Resuscitate an old laptop with Linux and increase productivity

Linux screenshot

Linux screenshot

One of the projects I’ve been working on is productivity-related, as opposed to directly developing my sites. This project worked out beautifully for me with a resultant increase in productivity, and if I can do it you can too.

Here’s what happened: I recently rescued an old laptop that I was otherwise going to have to dispose of. It was a low-specced machine running Windows 7 but it had issues installing updates, meaning it was at risk of ransomware and other problems. It wasn’t my main machine, but I knew I couldn’t keep using it if I wanted to keep my files safe. Does this sound familiar? If you have a machine like this, read on.

So, what to do? A long time ago I’d toyed with the idea of switching to the Linux operating system anyway, and this now seemed like the perfect time to do it because I literally had nothing to lose.

I wasn’t really familiar with the world of Linux. Yes, I know that most web hosting servers are Linux based (including the ones running my sites). But I didn’t know much about Linux from the point of view of running it as a laptop or desktop operating system. So, here’s the run-down for those of you who, like myself, need just a little background:

  • Linux is open-source, meaning you can modify and customize whatever bits of it you want.
  • These days, Linux has evolved quickly and doesn’t require much if any knowledge of the command-line. You can do everything point and click intuitively, just as you would on a Mac or Windows system. Or, you can harness the power of the command-line if you want. It’s all there; you use as much or as little as you want. You’re in charge.
  • You don’t have to customize your actual Linux operating system to the n’th degree if you don’t want to, you can simply change your user preferences and settings. There are a lot of things you can do just simply point-and-click to change the background and overall look, just like you would on Mac and Windows. You can create a really big variety of different looks from one installation.
  • There isn’t just one Linux OS. They come in different flavors or distributions, called distros. All distros are free (as in freedom) to modify if you want. Almost all distros are free (as in free beer); they won’t cost you anything.
  • A Linux distro consists of its underlying Linux OS (i.e. what’s “under the hood”) plus the desktop environment (the overall look and feel of how the desktop behaves – which remember you can customize). At first it is hard to get your head around this, because on Mac and Windows, the OS and the desktop are not considered distinct. So coming from those, it’s hard to remember that there is a distinction in Linux. This means you can even have the same Linux distro that is being offered in two different kinds of “looks” and behaviors, i.e. two different desktop environments.
  • You can try out a Linux distro before installing it; this is something you can’t do with other operating systems! I discovered that not only is it helpful, it’s actually recommended you do so. That’s something I didn’t know first until I got in touch with the Linux community. Tip: you can find a highly active Linux community on Diaspora; they helped me a lot with my newbie questions and I got off to a great start thanks to them.
  • When installing Linux, you have the choice to either install it as the only OS (totally replacing what you had before), or side-by-side with your existing OS and you pick which one to use each startup. I installed it as the only OS because of my machine’s issues with Windows 7, but you could have both systems running on one machine.

Tip: You certainly don’t want to install Linux directly without trying it out first; you’ll want to make sure it runs fine on your computer. In particular, you want to make sure your distro recognizes your internet connection and any hardware you might have (e.g. printer). Most of the distros I tested out recognized all of that automagically; one didn’t so I just didn’t bother any further with that distro.

How to test out a Linux distro

To test out a distro, you simply download it from its official repository and write it as live media to a USB drive or to a CD. Don’t worry: the website for your distro will have instructions for how to do that. Then to test it out, have your computer boot up from the USB or CD drive (you’ll need to go into the BIOS settings at startup first to set the alternate bootup media). Don’t install the Linux yet at this point; just try it out and make sure it does what you want it to first, in particular making sure it works with your hardware. At this point you should be able to create and physically print out a document, and connect to the internet, for example. After testing, simply exit and remove CD or USB; then boot up to your normal OS and everything will go back to normal. The Linux won’t change anything permanently about your computer so long as you’re just running it from live media and not installing it. It’s so nice to be able to do that. Just in case anything went horrifically wrong (it didn’t), I backed up all my files to external hard drive first. I highly recommend you do that first also. It’s worth it for the peace of mind. You’ll need to do that anyway if you plan on doing an actual install.

