Linux, XP, and my old PC

Summary:My loyal commenters keep telling me I should give up on Windows and switch to Linux. I'm trying, I'm trying! For my latest attempt, I added some inexpensive hardware upgrades to a Y2K-era notebook, blew away Windows Me, and set it up to dual-boot Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux. Guess which one I'm using now?

Three weeks ago I reported on my experiences when I tried to install and use Ubuntu Linux. The reaction to that thread was mixed, with a fair number of commenters complaining that the VMWare test bed I chose wasn’t typical of what an average PC user would use.

Fair enough. To deal with that criticism, I put together two hardware test beds that are representative of what the world at large is likely to be using. One is a six-year-old HP 5135 notebook that had been running Windows Me. The other is a year-old Shuttle small-form-factor PC stuffed with industry-standard components. The newer machine has been a rock-solid performer for me, running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 day in and day out with hardly a hiccup. As for that Y2K-era notebook, it made the cut because I think no sensible person should run Windows Me, especially now that Microsoft no longer offers security updates for that OS. The question at hand is whether an upgrade to Windows XP makes sense, or whether it’s smarter to switch to Linux.

In today’s post, I’ll describe my surprising experiences with that old notebook. Next week I’ll tell the story of how the newer, more powerful desktop machine held up.

A client gave me this notebook more than a year ago when I helped him upgrade to a newer model, and I had only powered it up once, just long enough to transfer the data to hisnew machine and then erase any confidential files. So I was pleased to see that it booted right up. A quick check of the system properties revealed that this machine was seriously underpowered. It was limping along on 64MB of RAM, its hard drive was a puny 5GB in size, and even in its day the 533MHz Celeron processor hadn’t set any speed records.

Just for grins, I tried running the live CDs of Ubuntu 6.0.6 and Linspire. Neither one would get past the opening screens, complaining that there wasn’t enough memory. I was able to get Damn Small Linux to run off a CD, but that wasn’t an acceptable solution in the long term.

As it turned out, I was able to buy two 128MB memory sticks – enough to upgrade the machine to its maximum capacity of 256MB – for $13.50 each. With shipping, the total came to $36. Some rummaging around my spare parts bin turned up a 40GB notebook drive that I had replaced on another notebook a few years back. It was a perfect replacement – if I had purchased it from the same online merchant that sold me the RAM, it would have run me about $55 with shipping. The total hardware upgrade cost of $80 didn’t seem out of line.

I had an unused OEM copy of Windows XP Professional Edition hanging around; if I had had to purchase the software instead, I would have opted for an OEM copy of Windows XP Home Edition for about $90, bringing the total upgrade cost to $170. Ubuntu Linux is a free download.

First up, I installed Windows XP with Service Pack 2, partitioning the disk into two equal 20GB segments and using the first one for Windows. The install took less than an hour. After getting to a desktop I popped a D-Link CardBus-based wireless network adapter into the PCMCIA slot; it set up with no problems using the drivers from the CD that came in the box. After I had a working Internet connection, I turned on Automatic Updates and downloaded 49 High Priority updates. I then used Windows Update to snag a handful of replacement drivers and some optional updates. Total elapsed time: roughly 2 hours.

I was very pleasantly surprised at how well this machine ran Windows XP. Web pages loaded quickly, there was no noticeable lag when using any of the system tools, and the working set of memory was roughly 130MB, meaning there was plenty of room to run additional programs. As a basic web-surfing-and-email machine, this will do quite nicely.

Would installing Ubuntu Linux be as easy? It helped that I had spent a week or so practicing on a virtual machine and reading how-to articles, and the suggestions from a hundred or so commenters on the previous Talkback thread had given me a crash course in Linux configuration that came in handy here. The Live CD installation was quick and smooth. I was tempted to choose Esperanto as the default language for the OS, but I decided to go with English instead. The install was complete in well under an hour. The only glitch is that the notebook won’t shut down or restart properly under Ubuntu Linux; I have to power-cycle the machine after it finishes shutting down services and OS functions.

After a restart, I was ready to tackle wireless networking. And that’s where the fun stopped. I began in the Networking control panel, where I was happy to see that the system had detected my wireless adapter. But it couldn’t see my access point, and a quick bit of Googling confirmed that I needed to download a whole bunch of packages to get up and running. Catch-22: I needed a network connection to run apt-get, but the notebook didn’t have a built-in Ethernet adapter. I tried downloading packages from and transferring them to the notebook via a USB flash drive, but each download I tried to install balked, complaining of dependencies and telling me I needed to install several other packages first. After more than an hour of this I gave up and plugged in a USB Ethernet adapter (add $30 to the hardware upgrade cost). Ubuntu recognized the new adapter immediately and I was able to begin installing 100+ security updates and then try to get the wireless adapter working.

The good news? In fairly short order I was able to see the wireless access point from the notebook. The bad news? It still wouldn’t connect, because my access point is configured for WPA encryption, and the networking components I downloaded only support the horribly insecure WEP encryption. I’m not about to lower the security of my wireless network, especially when every other computer on this network is able to use the full-strength encryption.

I spent the better part of an afternoon Googling and reading in search of the secret to getting WPA encryption working on this notebook. Turns out I’m not the only one with this problem (see the tales of woe here and here and here and just try to follow the MEGO-inducing instructions here). This page promised “seven steps to WPA encrypted Wifi with Ubuntu Dapper Drake” but alas, after following the instructions to the letter and rebooting, I got a couple baffling error messages and yet another prompt for a WEP key that results in no network access.

And that’s where it stands. This computer is destined to sit on a desk in a guest room where no wired connection is available, so wireless access is the only option. Windows XP works perfectly; Ubuntu Linux won’t connect to my secure wireless network. It’s no contest.

Maybe I’ll have better luck on my newer desktop machine. Stay tuned.

Topics: Wi-Fi


Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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