Contents: A long, but easy to read collection of advice for beginners and intermediate users. If you have a problem please read in full length and don't get scared by the volume.
Various Linux distros are known as a good option for bringing old hardware back to life, and the forum is receiving a steady stream of questions on the topic.
This thread is created in order to keep the experience and advice regarding old hardware in one place. Many of the considerations, recommendations and warnings from one problem can and should be reused by other people.
The purpose of the thread is
- to keep old hardware usable as long as possible, where ‘usable’ means that the computer is able to support not only an operative system but also a selection of everyday applications, for example a browser at a reasonable speed or a movie player.
- to prevent people from wasting time on hopeless hardware.
The main release, Ubuntu, used to be lightweight and suitable for old hardware, but recent releases are targeting new systems with more graphics horsepower.
The little-known Ubuntu derivative Lubuntu is much lighter and a good candidate for this purpose. Lubuntu and Ubuntu use a shared repository, so applications known to run on Ubuntu can also be used on Lubuntu with full compatibility.
Some people are uncomfortable with issuing commands at the prompt. In this guide you are not required to invent your own commands, just copy the relevant ones from the text with control+c and insert them into a terminal. Don't write them by hand.
1) Lubuntu 14.04 or 14.10?
Our starting point is a fresh installation of the latest release of Lubuntu with long term support, which is 14.04.1 at the moment. Many other lightweight distros are available, but as a first try we are focusing on this one. 14.04.1 contains all bugfixes which have been added to 14.04.0, so always use the highest number within the family. Keep searching until you find the .1 version (some web sites don't get regular updates and might promote .0 for some time after .1 has been released).
In the following text the release number is written as '14.04' for simplicity, but that does not indicate that all point releases are equally good.
Lubuntu 14.10 has a new kernel and a substantially improved Libre Office as the main advantages over 14.04. Take a look at the release notes and decide for yourself if the changes are worth the hassle of having only short term support (nine months as opposed to three years). The guide mentions 14.04 but unless otherwise noted the advice works for both releases. More about the support schedule here.
If you encounter a problem with 14.04 please try 14.10 before requesting help. Though the releases are fairly similar on the outside the inner working could be quite different.
In the guide we first test the hardware capabilities before deciding what to install but if you are low on patience or if it's not possible to run a live boot you can just take the chance and go straight to the install described in 3).
Let's begin with a simple test to see if the hardware in question is a) fairly old but straightforward to deal with or b) very old and needs some tricks.
Using any Linux distro, installed or from a live boot, please copy the command into the terminal and run. It takes some seconds to complete.
If you get a line full of abbreviations everything is good. Chances are that the install is simply next, next, next, finish.
sudo lshw -C cpu | grep -i sse2
If the command doesn't yield an output your computer is at least ten years old. It will be running open source programs fine but closed source like Flash player and Skype might give problems. Besides, we are dealing with a slow processor so consider if it's worth the effort, especially if you are new. Please see post #2 in the thread.
(Details: The command above checks if the processor has the SSE2 instructions set. In the Intel family the oldest member with SSE2 is a Pentium 4 and for AMD the oldest is a K8. Though SSE2 is not necessary for an open source Lubuntu install it still serves as a baseline for reasonable performance.)
tells if you have a 32 or 64 bit processor. If it's 64 bit and you have at least 2 GiB of memory then a 64 bit ISO is recommended.
sudo lshw -C cpu | grep -i width
Memory: The command
shows the size of the present memory. 512 MiB is minimum, 1 GiB is better and if you can go higher then please do.
sudo lshw -short -C memory | grep -i system
tells if you have empty slots available for more memory. The output is one line for each empty slot, so if there's no output all slots are used.
sudo lshw -short -C memory | grep -i empty
If you are stuck with less than 512 MiB please see post #2.
shows the drives of the system, including CD/DVD drives. You can see the size of the hard disk and decide if it's big enough for the intended use.
sudo lshw -short -C disk
If Gparted or the df command display some strange partitions it is likely because of Fake-RAID. If that's the case and if you don't want to keep Windows which may be installed here I suggest that Fake-RAID be disabled so the disks are functioning independently. The text in the hyperlink explains why.
Changing graphics card if we are dealing with a desktop computer and adding a bigger and / or faster hard disk can make a significant difference, but in general there's no point in changing the processor; given the socket there's a limited selection to choose from. The only exception are old Celerons, which sometimes can be swapped for a much better performing true Pentium. Old spare parts are cheap; take a look at what's offered in the second hand markets and what you can salvage from a dumpster.
The older and hence slower the hard disk the more important is zram and/or swappiness, as explained in a later post. 2,5" disks used in portables are generally worse than 3,5" disks in stationary computers.
Adding memory is the single most efficient step one can take. As mentioned 1 GB is fine, but if the computer can cope with more then by all means give it some.
If the hardware does not meet these requirements one should consider if it's worth the effort to carry on. There is so much used (say, 4-8 years of age) gear around that one can get for free or cheap. The system requirements of Windows are pushing more and more computers into the ‘old’ category even though they are in good working order.
