Free Machine: OS

Now that you have a clean hard drive, its time to add an operating system!

Most home computers run Windows or Mac OS which are developed, owned, and controlled by single corporations.  Linux is different–an Open operating system that is developed by thousands of contributors world wide (check out the Linux Foundation).  The kernel (the layer of software that directly communicates with hardware, the core of an OS) was written by Finnish computer scientist Linus Torvalds and released in 1991.  The kernel is now distributed under a GPLv2 license.  Although Linux is not common on home computers, it is EVERYWHERE!  Linux powers the majority of servers that host the internet, main frame computers, and mobile devices.  For example, Android which now runs on more than a billion devices, is built on Linux.

For home computers there are hundreds of Linux “flavors” available, called distributions or distros (for example see the Wikipedia list or DistroWatch).  Each distro is a group of applications, utilities, and a desktop environment bundled with a Linux kernel.  There is a huge variety in the look, functionality, performance, and guiding philosophy as each distro is customized to particular users and needs.

So lets get a open OS running on your recycled ebook creation machine!

[remember, follow these posts at your own risk!]

1. So the first step is to choose a distribution.  This can be complicated and overwhelming!

But lets make it simple: for my junk computers I like to use Ubuntu.  It is one of the most popular, actively developed, and well supported distributions today.  Some Linux purists like to dismiss Ubuntu as too main stream or something, but for the purposes of reviving junk computers I think it is the best.  It is simple to install, has very wide hardware compatibility, and is very easy to use.  People with no previous Linux experience will have no trouble figuring it out.

Once you get your feet wet, maybe you will want to move on to another distribution, but for shear simplicity and success working with old computers, just go with Ubuntu or one of its derivatives.

2. The second step is to create a bootable DVD or USB stick:

Go to the Ubuntu (or other distro) site and download the desktop ISO.  If your hardware is has low specs, you may want to try a distro with a lighter desktop environment, such as Xubuntu or Lubuntu.  The ISO will need to be burnt to a DVD or used to create a live USB stick.  I prefer to use the USB stick, since it doesn’t waste plastic or add cost!

I mentioned how to burn a ISO to CD/DVD in the last post–its simple.

It is also fairly simple to create a bootable USB stick.  Download one of the live USB creation tools (here is a big list on Wikipedia), such as UNetbootin,

Start the application, select the downloaded ISO and the correct USB drive, and click OK:


Everything on the USB stick will be erased.  The burn may take a few minutes and the ISO will be added with special files to make it bootable.

Eject the new USB stick, and plug it into your junk computer.  You should also set up the computer at this time, plugging in a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and ethernet cable (you can use wireless, but its usually easier to use ethernet).

Now, (if you haven’t already) we need to make sure the junk computer will boot from USB.  This means opening BIOS options as the computer powers on.  Each device is slightly different, but as the computer starts to boot you should see a screen with the manufacture’s logo and a message that tells you which key to press–sometimes its so fast you can’t read it!  The key is usually F1, F2, DEL, ESC, or F10 (here are some tips from Pendrivelinux).  It will open a configuration GUI that looks something like this:

Make sure that USB is listed as the first boot device.

But, what if your old computer BIOS doesn’t support booting from USB?  Well, you can use a DVD.  But, what if the machine only has a CD drive (or you don’t want to burn a DVD)?  Here is one work around solution to boot from USB sticks on machines that don’t normally support it: use Plop Boot Manager,

Plop is a handy and powerful tool that can do many things, but for this purpose, burn the live CD version.  The computer will boot from the CD, loading Plop.  Plop will then offer you the choice to boot from USB!

3. The third step is to actually install the OS.

The live DVD or USB stick will load the installation program.  Ubuntu makes it very easy, just read the information on screen and follow the instructions (here is their guide).

Okay you’re done!  You have a new (old junk) computer!

One final note, to restore your USB stick to its natural state, you will need to reformat it.  Most OS have built in tools to do this, but better results are possible with the official SD Formatter,

This will erase the weirdness UNetbootin added to make the stick bootable, and restore the USB stick to its default state.

Good luck and enjoy!



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