Reviving elderly laptop for my kid with Linux, Y/N?
March 26, 2020 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I have a 2010-ish Sony Vaio laptop in a cupboard. My kid is doing school online using Google Classroom, currently on a iPad. This is fine for consuming video but hopeless for producing work - file management is confusing, it’s hard to tell when and where changes are saved, etc. I am only moderately computer savvy. Is Linux the best route to making this old laptop into a computer a 4th grader can use for her schoolwork ? She needs Google classroom, youtube, pdf viewer, and a word processor.

The most recent relevant Ask is from 2010, and I am quite anxious about bricking our only proper computer option, hence this very basic question. Laptop model is VGN-SZ650N, running Windows Vista Business. It had some display problems but I seem to have solved these by updating the drivers. But it’s running ancient versions of the browsers and it doesn’t look like I can install up to date ones under Vista. I don’t want to pay for a new version of Windows for such old hardware. I also assume Windows 10 or whatever would make it unbearably slow. Linux seems the obvious alternative, but while I’ve installed Windows before I have no experience with Linux. So

(a) If I went with Linux, would this computer stably run an up to date browser, Google Classroom and youtube, and office programs? If at all possible I'd prefer to use Chrome - the school district is all in on google and the teacher keeps saying the reason things aren't working is because people aren't using google stuff. It looks like Linux runs Chromium, not Chrome - is it similar? Please note that I don't care about privacy stuff.

(b) can a person without much computer expertise do this? What Linux version do you recommend? It doesn't need to be superfast or anything, just easy to install and stable and simple to use.
posted by ogorki to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's worth a try. I had my IT guy put Ubuntu on 2 older laptops for my kids. It mostly works. There are occasional crashes (my kid now knows how to restart the computer). One of the laptops is only able to run Firefox, the other can run both Chrome and Firefox.

One thing you might run into is not having the correct drivers for the hardware. Here is a guide for one such installation, but that might not be the same laptop as yours.

So in conclusion, it's worth a try, but you might not succeed. Be prepared to watch lots you youtube tutorials, and spend time hunting down answers on 5 year old forum posts. Good luck :)
posted by pyro979 at 11:21 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

The simplest solution would be to install Neverware CloudReady instead of Linux. This would make your old Vaio behave simiarly to a Chromebook. You can try it out before you permanently install it. The article above has instructions.

For an easy-to-use Linux on older machines, most recommendations I've seen are Linux Mint Mate or Lubuntu, but I would recommend starting with an article such as this one to help you decide.
posted by blob at 11:25 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

Some thoughts:

1. It's pretty difficult to actually brick a laptop. That being said, bricking it to the point where you'll need outside help is definitely possible, so your caution is probably justified.

2. It's possible to install Ubuntu on a flash drive and run it off that. It'll be a bit slow but should work. The nice thing is that if you mess up the installation, you can just pull out the flash drive, boot into Windows and try again. (There was also a thingy to install it in a directory on your Windows partition but that seems to have gotten abandoned.)

3. Modern mainstream Linuxes are pretty good at being easy to install. I recommend Ubuntu. Here is a tutorial for doing the installation.

4. Chrome will probably work on the old laptop although you may benefit from closing tabs as needed. The big issue tends to be RAM and if you're running on a flash drive, you may not be able to set up a swap partition (i.e. a thingy to offset RAM usage by caching stuff on disk).

5. There's an Ubuntu variant called XUbuntu that's a bit easier on computer resources. If need be, it's pretty simple to enable that on a stock Ubuntu installation so I recommend you start with that since the documentation seems to be better.
posted by suetanvil at 11:30 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]

(a) Yes, most likely it will run an up to date browser. Seems like you'd have 2GB of RAM which is going to be pretty minimal to run Chrome. I think it can be done, but I hope you have patience and like closing tabs. That's the minimum for Neverware CloudReady too. (Note: Neverware CloudReady is a non-Google build of ChromiumOS, so it is a Linux OS, just a very heavily customized one.)

(b) Yes. I would recommend Linux Mint or Ubuntu, my personal preference would be Linux Mint Xfce, as it's likely to require fewer system resources.

The installer is reasonably simple. You'd need to download the image to a computer and set it up on a USB thumb drive, and make sure that the Vaio is set to boot from USB. If you can upgrade the RAM to 4GB (if you haven't already) you'll have a more pleasant experience. If you install a small SSD instead of the hard disk it has now, it'll be pretty respectable. The CPU in that model is a Core 2 Duo, so you can use the 64-bit version of Linux Mint or Ubuntu.
posted by jzb at 12:01 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Thank you for these helpful answers. It has 2GB of RAM and can run Chrome, just (if I ignore all the dire security warnings and the revving fan).

