How to give your creaky old Windows computer an Ubuntu makeover.

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July 26 2010 4:38 PM

Get a Blazing-Fast Computer for Free

How to give your creaky old Windows computer an Ubuntu makeover.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Almost two years ago, I reviewed Ubuntu, the user-friendly version of the free Linux operating system. I wasn't impressed. I found the software a pain to install, a pain to work with, and—even if it cost me nothing—far less worthy of my time than other major OSes. "Nothing about Ubuntu is an advantage over anything in either Mac or Windows—it has no more features, no better stability, no greater speed," I wrote.

Still, I thought that Mark Shuttleworth, the software entrepreneur who founded the Ubuntu project, was onto a good thing. In a world of cloud-based apps, there are fewer and fewer substantive differences between Windows and the Mac OS—since I can easily shuttle my data and programs between different computers, I rarely find myself wishing for one OS when I'm on another. If Ubuntu's designers could iron out some of its kinks, I thought, a free operating system could fit perfectly in this new, OS-agnostic world.

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Well, I think they've done it. I made a second foray onto Ubuntu's shores a week ago, and so far, I like it quite a bit. The OS has progressed a great deal since I last checked in (in 2008 I installed version 8.04; now I'm running version 10.04). I found Ubuntu quick to install, speedy to do pretty much everything, and, thankfully, very easy to figure out. There were some rough edges; for instance, Ubuntu's designers ought to make some of its error messages more comprehensible to newbies. While installing Skype, I was informed that a "later version is available in a software channel. You are strongly advised to install the version from the software channel, since it is usually better supported." I'm pretty sure that could have been translated to, "Click 'Next' to install a newer version of Skype." For the most part, though, Ubuntu has broken free of technical mumbo jumbo, and if you've got a little bit of tech savvy, you'll have no problem dealing with it.

So Ubuntu is good. But why should you use it? After all, nearly every computer you encounter will likely be running either Windows or the Mac OS. You can buy a new PC preloaded with Ubuntu, but they're not easy to find (and, anyway, you don't save too much by doing so). So what's the point?

To me, it's the perfect way to give an aging Windows PC new life. Many of us have an old computer sitting around that, theoretically, is perfectly usable—you've just given up on it because it's too slow and too broken down. Perhaps the machine doesn't run modern programs. Or maybe it's become bloated by software you should never have installed, or colonized by spyware that sneaked by your defenses. Or perhaps the machine is just old—over time, computers, like people, pick up all kinds of annoying affectations, and eventually they begin to drive you insane. But unlike people, a computer can be completely remade. All you need to do is reinstall its operating system, wiping it clean of every tic it's picked up in its life. More often than not, this relatively simple step will make the machine as good as new.

If your machine is really old, though, reinstalling its original OS could be a step backward. Consider, for instance, the laptop that I purchased in the spring of 2006. The computer—a Dell with a Pentium M processor—came with Windows XP pre-installed. In its day, it was a pretty solid machine, and the only real hardware flaw it's picked up over the years is a busted battery—it doesn't hold a charge, which means I've got to keep the computer plugged in all the time. That hasn't bothered me too much; for about two years, as I picked up newer and better portable machines, I've relegated the Dell laptop to my kitchen counter, where I use it mainly to consult recipes, check my e-mail, and listen to NPR while I cook (I lead a thrilling life). Despite this fairly undemanding assignment, I've noticed the machine getting progressively worse at simple tasks over the last few months. For reasons I haven't bothered to check out—maybe it was a virus or spyware, maybe some kind of hardware or driver error, who knows?—the laptop would take forever to load up a Web page and would completely bog down when more than two browser tabs were open. The machine needed a makeover.

Yes, I could have hunted down the Dell's original XP disks and reinstalled it to its factory settings. But it's 2010—why should I use an operating system first made in 2001? That's when I decided on Ubuntu. It took me 10 minutes to download the OS, and another five to burn a CD (you can also install it using a USB thumb drive). Installation took another 15 minutes, and it went swimmingly—Ubuntu detected all my machine's hardware (sound, Wi-Fi, and one-finger scrolling on the laptop's trackpad work perfectly), and it came to life with several key applications pre-installed.

One of the main problems I had with Ubuntu two years ago was its mysterious app-install process. Unlike on the Mac or in Windows, Ubuntu didn't really like when I went to the Web, downloaded a program, and installed it—it would either fail to install the program or fail to put the installed app where I could find it. Instead, Ubuntu wanted you to install programs through its built-in "package manager," a centralized repository of apps for the system. While the package manager is still the preferred route to get new applications, I didn't have any trouble downloading programs from the Web this time around. My only quibble: Ubuntu doesn't offer any kind of startup guide showing you around the OS's main features. You pretty much have to consult the helpful online community of Ubuntu devotees.

Once you cruise around a bit, though, I don't think you'll find anything too unusual about Ubuntu—it looks and works pretty much the same way as Windows and the Mac OS. Thanks to Ubuntu, a four-year-old machine that I'd been ready to throw out now works amazingly well. It can run multiple tabs, it can play YouTube videos, and it can most certainly let me stream NPR. Perhaps I could have gotten the same result had I reinstalled Windows, but Windows isn't free. Ubuntu is. That makes it a pretty fantastic way to get an instantly new computer.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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