Jul 142018

Old hardware can be fun to keep going, especially when one of the branded and expensive operating systems stops support on otherwise very good hardware. For a few friends I have installed Xubuntu 16.04 LTS and act as support and tutor. Recently I picked up a discarded 2004 Toshiba and gave it a try. Well, I think there is a limit to how old a laptop or computer I want to do much work with.

For my friends I suggest they do what I do, hence the Xubuntu installs. This way I can also answer some questions on very short notice and perform rescue if there is a glitch or mistake or a badly needed update. I know the menu and main applications and I can look up others in the repository. These people have acquired a decent machine or even buy one, maybe on sale or re-furbished. My current preference is for a 64-bit, 4GB ram and any hard drive that is newer, these are now measured in 100’s of GB’s. The 2004 Toshiba had a 60 GB hard drive and that was enough for installation in 32-bit, but there were other problems.

The old 2004 machine, excellent in its day, was very limited: only one available slot for ram and an early Celeron(tm) processor, not even a Celeron M(tm). Processors are constantly improved and every decade make a leap of 2^5th, if they double in speed every two years, and therefore allow increase demands from the applications. The 2004 could not do multi-threading and was limited to the 32-bit and single core, single thread processing. As a tool it was limited everywhere one would expect increased ability. The Peppermint 8 OS was maybe not the best choice – it is geared toward Internet connectivity and processing which demanded too much from the bus and processor. The games, for instance, were opened by the ICE-SSB links. The “ICE” name for the launcher is the Peppermint nod to an earlier nickname of their OS. It uses the launcher to open a “single site browser,” that is Chromium locked to a single site and without toolbars.  This technique is used elsewhere for Internet test centers an other kiosk-like controls on the user to focus on only allowed activities. For example on a test of scientific knowledge taken via the web, the browser locks me on the test and I cannot access an encyclopedia to find the answers. Unless I also have a cellphone in my hands, too. The effect of the added overhead on the processor of browser plus controls was too much for the 32-bit processor and ram. Locally installed games worked much better, as one would expect. Typically I could play Solitaire and watch the sensors [‘watch -n 10 sensors’] and see the machine cool down. It heated up when browsing and shut down once when I was not paying attention to the heat. Clearly I was asking too much of this old device.  I have assigned this old machine to re-cycling; taking a few choice working sub-assemblies out for use in newer machines I can get to function reliably.

I have the “Net Install” version of Debian on disk and will be using it on 32-bit machines. The Ubuntu threat to cease 32-bit support makes sense for any really workhorse machine; 64-bit, multi-core, multi-threading and larger ram are expected for Internet and visual applications. Still I know that the 32-bit machine with enough ram and bus speed can adequately do most of what I commonly use my computer to do. Currently I have a Dell from 2005 which has the CeleronM(tm) processor and 2 GB ram and it seems to run much better with the Peppermint OS or the Debian 9, Stretch. I am using the Debian Stretch to see just how well it will work and so far it does well, handling local and network access creditably. It will do as a demonstration machine to bring to meetings, though a bit heavy when compared to current portables. And, alas, the optical drive is noisy, but working for now. Unless I find a replacement that is not quite so worn out I won’t use it for audio disks. All in all it shows that 32-bit is sufficient when given enough ram and is used for the basic tasks of e-mail and Internet browsing and running applications made for the installed OS. It can certainly do as a standby machine to access e-mail if I’m doing repairs for myself or someone else. We have become so accustomed to being connected it seems a necessity.

While experimenting with Peppermint I discovered Quod Libet, a music player with built-in browser and accumulator of Internet streaming audio. This ran well on all the machines tested, even the 2004 Toshiba. I have re-discovered the fun and the frustrations of streaming radio as it exists outside of the services that include an algorithm to play what it thinks I want to hear. You know the ones, you join and put in an artist or song and voilà, hours of homogenized music. Instead, the streams collected by Quod Libet seem to be independent radio stations around the world, always interesting, sometimes almost randomly playing music so disparate as to jar the ear. It is some fun to listen for a while to New South Wales, Australia or Paris, France and get a take on pop and hip hop I might otherwise never imagine. The browser claims over three thousand stations, though I suspect some duplication, still, many more than I can get via fm radio in Santa Fe, NM, USA.

