if you're the people selling the sticks you mention. and they're most likely buying bulk 4GB or 8GB sticks for like <5Euro or something.)
posted by dorian at 12:18 AM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

That's all meaty stuff; thank you all very much. I've read all and explored the link suggested by needs more cowbell, and I'd like to try to DIY it.

Two supplementaries, if I may:
1. If having tried the taste and liked it, would it be faster to install Linux on the HD rather than run off the USB stick forever? I saw from that link that it's an option.
2. The old PC I want to save from the trash-heap is networked (Ethernet) with my main PC, running Windows 8.1. From this hypothetical future Linux box, would I be able to read, edit, print, etc. files on the main box, or would I have to install a whole new collection of software? (I note LibreOffice is compatible with most of these current MS files: I mean for other file types.)
posted by aqsakal at 12:49 AM on November 27, 2016

I'll just chime in to say: I ran Linux on a stick on a pc that lacked a hard drive using a persistent live system. Worked great. Find a how-to online for creating a live persistent stick and it is a very simple process. It might help, since the issue is an older PC, to find a "lightweight" linux distribution to do this with.
posted by bertran at 12:50 AM on November 27, 2016

(regarding instructional wiki) rufus is the fastest imager out there (in fact it's what I prefer to use), but I believe it still lacks the persistence/sizing option? (then again, it's quite possible that latest linux variations don't even need that and just sort of save automagically internally while in live-mode? but that's only a guess...)

lighter weight distros would be e.g. lubuntu, xubuntu, even mint (if you use the cinnamon variant. I occasionally run mint/cinnamon on an old X31 (1.6ghz pIIIm, 2gb ram, ati7000/16mb graphics) and it's perfectly fine...)

- 1. yes. if you can beforehand make sure to transfer/backup any files you want to keep off of the existing windows OS, then totally wiping the HD and install lunix would most defs run faster than the flash drive.
- 2. sure, simply network-share a folder on your win8 machine and the lunix machine will be able to see it and also edit/save/copy/write to it. (few extra steps in setting it up, e.g. ensure writeable, password protection (recommended) etc.) - as for other file types, really depends which...
posted by dorian at 1:56 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're interested in Linux Mint (which, as a Windows user, would probably serve you well because it's polished and very userfriendly) then your most lightweight option is the XFCE variety.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:05 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

ooh, yes, what Too-Ticky said! Mint/XFCE is going to be the fastest version of mint for older machines. (point of fact, I'm sort of an idiot for not using it on that older thinkpad but I've just got so used to cinnamon lol...)

(oh and don't be scared although it can be confusing (it still confuses me after 20+ years, ha!) - XFCE, cinnamon, MATE, KDE, ... - are all simply different graphical desktop managers but the underlying OS is identical and all the same software applications are available regardless of which you choose. it's more about preference: some are heavier and have more graphics bells and whistles, some are lighter and much faster/suited on older machines)
posted by dorian at 2:55 AM on November 27, 2016

Just to be sure we're all on the same page: the benefit of running Linux on an old computer is that it might run much faster and more smoothly than Windows. It can't actually fix broken hardware - so it won't "revive", but may rejuvenate. (Apologies if this is obvious!)
posted by trig at 3:11 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

No, you're right to point it out, trig, and thanks, but I for one wasn't hoping in resurrection.
posted by aqsakal at 5:14 AM on November 27, 2016

(oh also you can install any other desktop manager you want, regardless of which one came out of the box. e.g. I'm using cinnamon right now, but installing xfce4 (23mb!!! and that's with a bunch of extra goodies included... I think the base packages itself was literally... 32kb *uncompressed*!) to check out what it looks like these days. at the login screen, you can choose among whatever ones are available/installed, and set which one should be the default. it isn't a debian/ubuntu/mint -specific thing either, just about any lunix does this.)
posted by dorian at 6:33 AM on November 27, 2016

I run Ubuntu from various old PCs. Some of them were too old to be able to boot from a "pen drive." All could boot from a dvd easily burned with free downloaded versions of Linux.
If you like it, you can then install Linux on the old hard drives. They network fine with a PC, but may require some configuration. I had to learn about SAMBA in order to fine tune which directories were shared. ("Learn" meant google and then copy config files.) I usually use a chromebook-like interface called CUB Linux. It's probably easier to DIY than fix whatever glitch (it's always something) accompanies the one you pay hoping to avoid. There are forums online in which noobs trying to do this ask questions.

In the end, it depends on what you want to run on them. Somethings are easier than others. For example, I had difficulty getting a driver for my web cam so I can't Skype, but normal web browsing is easy. Google docs meets my MS Office needs.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:41 AM on November 27, 2016

you can install any other desktop manager you want, regardless of which one came out of the box

On MInt, this is mostly true... but not always. KDE, in particular, does not always play well with others.
I would strongly recommend to try different desktop environments out in a virtual machine, or running from a live USB or DVD, instead of adding extra desktop environments to an existing installation.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:53 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

All excellent suggestions/pieces of advice here.

My only caveat (granted, about 2 years ago): installed Ubuntu on an old-ish laptop just to say I had done so. Took quite a while to figure out that the wireless card did not play well with Linux (although I was able to make it work finally).
posted by kuanes at 7:19 AM on November 27, 2016

(can't argue with Too-Ticky's good points there!)

((yeah, driver support for various certain radios - network, bluetooth, integrated network/bluetooth - has historically been beyond-problematic. a lot of that has been fixed (e.g. most Broadcom), but still not shipped in releases due to licensing/other-legal issues - these days a lot of it can be made to work with minimal extra effort, but the user is often unaware that additional firmware blob files are needed, or where to get them... not the user's fault at all.))
posted by dorian at 8:02 AM on November 27, 2016

I'll add one more caveat that was briefly mentioned up-thread: The limiting factor may be the speed of the thumbdrive, in fact, since you'll be running everything live from there.

Cheap USB flash drives can be really, really slow. I've had it take 5 minutes to boot an Ubuntu system that would have booted in seconds from a normal hard drive.

Once the OS is up and running and the most important files are cached, it should get faster, but you may still experience delays when starting applications.
posted by teraflop at 9:31 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

One more point to consider - if you have anything that's a Core 2 CPU or above (less than 10 years old) it's salvageable with the following:
* An SSD drive ($70)
* At least 2 GB of RAM, though 3GB is better. You may have to buy this via eBay.
* A separate video card ($40) if you don't already have one.

Backup your data, do a clean install of Windows 8.1. I believe you can still use your Windows 8.1 key to activate Windows 10, which is a much better user experience.

The computer that runs my TV is a Core 2 Duo with the above specs. It's nearly 10 years old and is 100% fine. Alternatively, you can buy low-end used Core i3 desktop PCs for less than $150. Look at Dell Optiplex, Lenovo ThinkCentre, HP Prodesk and HP Elitedesk.
posted by cnc at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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