Turn an old netbook into a powerful Linux machine

Have an old computer or netbook just laying around? Why not refresh it? If you’ve ever wanted to try Linux now is your chance! There are many different advantages to installing Linux on an old computer. Many distributions of Linux are generally lightweight operating system that are free and open source. These different types or “flavors” of Linux are suitable for giving an old computer the speed boost and face lift it needs.

In this guide I will turn an old, clunky, and barely functional Dell Inspiron Mini 10 PP19S into a new and improved Linux machine!

Lightweight Linux distributions compatible with netbooks

For this guide I will be using Linux Mint 18 “Sarah” XFCE edition. XFCE desktop environments are not heavy on system requirements. I chose Linux Mint because it is generally a fast system that comes with basic applications installed. If you are doing this keep in mind that most older computers usually run on 32-bit architecture.

You may decide to use another distribution perhaps because of the UI or for other reasons. Some other distributions to consider are:

  • Linux Lite – Lightweight Linux distro
  • Lubuntu – The “L” in Lubuntu stands for lightweight
  • Xubuntu – Comes with Xfce, which is a stable, light and configurable desktop environment
  • Arch Linux – Lightweight Linux distro that keeps it simple
  • Trisquel Mini – Made for low-power computers and netbooks

How to install Linux onto a netbook or slower computer

Most netbooks do not have a CD or DVD slot. Because of this, we will need to create Live USB. A live USB is a USB flash drive or external hard disk drive containing a full operating system that can be booted.

How to make a live USB

You will need:

x1 USB Drive (minimum 2gb)

x1 Preferred Linux ISO

On a Windows computer:

  1. Download your preferred Linux distribution in .iso form.
  2. Download and install Rufus. Rufus is the easiest way to create bootable USB drives.  Read more about Rufus here.
  3. Insert your USB drive into the Windows computer.
  4. Run Rufus and select the correct drive letter then click on the CD icon. Locate the ISO you saved on your computer.
    This will delete all the contents of your USB Drive.
  5. Click start to begin the process. It should take about 10-15 minutes.

On a Mac or Linux computer (also works with Windows):

  1. Download your preferred Linux distribution in .iso form. You can also use UNetbootin to download an ISO for you. However, if you would like to ensure you are getting the correct ISO, I suggest downloading it yourself.
  2. Download and install UNetbootin. Choose the correct download button at the top for your specific OS.
  3. Choose “Distribution” or “Diskimage”, depending on how you prefer to get your ISO. If you choose “Diskimage” click the 3 dots to navigate to where you saved your Linux ISO.
  4. Select the correct drive letter for your USB.
    This will delete all the contents of your USB Drive.
  5. Click ok to begin the process. It should take about 10-15 minutes.

Once you’ve created a Live USB using one of the above methods you can now boot from it on your netbook!

Boot from the USB

This next section will vary across computers/netbooks. To boot into your USB you will need to get into the devices boot menu. You can do this various ways such as selecting the boot order in the BIOS or simply pressing an F key when your computer is starting. For this specific model press F12 to get into the boot menu. Use the arrow keys to navigate to USB Storage and press enter.

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If all goes well, you should be able to boot into your USB. For me it was successful, as shown in the picture below:

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After you test out some things to make sure it runs smoothly, you can decide to install the full OS onto the computers harddrive. To do this click on the CD icon on the desktop as shown below.

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Now just follow through the steps and your computer will automatically reboot upon a successful installation!

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Getting things to work

Sometimes your netbook won’t have certain modern features built in such as Wi-Fi capabilities, or CD drives. To get the most out of your “new” computer you will need to do some modifications.

Wi-Fi solutions

If you don’t want your computer to have a hardwired internet connection through an Ethernet port you will need a USB Wi-Fi network adapter to maximize portability. They are easily found on Amazon and come in many shapes, sizes, and connectivity ranges.

I purchased a cheap one (pictured below) and it works fine for my purposes and has a low profile:

EDIMAX USB NETWORK ADAPTER

 

The setup was plug-n-play and didn’t require any driver installations. Some other alternatives include:

Optical CD/DVD Drive

If you want CD or DVD playback on your netbook chances are you’ll need an external CD/DVD reader. You’ll need one that is compatible with USB 2.0 since most older computers did not support USB 3.0. Some options to consider are:

Bluetooth

You can connect anything bluetooth to your netbook, like your printer, phone, mouse and keyboard, game controllers, wireless headsets, the list goes on. You can get very small adapters that don’t stick out far and have a nice form factor. Some examples are:

Internal or External Hard Drive

You can upgrade your existing hard drive by opening your netbook, taking out the old one, and putting in a new one. Or, if you don’t want to open your computer, you can purchase an external USB hard drive and simply plug it into the USB port on the netbook. More space means more room for all your stuff. This specific netbook uses a 2.5″ form factor and 9.5mm height for its internal drive.

Additional RAM

Most netbooks do not come with very much RAM, but it is possible to increase the amount, as long as it fits and is the correct type. This specific netbook has only 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM and the chip-set allows it to be upgraded up to 2GB.

Battery

With years of use sometimes batteries wear out and stop working. To replace them you’ll need to find a compatible one. For this notebook I used this one: Battery for DELL Inspiron Mini 10

Stocking up on charger cables might be a good idea too:

Conclusion

Linux can give new life to any old computer you have laying around. And if you’ve ever wanted to try Linux, why not use any existing computer you already have? Personally I started this project because my girlfriend wanted to re-purpose her old netbook and give it to a child to teach them about computers. Whatever your reason may be, re-using hardware is good for the environment and good for your wallet.

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