Refresh Your Old Laptop With Linux

by David Weedmark ; Updated August 01, 2017

If your old laptop is starting to slow down because it can't keep up with the latest additions to Windows, it may be time to consider giving Linux a try. If you have heard of Linux, or tried it in the past, you may think Linux is too complicated to use. That's not really the case anymore. This guide will show you how to give it a try risk-free, and how to get the most of it.

Why Linux?

There are two great reasons to consider Linux. First, Linux requires less memory and storage than Windows. Secondly, even for those with a powerful machine, Linux is immune to most of the viruses and malware that affect Windows computers. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to install it or use it. Once it is installed, the desktop resembles that of Windows or, in some varieties, Android.

Selecting a Version of Linux

There are many different versions of Linux available for download. Some of the most popular versions include Ubuntu, RedHat, and Mint. Light versions of the operating system require very little memory or storage. Some of these include:

  1. Knoppix is so lightweight it can be run from a USB thumb drive, without having to install anything on your computer's hard drive.  
  2. Lubuntu is a lightweight version of Ubuntu, or rather a sub-family of Ubuntu called Xbutu, which comes with several popular applications pre-installed.
  3. PIXEL is a version of Linux created by the makers of the Raspberry Pi, however it can also be used on even really old laptops.
  4. Remix OS is a version of Linux that gives you an Android on your laptop. It's designed for newer computers and even supports touchscreens. 
  5. Puppy Linux can also be run from removable media. The entire operating system takes only 250 MB, which means you can install it and boot it from a CD.

You can give Linux a test run by downloading it onto an external flash drive. You can choose to keep it on that drive and use it whenever you wish without deleting Windows, try another version of Linux or, if you like it, put it on your laptop’s hard drive.

If you are given a choice between a 64-bit or a 32-bit version of the software, try the 64-bit first. With Linux Mint, it should work on any computer that’s less than five years old. The size of the download varies, anywhere from 250MB to 1.5GB, depending on the version you choose.

Installing Linux

Once you have Linux on a removable drive, connect it to your laptop. Here, you need to restart the laptop and interrupt the startup process to enter its UEFI or BIOS. Watch the screen carefully for which button you need to press. On many HP laptops, for example, it’s the F9 button. On a Lenovo Thinkpad, it could be the Novo button on the edge of the laptop. If you don’t see the instructions while the system is booting up, you can look it up at the laptop manufacturer’s website.

Restart the laptop again and press the button to enter UEFI or BIOS immediately and hold it until you hear a beep or the BIOS screen appears. Follow the onscreen instructions to boot from the removable drive. Using the arrow keys, go to the “Boot” menu. If you don’t see this option, go to Advanced Features or Other Options to find it. Here, you can change the order that computer chooses to look for operating systems. Instead of booting from the hard drive, choose your removable media option.

When you exit BIOS, the laptop will boot from Linux instead of Windows. The first time it runs you will get a setup window. Follow the onscreen instructions to set it up.

Once you find the version of Linux that you're comfortable with, you can continue to use it from the flash drive, or install it on your hard drive. If the hard drive has enough room, you can keep Windows intact, otherwise make a back up of your Windows installation and all of your files before formatting the drive and installing Linux.

Things to Watch For

If you decide to delete your current operating system, it's vital that you know that your version of Linux will work on your laptop first. The most important thing to watch for are the drivers, especially the driver for your WiFi adapter. Laptops use a large variety of different WiFi adapters. It's seldom that the driver you need won't be available in Linux, however it may not always come built in with Linux. You may need to download it separately and install it yourself.

If your version of Linux doesn't have the right WiFi driver, you will need Internet access to download it yourself. Download it using Windows. There are usually instructions on how to install the driver on the same website that offers the download file.

If you are missing other drivers, like for your printer, it's best to download and install them before committing to any version of Linux too. However, missing a printer driver isn't as catastrophic as missing the WiFi driver that gives you Internet access.

Getting the Apps You Need – For Free

One thing new Linux users get used to very quickly is that they don't have to pay for software. Like Linux itself, the vast majority of Linux applications are open source and free to use. Depending on the version you downloaded, you may find some of these applications already installed. If not, you can download them and install them yourself. Here are just a few to consider:

  1. Firefox. This is the default built-in web browser for most versions of Linux. If you have used Firefox in Windows or Mac, you will find it is almost exactly the same in Linux. If you don't like Firefox for any reason however, you can always get...
  2. Google Chrome. Yes, this is available for Linux too.
  3. Thunderbird. This is an email client built by the same people who created Firefox.
  4. LibreOffice is the Linux version of Microsoft Office. This usually comes built-in with Linux too. Make Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets for free.
  5. Atom is a text editor, with more options than Notepad, but faster and smaller than Word.
  6. WizNote is a note-taking app, similar to OneNote and Evernote.
  7. GIMP is an open-source competitor to Adobe Photoshop and completely free.
  8. Pinta is less complicated than Photoshop or GIMP, for those who want to draw and paint.
  9. VLC is a free video player that also plays audio files and podcasts.
  10. Skype is available for Linux so you won't have to worry about missing those video calls.

This just scratches the surface when it comes to the software available on Linux. The only shortcoming you are likely to find is in the games category. However, with an aging laptop with an old video chip, that is most likely the case for Windows users too.

About the Author

A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has advised businesses and governments on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years. He has taught computer science at Algonquin College, has started three successful businesses, and has written hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines throughout Canada and the United States.