But why Windows in the first place? All I wanted to do with that laptop was e-mail, Web browsing and some writing.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Linux for old PCs? This 'Puppy' shows you how

Nov. 15, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, The Post-Standard

   In the current excitement over a new version of Windows and some stunning new Mac computers, both Microsoft and Apple seem to be forgetting something: You don't have to use a Mac or a Windows PC. You can save a bundle of money by installing a free operating system on your PC.
   That free OS is, of course, Linux, the Open Source (volunteer-based) operating system that's immune to Windows viruses and other Windows malware. I returned to my Linux roots recently when I despaired of getting my old laptop running under any of the three recent versions of Windows -- XP, Vista and Windows 7. The reason? The laptop, now 11 years old, doesn't have enough memory, disk space or processor speed.
   The laptop is an HP OmniBook 4100. It can't take any more RAM than I've already got in it -- 96 MB. That seems ridiculously low these days, but it was a reasonable amount of memory when the computer was made in 1998.
   And the problem with my HP OmniBook isn't just the paltry amount of RAM. The hard drive is infinitesimally small -- only 6 GB. That's about 1/10th the minimum size needed for Windows these days. And the processor runs at a glacial 266 MHz -- again, 1/10th as fast as a typical PC CPU.
   So I thought over my options. Should I toss it out? No, it's in great shape. Everything works like new. Should I upgrade RAM? No, it's already maxed out. Put in a larger hard drive? Without a memory increase, that would be a waste of money.
   That left two choices. I could reinstall Windows 98 SE (which it originally came with) and suffer along with one of the worst versions of Windows ever. (Win 98 has enough security holes to make Swiss cheese look impregnable.)
   Newer versions of Windows were out of the question. They require much more RAM, disk space and processor speed.
   But why Windows in the first place? All I wanted to do with that laptop was e-mail, Web browsing and some writing. I didn't need big programs like Microsoft Office. Just a Web browser, a good e-mail program and a decent word processor and maybe a few games for when I get bored.
   That led me to a search for the best version of Linux for an ancient PC like my OmniBook. I found it in Puppy Linux, made especially for older, low-memory PCs. You can get it free from www.puppylinux.org.
   Like most versions (called distributions, or "distros") of Linux, Puppy Linux comes with dozens of free programs. The Web browser is from Mozilla -- it's SeaMonkey, and works just like Firefox, Mozilla's other browser -- and the e-mail software is SeaMonkey Mail, very much like Mozilla's other mail program, Thunderbird.
   If you're adept at burning so-called ISO files into CDs, you can simply download the ISO file for Puppy Linux, burn it to a CD and boot from the CD to start your installation. Less Geeky types can order a cheap CD already made for them; the Web site tells where to get it.
   Newcomers to Linux get a real treat from Puppy Linux: It initially runs from memory and from the CD, leaving your hard drive alone in case you don't want to stick with the Puppy. But I think you'll like the way it works, and installing it onto the hard drive after your tryout is a simple as clicking an "Install" icon and following the prompts.
   The word processor in Puppy Linux is Abiword, compatible with Microsoft Word. You also get a calendar, instant-message program, music software and a simple photo editor, among many other programs.