Various websites might post lower requirements. Chances are they focus on the operative system itself, not the applications, which is very unfortunate as it only gives people a false hope. If you see something which looks too good to be true, it probably is.
From time to time people discuss the option of using an old computer as a file server, if it's too old to support a GUI. Before going this route one should consider the size of the hard disk and judge if it's really worth it. A flash drive of 32 or 64 GB is cheap these days.
An interesting blog about old hardware and realistic expectations.
2 b) Hardware, graphics processor / GPU
A) For 14.04 most graphics processors work without modifications, but some of them are better off with a special treatment.
If the command
lspci | grep -i vga
or similar from the 8xx family you could try to create an /etc/X11/xorg.conf file with the following contents:
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation 82865G Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 02)
There's a tab in front of the three middle lines. It may or may not give a clearer display than the vanilla install which does not include an xorg.conf. Try with and without, if there's no improvement just delete the file.
Identifier "Intel Graphics"
Option "AccelMethod" "uxa"
Remember that Intel cards (and possibly others, too) switch to a low number of colours when given a heavy work load like showing a film in high resolution. If you see this it's not a driver or configuration problem but the intended mode of operation.
|The xorg solves for example the problems of Flash player displaying strange green/purple colours and a greyed/blacked-out address in Firefox as seen to the right:
B) HP dv6's are infamous for overheating. The problem is partly solved by thorough cleaning of fan and heat sink (see later in the text), but adding the radeon.dpm=1 parameter also helps. More here.
Another option for these and other computers with AMD graphics is installing Lubuntu 14.10, in which the drivers are somewhat improved.
C) There is a separate thread for cards from Silicon Integrated Systems / SIS.
D) If the graphics processor gives a strange picture using the default settings it's possible to switch to the older VESA standard.
- When installing, at the boot screen press F6
- A list of boot options appear. Press Escape to close the list
- Now a string of options is visible, often ending in a double dash (--)
- At the end, after the dashes, add a space and "vga=791" without the quotes
- Press return and the install begins.
More about adding boot options and about VESA codes.
If the 791 setting works well you could try to increase resolution and / or colour depth with 792, 794 or 795.
The drawbacks for VESA are slow graphics and a limited number of screen resolutions.
E) If the graphics card is older than
- Intel: 865 series
- Nvidia: 5 series
- AMD/ATI: R300 series
it's recommended to switch to something better. VESA drivers as mentioned above sometimes help, but often it's better to search for a stronger card.
If you are thinking of changing card the performance list is useful for comparing various options. Don't get scared by seeing that new cards are tens of times faster than yours, for ordinary use the performance of present day cards is overkill.
Remember to look up the exact name. There are for example at least four different GeForce FX 5900's.
3) Operative system
First of all: The solution to getting old hardware into usable condition is not old software. When software has reached end of life and is abandoned by the developers no security fixes are provided, and for obvious reasons people should not run such a system. Don't use it, no matter how fast it runs or how much you like the user interface.
Installation is done from a USB stick, if the computer is young enough to support it, or else from a CD. If the standard Lubuntu ISO does not work, the alternate (a pseudo-graphical installer) or the minimal ISO are good options. Further, if booting from USB does not work and if the CD drive is on the brink of failing it's worth trying the minimal ISO which is only about 30 MB. Often a semi-working CD drive will accept this.
Even if a live boot does not work, neither from USB nor from CD, it's worth a try to install using one of these ISO's.
During the minimal install you will get the option of adding additional packages (lubuntu and other desktops, various servers, ...) at the end. I recommend that you skip this, doing a command-line only install. After a reboot you just have to run one of these commands
to get a complete desktop. The commands are ordered from the full-blown Lubuntu (1) to the smallest and lightest (3). After the install, which can take some time, reboot the system with Next time you will be greeted with a GUI.
1) sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop
2) sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop --no-install-recommends
3) sudo apt-get install lubuntu-core
Regardless of which ISO you choose always use wired internet access while installing, during the first boot and while applying the first batch of bug fixes.
If you get an error about PAE while installing the easiest solution is to add the forcepae flag. Guidelines are in the PAE text, which also describes other ways to solve the PAE problem.
3 b) Reasons for using older operative systems
As already mentioned Lubuntu 14.04 and 14.10 are our first choices. Please try installing both of them first, and if none gives a useable result one could resort to the 12.04 family.
A few graphics cards, mostly Nvidia before the 5 series (that is, from 2002 and older) are not working well in 14.04. Same goes for some cards from S3. For these cards it's better to go straight to 14.10, and if that does not work then a) get a stronger card if possible, b) try the VESA approach described above or c) use an older distro:
Lubuntu 12.04 itself is out of support and should be avoided, but other 12.04-based distros as for example LXLE and Bodhi Linux offer support like Ubuntu, that is through 2017. Xubuntu 12.04 is supported through April 2015.
