Is your old computer 'obsolete', or is it a Linux opportunity?

Too often older computers are labeled 'obsolete'. Linux changes that. Refurbish an old computer and make it useful again for someone who needs it.
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Old UNIX computer

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You may often hear someone claim a computer, tablet, or smartphone is "obsolete." When you hear such a statement, take a minute to ask yourself, "Is this person speaking an opinion or a fact?"

Many times, their statement is an opinion. Let me explain why.

When someone declares a computer "obsolete," they often speak from their own point of view. So, if you're a technology professional, a five-year-old computer might indeed be obsolete. But is that same five-year-old computer obsolete to a refugee family fleeing war or famine? Probably not. A computer that is obsolete for you might be a dream computer for someone else.

How I refurbish old computers with Linux

I have some experience in this field. For the past 25 years, I've been taking older computers to people who don't have them. One of my second grade students, raised by her grandmother, graduated from Stanford University five years ago. Another one of my students, to whom I delivered a dusty Windows XP desktop in 2007, graduated from Yale University last year. Both of these students used donated computers for their own self-advancement. The latter student typed more than 50 words per minute before reaching middle school. Her family could not afford Internet service when I delivered her donated computer to her–in third grade. So, she used her time productively to learn touch typing skills. I document her story in this YouTube video.

I'll share another anecdote that is difficult to believe, even for me. A few years ago, I bought a Dell laptop on eBay for $20. This laptop was a top-of-the-line laptop in 2002. I installed Linux Mint on it, added a USB WiFi adapter, and this laptop was reborn. I documented this story in a YouTube video titled, "My $20 eBay laptop."

In the video, you can see this laptop surfing the web. It's not speedy but is much faster than the dial-up computers we used in the late 1990s. I would describe it as functional. Someone could write their doctoral thesis using this 2002 laptop. The thesis would read as well as if it were written using a computer released yesterday. This laptop should be set up somewhere public where people can see up close that a 2002 computer can still be usable. Seeing is believing. Ain't that the truth?

How about those famed "netbooks" from 2008, 2009, and 2010? Surely those are obsolete, right? Not so fast! If you install a 32-bit Linux on them, they can surf the web just fine using the latest version of Chromium web browser–which still supports 32-bit operating systems. (Google Chrome no longer supports 32-bit operating systems, though.) A student with one of these netbooks could watch Khan Academy videos and develop their writing skills using Google Docs. Hook up one of these netbooks to a larger LCD screen, and the student could develop skills with LibreOffice Draw or Inkscape, two of my favorite open source graphics programs. If you're interested, I have a video for reviving netbooks using Linux. Netbooks are also ideal for mailing overseas to a school in Liberia, a hospital in Haiti, a food distribution site in Somalia, or anywhere else where donated technology could make a huge difference.

Do you know where refurbished netbooks would really be welcome? In the communities that have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainian refugees. They're doing their part, and we ought to be doing ours.

Open source revives old computers

Many technology professionals live in a bubble of privilege. When they declare a technology "obsolete," they might not realize the harm they are causing by representing this opinion as a fact. People unfamiliar with how open source can revive older computers are sentencing those computers to death. I won't stand idly by when that happens. And you should not, either.

A simple response to a person who declares a computer obsolete is to say, "Sometimes older computers can be revived and put back to use. I've heard that open source is one way of doing that."

If you know the person well, you might want to share links to some of the YouTube videos listed in this article. And when you get a chance, take a moment to meet an individual or family who lacks access to the technology they need. That meeting will enrich your life in ways you would have never imagined.

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Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations.

8 Comments

I run Fedora 26 on my EEE netbook of 2011 vintage. It's a bit slow but it is convenient. My main box is upstairs (Slackware), and generally switched off. It's a pain to go up stairs, fire it up, look up that one thing on imdb or whatever, and then go back down stairs again. The netbook is there in the lounge, and can still work off battery for about 30 minutes. It was also very useful when I was reinstalling the main box during my summer break. Not having run Slackware before, I used it to look up information while the main box was installing. I also started my install log on it - I have install logs going back 20 years, for each version of Linux on the different boxes I have owned.

Marty, thanks for sharing your experiences. We use Fedora on the public computers at the public library where I work, in Takoma Park, Maryland. People come to the library, happily get their work done, and then leave. More public libraries need to be shining a light on open source. How else are people going to get hands on experience using it?

In reply to by MartyMonroe

What a wonderful, inspiration article. I hope it inspires others to "give back" in the way Mr Shapiro does.

I heartily agree with the view that a computer one person considers "obsolete" can be invaluable to someone else. Over the years I've sometimes collected computers for charity and have found that many folks toss out PCs because they can't run a current version of Windows -- even though the hardware works just fine. Install a lightweight linux on these computers, and you have an excellent PC for somebody who might otherwise be forced to rely only on their cell for internet access.

The biggest challenge I'm running into in refurbishing these days is that web pages are growing so large. I read somewhere they've doubled in size just over the past few years. I believe it! Masking off ads and trackers seems to help a lot, but it still is challenging.

I use only refurbished PCs for my own work.

Pretty much all I have ever owned have been castoff computers. They along with my cheap tendencies and tinkerer's spirit got me into Linux/opensource. Just about any old PC that is new enough to use a SATA hard drive can be made into a useful piece of kit with a $20 120GB SSD and Linux Lite. I have also had fun experimenting with different distros.

In reply to by Howard Fosdick

So refreshing to see this all too rare article that actually chimes with my ideas about what counts as old/obsolete hardware.
There are far too many articles on the internet that promise to tell you about using Linux to "resurrect old hardware", then go on to use machines with 5th Generation i5 processors in them as examples!

I have two machines running Linux 24/7 right now, on old hardware, both Ubuntu, but both upgraded to use SSDs. Unfortunately, one of the two started out as a 32 bit install, though the processor is a Pentium D and should be 64 bit capable - so a re-install is in its future (fortunately, being a firewall, there isn't much I will have to do for the reinstall.). Or, it might simply get replaced by the latest Raspberry Pi when the time comes - not very expensive, and consumes less power, and donate its innards to other projects.

I use one of the Linux distributions that not only runs, but can actually thrive on 10, 15, even 20 year old computer systems. It's called antiX, it's well supported by an international community so it has been translated to work in many languages, yet it's very light and lean; I had to pick up a recent vintage Linux kernel to get it to work on my newest computer, so I had to do a bit of extra work, now it works on that too, but I have three computers that are ten or more years old and they work great; I've also given away old computers after installing antiX so that others can use it; moreover I customized it for whatever purposes my audiences have been so they each have a system that works for them; wonderful stuff!

I second your vote for antiX. Among the several distros I've tried designed specifically for older computers, it's one of the best. It's simple to install, reliable, and bundles a complete set of tools (even with its limited footprint). Also, the antiX team has done a good job identifying the tools that need to be added to such a minimalist distro. It's great to see a distro so focused on what users want, instead of what developers think they want or are most interested in developing.

In reply to by Brian Masinick

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