I looked at several different distros, and tried out several via USB or CD. There are many different beginner-friendly distros from which you can choose. Some distros aimed at more advanced users don’t come with any desktop environment, just a command-line, which wasn’t going to work out for me:

I wanted to be up and running fast; I use my computer to get stuff done and to make money from my websites, not to infinitely tinker with my OS.

Some of the beginner-friendly distros that you may like to try (in no particular order) are: Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Manjaro, Linux Lite, Fedora, and Antergos. There are others too, but those are some of the most well-known. At the end of the day, the clear winner for me was Linux Lite, because it’s beginner-friendly yet is designed to work well on resource-constrained machines. Therefore even older machines with low amounts of RAM can handle Linux Lite just fine. It came bundled with all of the software I needed, and nothing that I didn’t. I didn’t have to worry about picking which desktop environment to use; it comes with just one option: the XFCE desktop. That’s it there in the photo at the top of the page. XFCE is low-resource yet is incredibly customizable for how you want it to look and feel, and looks modern and up-to-date. Linux Lite also comes with a point-and-click way to add in other software as needed, called Synaptic Package Manager. Lots of other distros also use Synaptic, and this is great for when you want to install or uninstall software. One other thing that drew me to Linux Lite was its clear release roadmap and the fact of it being well-maintained. Upgrading within a series (e.g. 3.4 to 3.6) of Linux Lite can be done from your computer with the click of a button without requiring a full re-install: a feature which not all other distros offer.

For whatever distro(s) you try, you can expect your distro to run rather slowly from USB or CD drive; it’ll be fast after the actual install when it’s running off your hard drive. Remember, before an actual install, back up all your documents, photos etc to external hard drive! A full install will erase all the data on your computer.

How and why my productivity increased on Linux

Speed of machine: my laptop ran much faster on Linux Lite than on Windows 7. Wow! It was like giving new life to my laptop. I couldn’t believe I’d been considering disposing of it.

Productivity tools built-in to Linux: the concept of workspaces. You don’t have workspaces in Windows (and I’m not sure about Mac) so I’ll explain it here. You know when you open up windows for different things, and before you know it, it’s hard to find stuff? e.g. you’re updating one site, designing a logo for another site using graphics software, reading a few tutorials on your web browser, listening to your MP3’s and have Twitter open too. It’s frustrating to have too much stuff in one space. Well, Linux has buttons called workspaces. It defaults to offering 2 workspaces, but you can add extra with a few mouse clicks (I have 4 workspaces). Each workspace button takes you to a clean version of your desktop. You can then open whatever windows in whatever workspace you want, and it will keep them in there for you as normal until you close each window. For example, I tend to do all my active site development in Workspace 1; logo design and off-line stuff in Workspace 2; less important stuff like MP3’s and Twitter in Workspace 3. I can switch between any of these at any time just by clicking on the button for the workspace I want. This way, you never get too crowded with your windows, and finding stuff is an absolute breeze. Most (but not all) distros have workspaces; this depends on the desktop environment. Linux Lite has it. I’m super-productive now!

Some tasks that were time-consuming in Windows are fast in Linux. For example I frequently resize my photos to decrease their size for use in my websites. In Windows, resizing involved a lot of pointing and clicking and trying to get close to the desired dimensions. In Linux, you can do it by command-line using the “convert” command where the desired photo width is one of things you specify. Or you can do it point-and-click using the pre-installed ImageMagick software, where you can select “resize” and type in the desired width. Both of these options feel a lot faster than the “trial and error” method I used in Windows.

No learning curve for the open-source software equivalents; jump right in. Open-source alternatives to Word and Excel (the LibreOffice suite) work just like their proprietary counterparts! They can even read from and save to the proprietary file formats. So I can open up all my old MS Word documents in LibreOffice. And I can even save in MS Word format instead of the LibreOffice format. This is ideal when you’re creating files that you want to share with others.