Jul 012018

Getting Started with a Gnu/Linux Installation:

This is an outline and report of recent experiences with installation of a GNU/Linux system on a laptop. The steps would be the same for any computer, but most of the NMGLUG group are now using and bringing laptops to meetings.
1) Get a disk or usb with an installation ISO; there are many choices. In NMGLUG we have had Debian Stretch 9.4, Ubuntu 18.0, Xubuntu 16.04LTS and Peppermint 8 as recent installs. All of these were downloaded on a working computer and copied as ISO images to a flash drive or DVD.
2) Insert and boot from the ISO media and do the install, choosing partitioning and encryption or no encryption. If in doulbt accept the default partitioning. Installation from the ISO is just the start for the process, but in our several cases installation worked. A restart and login are required to do a little testing of keyboard and some applications. This helps the user get a feel for the menus and any gaps in the hardware drivers. For the Ubuntu 16.04LTS and Debian 9.4 we needed to use a usb wireless dongle with a free driver to download the necessary proprietary driver for the built-in Broadcom wireless card. The Peppermint 8 install on a 2004 laptop ran slow and needed removal of the ‘apt-xapian-index’ application which was monopolizing cpu cycles. Further issues arose with the Celeron processor in this older machine, which seems unable to keep up with the needed work, despite a rating of 2.8 GHz.
3) Get the Updates to bring in any improvements in the basic software: This can be done via Update Manager, Synaptic Package Manager, “Software Center” or the commandline. Ubuntu does not include Synaptic, so the easiest is to open the Updater and select “Check for Updates” or in the “Software” application open and wait while it tallies the software and looks for updates, then look for the “Updates” tab and install them. In Synaptic there is a “check for updates” button and then the “Apply” button, once the updates have been loaded. The retrieval of the updates may take two to five minutes and may be anywhere from 200MB to 600MB in size depending on the age of the installation media and the number of updates and rewrites from the software maintainers. Then reboot and put the machine to use for a few basic functions. The browser should work, and office suite and photo display will work. DVD’s won’t play and some music files may need additional codecs. Some codecs are proprietary and while free of cost, are not truly free for source code or sharing. But there are solutions so that DVD’s and MP3’s will play on any current installation, as long as the hardware is capable. (I cannot recommend using a laptop as old as 2004, unless you want constant problems.)
4) Tweak or “tune” the system: Pepermint 8 required removal of the “apt-indexer”, as above, and removal of Samba as a potential problem. I added: sox, lame, fancontrol, vim, vim-runtime, gnome-games, aisleriot and stellarium. I removed the SSB links for games and Gmail. The SSB is “Single Site Browsing” which usese a locked browser to go to one site only and hides all other browser functions. The default browser was a problem for the Celeron CPU/GPU, so I added the elinks browser. The elinks browser works readily in a terminal, thus cutting down on the load for the gpu. Perhaps a graphics problem with the Radeon builtin gpu? The users of the Ubuntu 18.0 and Xubuntu 16.04 will undoubtedly add and remove some different items. Newer machines may not even require removals as hard drives are larger than the 60 GB drive in the old laptop.
As a part of tuning, I take a look at the settings for the automatic updater, usually I want a weekly notification to update. In a newer edition like Ubuntu 18.0 a two-day update cycle might be good for a few weeks, as the software is improved by the developers in the early release period. Set the Update interval so it does not interfere too often with actual use of the machine.
There are enough applications to allow anyone to select the ones suited to one’s areas of interest. Many Gnu/Linux applications are adapted to user modification and adjustment so you can install and then fine tune the application to make it work the way you would like. I found adjusting the Terminal color scheme improved the readability of elinks, for example.
5) Testing and use: Experience with the older laptop and Peppermint and Debian revealed a good enough wireless and audio setup which allowed streaming radio from the Internet via QuodLibet and slow video on YouTube. The latter was not a surprise, but the ability to play a standard DVD adequately was a nice bonus. The SSB/online games we balky and thus removed, the installed games run well if not added to other simultaneous tasks. So there is some reason not to rely on an older processor and motherboard if you can help it. The Peppermint team is focused on having the Internet be the source for applications and storage – not a good approach for my hardware, but I will keep testing for a while. A second hard drive with Debian 9.4 for the older laptop runs a bit better, but still has the slowness in browsing.
6) Do Something! Once the operating system is loaded, updated, tested and tuned it is time to do some work or play. So use the applications, look at all the settings in the display and functions. Pick colors and icons that are convenient and suit your taste. Explore the menu “tree” so you know where to locate settings and applications.

I know GNU/Linux on a computer lets me get to the work and play I want in my computing experience. I think it will do that for you as well. Thank you, Ted P.