Install Linux on a used laptop

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Penguins gathered together in the Artic

Now that Windows XP has been officially discontinued there are a huge number of Windows XP laptops for sale on eBay. Many of these run really well with a light Linux distro, such as Linux Mint XFCE.

At my public library job, I installed Linux Mint 16 XFCE on someone's Windows XP laptop and was amazed at how much faster the laptop ran. So, my curiosity got the best of me, and I searched eBay to find that particular laptop model: a Dell Latitude C640, manufactured in 2002. Someone was selling such a laptop on eBay for $20. The description of the laptop was that it was in perfect working condition, so I bid $20.

I was indeed surprised when I won the auction! No one else had bid on the laptop.

After installing Linux Mint 16 XFCE, I felt compelled to make this YouTube video showing how well this laptop works.

While there are not a lot of $20 laptops to be bought on eBay, there are a lot of Windows XP laptops selling in the $50 to $100 range. After installation of Linux, these could be ideal for a high school or college student.

Here is the big question to wonder about: Who will be the intermediaries to rescue Windows XP laptops for the benefit of those members of society who can't afford a new laptop?. I do that kind of volunteer work on a small-scale, piece-meal fashion. However, can we afford to have a future society built in a piece-meal fashion? Someone needs to give some deeper thought to this topic. I'm hoping the YouTube video I made can spur such thought.

I should mention, too, that there are a huge number of Windows Vista laptops that are also for sale on eBay. These sometimes run Linux three times faster than Windows Vista. It can be instructive for a public library, school, or makerspace to install Linux as a dual-boot on these laptops so that members of the public can have hands-on experience to see how much faster Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows Vista.

Seeing is believing.

Ninety-nine percent of the public has never experienced using the same computer with both Windows Vista and Linux. People should be afforded that opportunity, don't you think? If you have expanded knowledge, then you have expanded options for the world. I like expanded options.

Smiling librarian standing in front of bookcase
Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use their public Linux stations.


Came to see an awesome Linux project, not Apple bashing.

Then you must be happy, since Apple is not mentioned at all in the article.

In reply to by Alin Mihai (not verified)

In the video he mentions that the whole laptop costs less than the little trinkets on Apple's site, but it's not 'bashing'. The point is that this is a great way to recycle old computers and give them some more life on a budget, whether it be for libraries, schools, or personal use. He's not trying to compare coal to diamond.

In reply to by AC (not verified)

I used to do this with old ThinkPad T40s that I'd buy for a couple of hundred dollars. Installing a lighter-weight Linux distro on them really extended the life of those laptops. Makes me want to start doing that again ...

Can you imagine how much we could advance the cause of coding and educational technology if we could get some of the desktops, notebook and net books that once ran XP and installed a lightweight version of Linux like Phil has done here. Many schools are 1:1 using iPads at $400 each and you can't even begin to do on an iPad or one of these older laptops what you can do with a refurbished Linux desktop. All the coding tools and documentation tools. Creating epubs and more for a fraction of the cost. Good article Phil!

I've been using Debian on my desktop computer for years, but recently I wanted a laptop to use with my new endoscope/boroscope and to re-program my remote or embedded arduino systems in situ. So, in a similar experience to the author I was pleasantly surprised to find very good/serviceable laptops on Craig's List for real cheap. Sometimes they needed a new battery or they were sold without a hard drive to protect the owner's privacy, but even buying those components they are still good deals. I bought a $40 laptop and spent $13.88 on a battery. Then I installed Debian, and everything is working well. I'm even thinking of getting a second laptop to travel with.

Thanks for this Phil. I have a couple of retired HP or Compac laptops that I often think about installing Ubuntu on. But I have the impression that there are problems with various device drivers on some of these computers. Is that a problem?

Never had a problem installing Ubuntu (with Gnome 2) on either HP or Compaq.
This page enables you to download a couple different versions:
The only caveat is that you really should have at least 128M of RAM, though I have got ubuntu 5.(0/1)4 installed with just 64M of RAM. Quick enough once installed.

In reply to by Robert E Lucore (not verified)

Generally in Linux older hardware is well supported. You are more likely to run into device driver issues with bleeding edge hardware. Most likely the hardware in these laptops will be well supported, though there can be something that will be harder to get working (like perhaps an old Broadcom wireless card).

One issue you might run into with older hardware is RAM. If you have at least 1GB, then you should be able to run one of the slightly lighter distributions like Linux Mint XFCE (as mentioned in the article), Xubuntu, or LXLE. If you have less than that, these distributions may still work, but not as well. I don't recommend using a really outdated version of Linux, but there are distributions that work well on very little memory, like Puppy, or if you have not quite so little perhaps something like Salix Openbox. The advantage of using one of the Ubuntu based distributions (like the first group I mentioned) is that they have extensive software repositories.

In reply to by Robert E Lucore (not verified)

I have done a bit of experimenting with low powered hardware, and I have found LXLE to be a good way to get an up to date Linux distribution on hardware that might be a bit slower running Linux Mint XFCE. Besides these two distributions, Xubuntu or Ubuntu Studio (also XFCE based) are not bad choices, and I've used them quite a bit. Lubuntu can be OK, but I have had fewer issues with the Lubuntu based LXLE. Of course for really underpowered hardware, you will have to go to one of the specialty distributions like Puppy.

Phil, I greatly appreciated this article! I've been refurbishing old laptops and giving them away for years. Old business-class laptops are cheap, durable, and replacement parts are still bountiful. I just purchased a Thinkpad T43 for my nephew for $12.00 (+shipping, hard drive, battery, and adapter), loaded it with Mint Xfce, and it runs beautifully! We live in such a throw-away society and it's been my experience that any piece of technology over six months old is often viewed as hopelessly outmoded. Could you imagine the cost-effectiveness of widespread one-to-one initiatives using the tech that we already have laying around? I suggested this to one of my library science teachers and he thought that I was crazy. Not only would it be cheaper, but it would be much better for the environment and for human rights (think of all the ethically-questionable materials that go into each new piece of technology, such as tin for solder and Coltan for capacitors, to say nothing of working conditions in Foxconn and other companies' factories). Thanks so much for sharing this - I really hope that your advice catches on!

I did the same on a Dell Latitude D610 I had bought for $50 that had XP on it, First I installed Mint 12, then when I couldn't update that any more, installed Elelmentary OS, then added LXDE That helped a lot. Now have the same setup on a Latitude D820

I did the same thing by installing Peppermint OS (basically Linux Mint on LXDE). Nice article and good encouragement!

while cleaning out the home office after Christmas I found an Acer Travelmate 520 Laptop (Celeron 550 CPU & 256Mb ram). Having nothing better to do I plugged it in and to my surprise it booted into win 98!
A quick search online located woof puppy which I installed & am currently playing with instead of finishing the clean up.

The problem with previously-enjoyed laptops is the battery. Most of the time, it's on its last legs. And replace batteries are almost as expensive as new laptops. :(

If you have expanded knowledge, then you have expanded options for the world. I like expanded options (!)

The Dell C-840 that I bought on eBay eight years ago is still running strong with a dual-boot setup. The C-series Dells are extremely tough and every major component can be upgraded. I have doubled the RAM to 2GB, doubled the HDD to 160GB and upgraded the video card to 64MB! It has the best display I have seen on a laptop that didn't cost $2,000!
I would not hesitate to buy a few gross of these laptops to install Linux and give to kids...

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