I have a collection of old computers that seem to be approaching the end of their natural lives. The specs on one of them will seem familiar: a Core 2 Duo CPU, Windows XP, 2 GB of RAM, and a 19 inch 4:3 LCD monitor. Lots of people have computers like this. They are about eight to nine years old, and there is nothing particularly wrong with them, but these days they seem sluggish and ancient. They often get confined to closets or the recycling bin. However, there is a way to revive computers of this era, and it doesn’t cost that much. This is a story of how I gave my wife essentially a brand new computer for just over $50.
The first stop was Memory Express to pick up a brand new SSD. I asked the store clerk for a recommendation, and he told me about the Kingston SSD Now 300 series. The low-end, 120 GB version was just over $50, so I picked it up. It has good reviews and I like supporting a company that also supports professional Starcraft teams.
The next choice I had to make was what operating system to install. Windows 8 was right out, because my wife (like many people) has seen and dislikes the new user interface. Windows 7 might be a good choice, but getting a legal copy is expensive, and it’s an old and outdated operating system at this point. In the old days, Windows was a necessary choice because not many apps were web-based, and Linux distributions were still a bit finnicky to get going. Things are different now. But the most popular Linux distro, Ubuntu, has a very unusual user interface, so it wouldn’t be a good choice either.
I settled on Linux Mint 17, with the Xfce interface. It is the most lightweight clone of the standard Windows desktop, so it runs really well on older computers with limited amounts of RAM. It’s also familiar to anyone who has run Windows XP or 7. In fact, you can customize the bitmap image for the start button (and add the word "Start" to it). This makes it look a lot like good old XP, while simultaneously being a modern, secure operating system.
Linux Mint 17 comes pre-installed with Libre Office, which is a great clone of Microsoft Office and has an interface that is similar to Office’s standard menu and toolbar layout from 1995 through 2007. It also reads and writes Office documents seamlessly. Aside from using web applications, being able to write documents and spreadsheets was an important use case for my wife. She likes Libre Office better than the new Office "ribbon" interface that was introduced in 2007, and was using it on Windows XP before I upgraded, so this was a pretty seamless transition.
The only missing element for moving this computer to Linux would be gaming, but as my wife isn’t a gamer (apart from a few apps on her iPad) so that wasn’t an issue.
To install Linux Mint, I disconnected the existing two spinning hard drives and plugged the Kingston SSD into a single SATA port, then burned the .ISO to a DVD-R (I could have used a USB thumb drive, but it would have been a bit trickier, plus it’s been ages since I burned a DVD!) and booted from the shiny new disc. I let the installer format the entire SSD and install the operating system. Only once it was completely installed and running did I plug in the two drives again, setting them as secondary drives in the BIOS. Mint detected them instantly and I was able to copy over all the old documents on the drives to the new SSD. Having done this, I was able to disconnect the drives again to save power when running the computer.
It’s amazing how much faster this machine feels now. Launching LibreOffice takes less than half a second, compared to the half a minute it used to. It looks and feels like a brand new machine, and the price ($50 for the SSD and $0 for Linux Mint) couldn’t be beat.