Automate repetitive tasks with shell scripts. Another way I increased productivity was by writing a few of my own shell scripts. If you find yourself frequently doing the same thing over and over again, you can write your own shell script (a program that contains a bunch of command-line commands in a row). You save it under a file name and run it whenever you want. For example, the image resizing I mentioned earlier? I made it even faster by considering the fact that I usually want to resize to 400 pixels. So I created a shell script that I can point-and-click to select an image file, which it will resize it by default to 400px unless I specify a different number, and it outputs the resized image to a new file name. I didn’t have to create all the procedures and functions for that, just put pre-existing ones together in the right sequence.

Plug and play for almost all devices. Even more so than Windows, I found that just about everything that connected via USB could be plugged and played without needing to download extra software or drivers. My father-in-law’s outdoor sport camera could literally just be plugged and played in my system, but for it to work on his Windows computer he had to download drivers for it. The notable exception to plug-and-play on Linux is anything iPhone or iPad (see below), and this could understandably be a deal-breaker for some.

Productivity conclusion

Taking together all of the different aspects above, I noticed I was getting a lot more done in the same amount of time in Linux, than I was when I was running Windows.

When Linux might not be for you

The beginner distros are very newbie-friendly. So, you won’t have to worry about it being too hard for you to use. However, there are some situations where a Linux-only installation won’t be the best choice:

  1. If you use tax software like TurboTax. No matter where in the world you live, most tax software is designed to work on Windows or on Mac, but not on Linux. If you use tax software, a total switch to Linux could be a problem for you.
  2. If you use your machine for gaming. There are relatively few games that run on Linux, and those that do so, will typically require an emulator-type of environment, so I couldn’t recommend Linux on a machine you use for playing games.
  3. If you use your machine for PowerPoint presentations. The open-source LibreOffice version of PowerPoint is not as intuitive or as easy to use as MS PowerPoint. To be fair, I haven’t used it much, but I have some qualms about it. I don’t have those same reservations about the LibreOffice Word Processing or Spreadsheet programs, which are a seamless transition.
  4. If you have an iPhone or an iPad. These do not plug-and-play well at all with Linux. This is not for any lack of effort from Linux developers: Apple simply doesn’t support Linux compatibility. You can find more about that online in Linux forums. Since virtually everything else can be plugged and played in Linux, I see this problem more as a failing of Apple than of Linux. But understandably you might not want to switch to Linux if you expect to be able to back up your photos from your iPhone or iPad onto your Linux computer. By contrast, Apple plugs and plays nicely into Windows, so I’m not sure why they don’t support Linux. We experienced this issue first-hand when a friend tried to put his iPhone photos onto my Linux computer; it just didn’t work. By contrast, his Windows 10 PC helpfully automagically organized all his iPhone photos into year and month folders. Your Android phone will work fine with Linux though.

In the above situations, you may like to run Linux side-by-side with your existing OS, but only if you feel you can spare the disk space. Linux is great, but it won’t necessarily be the best solution for everyone. I can attest it’s definitely worked out wonderfully for me!

That’s it for now (whew! – that’s long article); thanks for reading this far.

I’ll leave you with some resources:

Further reading

Here are some sources that were particularly helpful to me when I was looking into installing Linux:

Lifewire.com – from my perspective, this was by far and away the most helpful and readable source of tutorials, background info and troubleshooting for those planning on installing Linux. The link I gave takes you right to their Linux how-to guides.

Diaspora – there is a highly active Linux community on the Diaspora social network. I received a lot of help and advice there, and they were patient with my newbie questions.

Confessions of a Technophobe – Although it’s not a troubleshooting or tutorial guide, this blog is incredibly valuable for getting a general feel for the different Linux distros. It’s written by one of the people who helped me on Diaspora. He’s tried a bunch of the beginner Linux distros and he blogs about that from a personal perspective. Disclosure: He’s on Linux Lite right now, so that gets a lot of exposure, but has covered other distros in earlier posts.