Transforming an Old Linux into a Magic Laptop for a Gifted Young Child
February 18, 2020 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Help a not-so-gifted mother magic-ify an old Linux for her gifted but very young Vulcan.

I have a gifted but very young child who shows interest in computers and technology. I have a small Asus with an old version of Linux on it I am not using. While competent, I am not particularly gifted when it comes to technology.

Would it be possible to use this as a platform for teaching my young child about computers and technology? In my admittedly vague vision, I would like to program the computer with him to have a few basic things - email (that only I send him anything on, like awesome pictures of the surface of the sun), maybe Homer (a learning/reading app, although I'd like to put a daily timer on it), a painting/drawing program, something to play music, and I'm not sure what else. Something to teach programming? No brain "junk food," nothing social, just an opportunity for him to develop, but in a very narrow and supervised way. I'd like him to be part of the programming/development process.

Is my magic vision a thing? Kind of like how they make those phones that nearly blind old people can't screw up, but more open in that it's capabilities will expand over time.

He is reading a little, but not enough to type full sentences yet, although his sight recognition and recall is great. I have Apples for my home office an an old PC, but the Asus one is tiny and I felt like Linux was a little more techy, although I don't even know if people are even using Linux anymore. I have an old Kindle fire, too, but my vision does *not* involve him sitting around clicking through games and getting zombified and whiny. I've kept him off phones and pads for the most part for a reason. I want this to really be a learning machine, that he will come to understand the brain of, if he chooses. He's super rule-based and industrious, so I think it might work.

Open to ideas, resources, and tips - anything to broaden my very limited perspective, which is just a vague and imprecise vision of what I'm wanting to call the "Magic Machine."

Thanks so much, mefites!
posted by letahl to Technology (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A simple Linux won't require a lot of interaction with the operating system once you get it working, especially if you only have a few programs loaded on it. But expect it to be a little fiddly to get everything running the way you want it initially. But there are forums for every possible distribution and Linux people tend to be friendly about helping problem-solve.

Tux Paint is still a good basic drawing program. I highly recommend Scratch, a visual programming platform that's great for kids to build their own animations and games. For a while I had an Asus Eee that I loaded Easy Peasy linux onto, but that was years ago.
posted by rikschell at 8:21 AM on February 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

but the Asus one is tiny and I felt like Linux was a little more techy, although I don't even know if people are even using Linux anymore.

Yes, yes they are. Linux desktop users are probably 2-3% of users overall. Maybe more if you count folks who tinker with Linux here and there but use macOS or Windows primarily.

Is this an EeePC from Asus? One of the really tiny models, like a 7" or 10" form factor?

If so, that's going to be a very old version of Linux. Maybe Xandros if I recall correctly, which is no longer a thing as far as I know.

What you imagine is certainly doable with what you have on hand, but potentially frustrating because all of the resources related to the version of Linux you have on hand are going to be very outdated (and possibly only available via's Wayback machine at this point).

If you can spare a few bucks, I recommend checking out Raspberry Pi's and getting a new Raspberry Pi kit and working with some of the resources they have for exactly what you're trying to do.

You may want to try Scratch programming on the Pi, though it may take a little longer if he's not reading full sentences yet.

This kit will get you everything you need except a monitor. There are even laptop shells for the Pi and other kits that will do all sorts of fun things kids enjoy.
posted by jzb at 8:34 AM on February 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yes, it is an Asus EeePC, that's right. Can't I just update the operating system to a new version of Linux? Gosh, I feel like I'm asking a question that reveals how incapable I'll be at this project. :)
posted by letahl at 8:44 AM on February 18, 2020

Can't I just update the operating system to a new version of Linux?

Maybe! Most likely you can, but your options may be limited depending on which model you have - the EeePCs were optimized to be low cost and were low resource machines even compared to other laptops of the same year(s). Some models had 32-bit only CPUs which rules out a number of modern popular Linux distributions.

I am sure you're capable! Might be a bit of a learning project for you, too, but I am sure you're capable if it's something you really want to tackle. If not, the Raspberry Pi route is very well paved for folks who are less interested in wrestling with older hardware.
posted by jzb at 9:34 AM on February 18, 2020

This guy installed Ubuntu on an EEEPC 701 and documented the process. If that worked, from there you could look for guides to making Ubuntu into what you want.
posted by umber vowel at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you were starting fresh without the existing old computer, I would recommend getting a Chromebook for this purpose. They are much harder to break and you can still do a lot of tech stuff on them.

Linux would be fine here too as long as you personally are willing and maybe even a little excited to maintain it and sort out problems. There are Linux distributions aimed at kids too, like DebianEdu and the Sugar-on-a-Stick (SOAS) Fedora spin.
posted by bright flowers at 10:05 AM on February 18, 2020

Also with an old eeePC the batteries are likely shot by now, probably won't even hold a charge (may not charge at all). I have an old eeePC, a netbook, and the first chromebook... none of them will work unless they're plugged in and the chromebook has to be plugged in for a couple of days to get enough charge to even turn on. Those old batteries are worn out if you used them or toast if you didn't use them.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2020

I highly recommend the Raspberry Pi if that's something you'd be interested in. My brother bought me the latest to replace the previous model. He got me the kit that included the keyboard and mouse and a SD card. He also got me a fan. I had to put the board into the case, and he told me to get a heat sink to go with it. I was able to put the whole thing together on my own with a little effort.

Raspbian is a nice little OS. There are lots of resources online to help you get started. My kit came with a book and it has a section on Scratch.
posted by kathrynm at 6:03 PM on February 18, 2020

I used to have Ubuntu running on an EEEPC. It was fine. I switched to Mint at some point, which I think was smaller and faster, and probably Puppy Linux would be better again?

You should be able to install a simple Linux OS (try Ubuntu, see how it goes - you might need to not use the latest version but it won't take long to find out. You can install a few different ones onto USB keys or something and boot from those to try it out), and then just install a few basic apps that do the things you have in mind. (Go into the software centre, search for things in the categories you want.)

Put shortcuts to those apps on the desktop. Uninstall things you don't need (like browser etc, probably). Click around in the settings and disable as much else as you can so the child doesn't accidentally do anything crazy.

Have fun!
posted by lollusc at 6:55 PM on February 18, 2020

Turns out I already put Ubuntu on it so I'll tinker and see about the updates and programs mentioned!
posted by letahl at 10:05 AM on February 21, 2020

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