If people want to look outside the Buntu family then Puppy (which comes in many versions) and Knoppix are good candidates. More distros are listed here if people want to experiment, but before choosing one of the minor distros remember to check how well it is maintained. Never use an unsupported distro or a distro where bug fixes are released so slowly that it's almost unsupported. This excludes for example Damn Small Linux, which is sadly still mentioned in Ubuntuforums. Please let it rest in peace.
Last, but not least: If you are going to search for something else than Lubuntu it should be because of hardware support or because you prefer another look and feel, not because of lightness. None of the light distros put any significant workload on the system anyway, the load comes from the browser and other (multimedia) applications which are heavy no matter in which distro they run.
‘Light applications’ is a neverending topic. Only brief advice is given here, otherwise I leave it to the user to experiment.
Adding Flashblock to the browser gives a significant increase in speed. Other ad-reducing plug-ins are worth testing, too.
Trying a lighter browser like Midori, Xombrero / Xxxterm or Epiphany may or may not speed things up. The package is small so it’s an easy test to do.
It's recommended to add 'Resource Monitors' to the bottom panel and keep an eye on CPU and memory usage. Just right-click on the panel, and the rest is self-explanatory.
Lubuntu comes with the light office applications Abiword and Gnumeric, instead of the more usual Libre Office. As we have already required that the computer runs a browser with acceptable speed it also has the power to run Libre Office, so the two applications should not be kept because of lightness.
If you want to switch to Libre Office the commands
are all you need (where xx is your two letter country code).
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install libreoffice
sudo apt-get install libreoffice-help-xx
sudo apt-get install libreoffice-l10n-xx
sudo apt-get -- purge remove abiword
sudo apt-get -- purge remove gnumeric
The vast majority of processors have SSE2 and for them the easiest way to get Flash is installing Chrome (not Chromium) where the latest Flash player is built in from the beginning.
Chrome is installed by downloading the .deb file from the Google web site. After that the commands
do the trick. Installing libappindicator1 before the deb file prevents a dependency error.
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install libappindicator1
sudo dpkg -i <path_to>/google-chrome-stable_current_*
installs a number of closed source packages necessary for playing mp3 files and the like.
sudo apt-get install lubuntu-restricted-extras
In 14.04 the PDF reader Evince has a bug regarding copying text in columns. If this is annoying one could add another PDF reader while keeping 14.04 or just install 14.10, in which the bug is fixed.
If open-source drivers are available (for sound, network, bluetooth and other cards), one can expect them to be in good condition because the hardware has been known to the developers for many years giving time for debugging and testing. A plain, default installation performed with wired internet access is often the only step a user needs. Remember to reboot and apply all updates as explained in the next paragraph.
Afterwards, if a wirefree card needs adjustments the dedicated forum has plenty of advice. Please read the sticky notes there before posting.
Graphics cards often perform much better when using closed-source drivers, but they are not always available. For example, ATI / AMD supports their graphics cards for only a few years after the initial release of the card. If you have such a card stick to the default (open source) drivers, since trying to install closed source drivers is likely to break the system's graphics.
An often overlooked part of getting an old computer into a usable condition is cleaning the interior dust build-ups, especially around the fan and heatsink. Take care not to damage the fans by forceful vacuuming and remember to only vacuum in the reverse direction of the normal air flow. Best is to block the fan with a tooth pick or piece of wire while cleaning to prevent it from turning too fast. If we are dealing with a desktop remember that it likely has several fans (for CPU, GPU, power supply and more).
Short bursts of compressed air also helps. Again, only in the reverse direction of the normal air flow.
Remember to check that the fan is turning freely after cleaning.
On the software side the only maintenance needed is
once in a while. The last command is important because it removes old kernels and saves hard disk space. It should only be used when the computer is in good working order so there's no need for reverting to an old kernel.
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
<maybe reboot here>
sudo apt-get clean
sudo apt-get autoremove
If the computer does not automatically ask for updates shortly after the install it's especially important to run the commands.
A file system needs some free space to perform well. The command
shows in percent how much space is used for various mounts. A good rule of thumb is never letting any of the measures exceed 75%.
First step in troubleshooting is installing Pulse Audio Volume Control with the command
After that open the application, check that nothing is muted and play around with the settings. Surprisingly often it solves the problem, for example when using USB devices for sound.
sudo apt-get install pavucontrol
Next step is the sound troubleshooting thread.
8) Environmental impact
It is a widely held belief that old hardware shouldn’t be used because of power consumption. Generally the truth is opposite: Old hardware is less greedy than new, if one compares within the same category (desktop versus desktop, for example). The power consumption of newer machines per unit of calculation is lower, but not the total power consumption of the machine.
However, the biggest benefits from using an old computer as long as possible is less production of new hardware and less e-waste to be handled, both of which are causing serious environmental problems.
If you have managed to bring an old computer back to usable life after reading this you should not be ashamed for being old-fashioned, but proud of taking care of the environment.
9) Further improvement
Third post in the thread gives some suggestions for what to trim and adjust after install.
10) Still in doubt?
If this does not answer all your questions you are of course welcome to post but please read #4 first.
= = =
Thanks to MG&TL for proof-reading.