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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Breathing new life into old Windows computers using Ubuntu

 


Background

Recently I had the privilege of breathing new life into six old computers so that they can be used for asylees in our city. Here is their Gofundme page, if you want to help them out. They need it!

Their only computer requirement is access to the cloud so they could use Google apps, which meant I could stomp on Windows (stomping on Windows is fun) with Ubuntu (a flavor of Linux). It's open source, and therefore it's free. It also doesn't break easily.

The result would be six entirely free computers that do the same job as six purchased Chromebooks. The administrator of the building knows that flaky behavior can indicate hard drive failure. In addition, internal fans can fail at any time, causing overheating, leading to irreversible damage to the motherboard. In those cases, I recommend purchase of a Chromebook to replace the computer.

I did not test the health of the hard drives for these reasons:

  1. Even a hard drive that self-reports as "failing" can last a long time
  2. There is no risk of data loss in the event of a sudden full hard drive failure because the users will be entirely in the cloud


The Computers

The donated computers include:
  1. Dell W03C Vostro 360, which had Windows 7 on it
  2. Dell Vostro 320, which had Vista on it
  3. Dell Vostro 320, which had Vista on it
  4. Dell Vostro 320, which had Vista on it
  5. Dell Inspiron, which had XP on it, and was ten years old
  6. Dell Inspiron, which had XP on it, and was ten years old

Notes about what we did

Mike was with me for the first of the three visits, so I've included him in my narrative, as we worked as a team.
  1. We used Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS Desktop, which apparently comes with 5 years of free support
  2. To install Ubuntu, we created a bootable USB stick, using a windows computer, following these instructions which use Rufus: Create a bootable USB stick
  3. We turned on the setting that would download any future updates to Ubuntu
  4. We left the default browser as firefox
  5. We were forced to input a password, but disabled it in various settings. Still, if someone were to run terminal commands, they'd need the password. The person in charge has the passwords.
  6. One of the Inspiron laptops doesn't have a working battery, and therefore needs to stay plugged in.  Because of this, the Ubuntu GRUB (boot loader) gets cranky, throwing a message, and awaiting user input. Just press enter, and boot will complete
  7. This power cord was ordered for the Vostro 360: Dell Slim 150-Watt AC Adapter Charger with Power Cord for Dell Alienware M15x / Alienware M14x. This power adapter is compatible with the Dell Vostro 360. The Dell Vostr0 360 requires a 150 watt to 180 watt power cord. For some reason, this Vostro throws a message during boot that says 150 watts is not enough, but it is enough, especially because it's running Ubuntu (not Windows.) Just press F1 as instructed to complete the boot.
  8. Both the Inspirons required special handling because Ubuntu couldn't seem to identify the firmware needed for the wireless connection. After this list is a description of what needed to be done.
  9. We found that wireless connection using Ubuntu has a "gotcha" because we had to edit connection and permanently put in the wireless password in order for it to work 

 The Firmware for the Wireless Connection

As mentioned in the list above, Ubuntu couldn't seem to identify the firmware needed for the wireless connection for the two laptops. Ordinarily, if firmware is missing, Ubuntu will look for it and install it, but that can't happen if the firmware is for the internet connection. We tried plugging the laptops directly into the router, but found the ethernet firmware to be missing as well. This means we had to manually find the correct firmware, and then learn how to do firmware install in Ubuntu.

For the special handling of the two Inspiron's wireless firmware, we followed these instructions: Askubuntu.

In case the above link no longer works, I have reproduced the steps here:

Download the b43updated.zip file to a usb flash drive then drag and drop the file to your ubuntu desktop. Right-click it and select Extract Here.
Open a terminal and do:
sudo mkdir /lib/firmware/b43
sudo cp Desktop/b43/*  /lib/firmware/b43
sudo modprobe -rv b43 
sudo modprobe -v b43
if it does not come on, then reboot.

Please consider supporting our asylees

Our six asylees have a Gofundme page to help them out. Please consider helping.



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