I recently completed a project that began with installing VMware Fusion on my Intel iMac and (unexpectedly) ended with an old Compaq Presario laptop running Linux. If you’re an adventurous type and wish to reclaim an old PC, or if you just switched to a mac and now have an old PC collecting dust, read on. In my case, a friend donated an old Compaq laptop to me (she switched to an iMac) so I could use it to test out websites on Internet Explorer. It did the job … but just barely. Windows XP just doesn’t run well on 58MB of RAM! My workflow went like this: launch Explorer, go for a snack, take a bathroom break, play with the cat, then arrive back at the laptop to either (a) load the page I wished to preview or (b) discover the machine had inexplicably froze.

Thankfully, my intel-based iMac is now handily running Windows XP and the old laptop is now obsolete. Or so I thought. On a whim, I installed Ubuntu Linux on my iMac (again, using virtual machine wizadry) just to test it out. I was amazed - it was fast, enjoyable, and very useable. One nice thing about Linux is that the OS shares the same Unix underpinnings as Mac OSX, so if you’ve been using X for a while, you’ll feel fairly comfortable in the new environment. When I started learning more about Linux, I was surprised at the dozens of ‘flavors’ of this OS and the vaster number of open source (free) software applications that run on it (all of which can run on Mac OS too, by the way). I am in awe that there are so many people out there developing this stuff out of sheer passion and dedication. How cool is that?

It was then that inspiration struck. Why not install Linux on my old Compaq paperweight? What a great way to use an old machine, and to learn more about Linux (and Unix) - skills that will make me a better Mac user too. I was not dissapointed. Linux turned my Compaq into a very usable machine that is suprisingly responsive (I won’t say it’s speedy - but it runs like lightning compared to running Windows). For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed using a Compaq (despair over a Compaq drove me to switch to a mac in 2000!). I now have a risk-free platform on which I can learn about Linux and develop my Unix skills. It also serves, simply, as an extra PC around the house. True, I can also learn Unix commands via the Terminal on my mac (on Mac OSX or using a virtual machine to run Linux), but it gives me greater peace of mind to explore the inner workings of Unix on a totally separate machine. I can try things I would be hesitant to try on the mac. And if I really mess something up on my Compaq (and I already have), I don’t really care. I just reinstall the operating system and try again.

The Linux version I’m using — Puppy Linux — is under 100MB, so it’s quick to reload. A warning to you, though: it took me (a Unix novice with no prior Linux experience) several days of experimentation to get everything up and running on the laptop. Now that I have the process down, I can reformat the partition of the hard drive and reinstall a clean version of Linux in about 15 minutes. But you should know that you may have to get under the hood and expirement to get it working (here, I’m mainly talking about the drivers for your USB plug-ins, network connection, or printer) … but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s a good way to learn.

To be fair, I think my experience had a lot to do with the Compaq and my inexperience and little to do with the Linux packages I tried (searching user forums, I discovered that many people aptly refer to these old Compaq laptops as ‘craptops’). If you are installing Linux on a newer laptop (newer than my Presario 1200 running at 500Mhz with 58MB RAM) or perhaps on a laptop of higher quality, you may have no trouble at all. I had plenty of trouble. And that leads us to the first rule to follow before you start any project like this: backup any data on the target machine that you wish to keep! I’ll post about how I choose a Linux version to install and the steps I took to get it running very soon. I want to end on this note: you will not get a laptop out of this that can run all your mac or pc applications. You’ll be using freeware versions of applications that do much of the same thing. So what’s it good for? You get a machine for light text work, email, and web browsing on a machine that was formerly unbearable to use. You get to experience an operating system that is increasingly used around the world because it’s free and it works well. And you get a platform on which you can learn Unix. Not bad for a PC I formerly considered trash.