What another feature extolling the virtues of Linux? Only up to a point and not exclusively, as we'll see. Over the next few pages I'm going to present some suggestions related to alternative OS usage in a slightly different way.
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Being an open-source platform, Linux doesn't always offer the kind of orderly presentation associated with Microsoft and Apple, where you simply buy an OS, shove it into your optical drive and then fill in a few information fields while the thing installs. Linux can in fact be like that, but to the non-expert pragmatist who simply wants a working OS installed with the minimum of fuss, it can all seem too complicated to contemplate.

So here's how we'll do this: if you were thinking of learning a language purely with a view to conversing with its native speakers, would you rather take lessons from a formidable academic specializing in lexical acquisition or from a friendly but articulate local who can teach you how to ask for a sandwich and negotiate with a car mechanic? That's how we'll be treating the subject of Linux here: a minimum of technical detail, using the Great Linux Workaround (i.e. if one version doesn't work in a particular situation, we can simply try another) and learning as we go.

The other aspect of this feature is a set of case studies in reviving vintage laptops in such a way as to make them useful, with findings that can then be applied to comparable machines. There are plenty of good reasons for doing this. There's the green perspective, which is that dumping any usable technology is bad and stupid. There's the fact that such machines can serve as an emergency spares or be passed on to others whose needs and/or budgets are minimal.

Also, I'd contend that old laptops, like old cars and old pianos, can be fun to use because they actually have character, the specifics of their design evoking the values and preferences of a particular period as well as occasionally offering features that have never been bettered. The specimens described here are typical loft finds, given-away items or they came from institutional clear-outs, so if your main interest is in experimenting with Linux or other alternative operating systems, they make ideal subjects.

All in all, then, the reduced overhead demanded by certain alternative operating systems and the limited capabilities of older laptops seems like a marriage made in heaven, so on with the ceremony!

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A Pile of Portables
We'll start somewhere in the middle of the heap with a Toshiba Satellite Pro dating from 2004. Its 1.4GHz processor is easily feisty enough for our purposes, and the installed 512MB of RAM is enough to accomplish one task at a time using XP3 as the CPU buoys up the overall performance, but attempting to have, say, a movie and a social media site running at the same time as something like MS Office would probably cause performance drag. The business of RAM upgrades on old laptops is pretty mixed. Much depends on the availability of the correct spec in a useful size at a sensible price, so for our purposes it's better to find an OS that's happy to work with what we have. Step forward Fedora 17, the Linux distro that's also a hat and a 19th century play. Installation was painless (just the usual requests regarding partitions, passwords, location and so on), and the distro was bundled with all sorts of useful stuff, including the widely used lightweight trio of Gnumeric, Osmo and AbiWord, a spreadsheeter, calendar/organizer and word processing program (which can save files as .doc) respectively. There's an equivalent to the Windows Start menu, which is soothingly logical from which you'll soon find your way to wherever you want to go. Things get a bit more Linuxy in terms of both functions and terminology when you probe a bit further, but by then you'll be happy to poke at things to see what happens.

Firefox and the bundled drivers were quite happy to find and run the Tosh's wireless connection, so I could easily have written this feature on it and sent it to the magazine, meaning that this setup certainly passed the usefulness test for me, as it would for anyone needing to submit a report or essay.
In this out-of-the-box form, however, the combination tripped up over YouTube (no Flash, at which point the Adobe download page descended into Linuxese and offered a baffling choice of four alternatives), while my attempts to use the laptop's optical drive were similarly confounded due to a mysterious plug-in failure.

The verdict: Well, things moved far enough along here to perhaps warrant persevering with the Flash requirement then working out how to fix the plug-in issue. The setup in general felt efficient despite the low RAM quotient, allowing me to open about a dozen assorted programs and utilities at once and skip back and forth between them with overhead to spare.

Alternatively, the not dissimilar Lubuntu (as in 'light Ubuntu' - see below) would also install neatly on a machine like this.
Go further back just another three years to 2001 and it's fascinating to see how standards differed. For example, Hewlett Packard marketed the OmniBook XE3 on the basis of its portability even though at 3.4kg it actually weighed more than a hou.se brick, but its substantial build no doubt helped to ensure this specimen's longevity. Unsurprisingly, given its age, its spec is less reassuring to today's user: a Pentium III running at 650MHz and a standard 256MB of RAM. Paradoxically, though, it's that skimpy RAM that's going to transform this retired carthorse: welcome to the world of the live Linux CD and the RAM-based OS.