A follow-up idea: if I install another 2GB of RAM, would it run Chrome reasonably ok? And then I could just lock it down as much as possible security-wise and run Chrome on Vista, avoiding mucking round with switching OSes? The kid wouldn't be using it to browse the open internet -- the iPad is much more appealing for that.
posted by ogorki at 12:37 PM on March 26

Since it sounds like she'll be using Google Classroom regardless, are you confident that switching to a laptop is going to solve the problem?

It might be easier to address the problems you're having on the iPad. If file management is the only real issue, look into document management apps. Dropbox is free and shows modification details in the file browser. If you think using Microsoft products, get a subscription to MS Office 365. She could do her file management in MS OneDrive (which is a bit laggy, but probably not as bad as a 10 year old laptop).
posted by Kriesa at 2:05 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]

My suggestion is download a couple of different Linux distros and create bootable usb drives. Then you can try them without committing. I did this with some older laptops and went through a number of distros before finding one that worked best.

Once you find one that works, just choose the 'install' and you're done.

Best of luck, stay safe in these troubling times.

posted by sandpine at 2:41 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I just did this and it went pretty great - though I had a few advantages.

I just setup Ubuntu 19.10 on an HP Stream Mini it is a 2015 computer, but quite slow, and the same size and texture as a rubbermaid food container.

I did this based on the info that 19.10 actually does better on older hardware, it can "make old hardware feel new fast"

The advantages - the stream has a tiny and not too fast SSD drive - but still an SSD.

It had 2gb of ram that was very challenging to use with even two tabs open in a browser. I added another 4GB stick I had lying around and with 6 gigs it handles web stuff no problem.

I selected all the boxes on install to use third party drivers, etc.

Also, I installed full-on Google Chrome to make it as seamless with the chromebook experience the kid has at school.

We have an air-print capable laser printer on our home network, and were able to detect and print to it first try without installing any drivers. It was honestly the best printer user experience on any PC I've ever had.

I would be worried about a slower rotational hard disk and the 2gb memory. Also check if your processor is 32 or 64 bit - if it is 32 bit you will be in trouble.
posted by sol at 3:47 PM on March 26

I did this on an old Dell laptop, using Debian. I wouldn't necessarily suggest Debian as a noob-friendly Linux distribution - but you could use Ubuntu or Mint & get a very similar outcome.

As a laptop it works fine, but my kids' school is very Microsoft-focussed so that's an issue sometimes. The browser-based online tools work fine (e.g. Word Online), but if they start a piece of work at school in Publisher format and want to work on it from home, then we're screwed.
posted by rd45 at 3:20 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

I think the problem is not that Linux would be hard to install but that
> my kids' school is very Microsoft-focussed so that's an issue sometimes
and that web browsing in 2020 with 2 GB RAM sounds like an absolute nightmare. Linux won't save you there.

If you still want to try, Debian with Xfce desktop is lightweight and imo easy to use. If this is your laptop, it has a 64-bit CPU and you should grab the amd64 Debian image.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:37 AM on March 27

Thanks, all! It sounds like to consensus is to increase the RAM, make some bootable USBs and try out Neverware Cloudready and Linux Mint. Sol says 'if it is 32 bit you will be in trouble' - my system is. Does that mean none of this will work?
posted by ogorki at 9:54 AM on March 27

If your system is 32 bit, be sure and download the 32 bit version of Linux Mint. You'll be fine.

32 bit CloudReady Home is no longer being developed.
posted by blob at 10:00 PM on March 27

Update: I upgraded the RAM (to 3GB, didn't realize one slot would already be full, doh!) and tried out Linux Mint xfce as a live USB but it kept freezing. Cloudready worked fine as a live USB but sadly the installation failed after wiping my hard disk (!). So no more Windows as a fallback. Is my best option for a functional laptop now to make a live USB for some version of Linux? Will the fact that Windows is gone make it impossible to install anything else?
posted by ogorki at 2:08 AM on April 6

> Will the fact that Windows is gone make it impossible to install anything else?

Unless I'm very mistaken, no it won't. If you can boot from a CD or USB stick it should be possible to install a new OS.

If your laptop is the same as this, it has a 64-bit CPU.
But that's probably not the source of the problems because it should be compatible with both i386 (32-bit) and amd64 (64-bit) variants.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:50 PM on April 7

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