The idea of live CDs isn't entirely weird. During the heyday of Windows 9x, RAM and HDO space were both costly, so having an application that required you to leave the CD in the drive so that the system could simply grab bits of the program as required was commonplace. However; it's the advent of the superlight Linux OS that has really brought the live CD back.
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The idea is that the OS itself has as small a footprint as possible, allowing it to use the HDD for storage only. This sounds illogical at first; surely it's better to keep such RAM as there is as unburdened as possible? In reality, the process of parking a very small OS on a hard drive then constantly having to access it is far more resource-intensive for a low powered machine than having most of it available in RAM, just as it can be easier to keep a small amount of important paperwork in a tray on your desk (your RAM) than having to retrieve it page by page from a filing cabinet (your HOD). Strictly speaking of course, there's a distinction between a live CD and a RAM-resident OS, in that you can actually remove the boot media from the latter and still have the OS running, which is quite spooky.

The doyen of this as group is surely Puppy Linux, which is, as the name implies, small, lively and eager to please. Loading version 5.2.8 from a CD produced a few preliminary requests followed by some progress info, then before I knew it, a screen full of bundled application icons (Gnumeric, Osmo and AbiWord figure here too) were inviting you to write, draw, paint, play music, manage files and generally do things. The latter is an interesting area, as Puppy allows you to save files to a USB or hard drive or even to the as CD itself, and not even necessarily a rewritable one if the as disc was finalized as multisession.

What particularly pleased me about Puppy was the way in which it got me online. The HP was actually built without an Ethernet connection (this may have been a PCMCIA option), but it didn't so much as blink when I asked it to connect me via a USB Cat5 adapter, which is a relatively obscure bit of kit; you can find them easily enough, but who else actually owns one, let alone remembers why? Anyway, Puppy then did a very Linuxy thing in offering me a choice of two network connection programs, each slightly different in the way it did stuff. As a mainstream as is usually pretty dictatorial, this kind of thing takes some getting used to. I chose the simpler of the two, opened Firefox and once again, here was a setup that would have easily allowed me to write and send in this article and much more besides. And it was all happening with 256MB of RAM!

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Thus inspired, I tried feeding the HP a few other lightweight live CDs. Damn Small Linux (DSL) is just that. taking pride in its ability to fit onto one of those business card-sized CDs that were briefly regarded as cool before suits were able to dish out company profiles on cheap USB sticks. It's a gritty, slightly 8-bit-looking as with various bundled items including a word processor called Ted (seriously - bring on Malcolm the web browser and Derek the file manager).

DSL loaded very quickly with just a prod of the return key, producing several screens of multicolored narrative as it came to life. Getting online seemed a bit fiddly, so I didn't attempt this, particularly as I couldn't really see me using it as a serious as, given the slicker alternatives. I've read that the Linux community is largely ignoring DSL these days, not least because of (apparently) some security vulnerabilities, so perhaps it should be regarded as more proof of concept than anything else. A Knoppix CD that was very nearly as old as the laptop itself (3.3, dated 2003) reminded me of the buffet-like choices I refer to above, offering both OpenOffice and KOffice among much else. Knoppix was one of the earliest live CD distros (it's related to DSL, and both are derived from Debian), and its wide choice of bundled applications was a feature of note. Knoppix (named after its creator, Klaus Knopper) is still being updated, but again, there are more lively options for low-end machines.

I had high hopes for Lubuntu 12.04, supplied with the usual extras on a CD, which allowed either a full installation or a try-before-you-commit live CD installation. However, this seemed to be a bridge too far in both cases, which was fair enough given the HP's age and poor credentials. An attempted HOD installation stalled alarmingly with a notification window indicating an unspecified problem, although the sudden appearance of multiple cursors, all of which moved in tandem but none of which actually worked, was a bit of a giveaway. The live CD option was exactly that, with the disc shunting around furiously whenever bits of the OSwere accessed.The whole process was too slow to be workable, sadly, although I was again impressed by the way in which my USBnetwork widget was found and used, even though the ensuing 20 minutes it took to load a single web page showed that I seemed to have reached the HP'slimits. Or had i?

We tend to think of Linux when it comes to an alternative, lightweight OS, but (whisper it) there are others, as I implied at the beginning of this piece. KolibriOS is a small but perfectly formed OSderived from a similarish parent, MenuetOS, which I'll come back to in a moment. It can run in just 8MB of RAM, yet still offer a GUI and a bundle of testable, if not terribly practical, applications. It's worth trying out if only to marvel at the fact that it works at all.

That said, I tried it on each of the laptops described here, and in each instance it politely pointed out that my particular hardware configuration was preventing me from accessing that interweb thing, although there's a YouTube video that shows it can be done. So another proof of concept, perhaps, but the implications are intriguing. The verdict: While investigating the other options was fascinating, the result is a big pat and a bone for Puppy; it gave this low-end lappy a new lease of life to the extent that I'd be happy to use it for quite a few real-world tasks.

At the bottom of the heap, sporting a sticker declaring it was last inspected for electrical safety in 2000, there lurks a Dell Latitude XPi CD, unashamed of its 1997 vintage, it’s 166MHz CPU or its 64MB of RAM (doubled at some point from the as-supplied 32MB). I've taken an overhead shot of it for two reasons. Firstly, its sleek appearance struck me as looking as up to date now as when it was launched with only its depth (a doorstep-like S7mm with the lid down) and weight (also doorstep-like) giving it away. It was also the last laptop ever to feature a trackball, which is still my preferred pointy thing. Secondly, I couldn't resist showing it with the HDD half-extracted and the CD-ROM tray open, because the OS here is MenuetOS, progenitor of KolibriOS as described above, and it really has been loaded into RAM from a floppy disk.
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The verdict: Laptops of this generation tend to defy the OS monger's ingenuity. Their CD drives aren't bootable (to boot or load Windows, you needed a boot floppy alongside your OS CD) and USB (which won't be bootable either), and Ethernet sockets aren't really in the picture other than via PCMCIA cards and drivers if you can make them work. Yet again, MenuetOS feels more like proof of concept than anything else, a view which is endorsed by many of the little demos that come with it, each of which illustrates one of the OS's capabilities - a rotating teapot (!) shows it can handle basic 3D animation, for example - so I think I'd dust off Windows 2000 or 98SEif I was obliged to do some serious work with a 1997 machine.

Finally, we’ll jump back to the top of the heap and a Dell Latitude 0520, its existing 512MB of RAM doubled to 1GB and packing a 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo T2300 processor. Should this count as a vintage laptop, dating as it does from 20067 The clincher lies in the Intel sticker, which says 'Designed for Windows XP', adding beneath (rather plaintively, or at best hopefully) 'Windows Vista Capable'. As we're now three versions of Windows removed from XP, the case for an alternative is legitimate, and with a relatively pokey machine like this, the logical OS candidate is the magnificent Ubuntu-derived Linux Mint.

Mint is, to my mind, is a genuine, elegant, fuss-free total substitute for a mainstream OS. Pretty much everything you need comes along with it, including the MS-compatible Libre Office and all the viewers, players, graphics editors etc. you could wish for. One particularly attractive aspect of Mint is its user interface, which seems to combine the best bits of recent Windows and Mac OS into a powerful but oddly soothing whole. Mint's ability to detect and drive peripherals is impressive; I had reasonable and, as it turned out, entirely justified hopes for my HP wireless printer, but a Griffin iMic7 Yes, even that funny little external soundcard marketed mainly to Mac users showed up and worked.

The verdict: Mint is a powerful OS and needs a fairly well-resourced system (by this article's standards) to do its stuff properly, but installation on such a system is completely straightforward, and you'll be up and running very quickly.

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OS Observations
There's a lot I haven't had space to go into, such as the concept of software as 'packages'. And the fact that you need to expect a few installation failures that aren't easily explained but which for our purposes are best dealt with by simply trying another distro. Or the fact that old laptops can simply die in your arms at any time, such as the IBM ThinkPad that lasted just long enough to demo DSL before expiring. Hopefully, though. You’ll be inspired to try this process for yourself. The general rule seems to be that any machine that meets the original baseline spec for XP (and that's not much - see elsewhere here for details) is a good contender for a useful alternative OS, so while new technology is always exciting, let's earn it by making the most of what we already have.