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How to install Linux on an old laptop to give it new life and purpose

If you're looking to revive that aging laptop, Linux might be your best bet. Find out how easy it can be to make this happen.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Min Shin
laptop with USB drive
Chaichan Pramjit/Getty Images 

When I first started using Linux back in 1997, it was not easy. There was a lot of command line work to do and keeping my 33.6k modem online was a nightmare, which meant I had to write a bash script to keep it connected. With some serious persistence, I made the OS work -- and eventually made a career out of covering Linux and open-source software.

Also: 8 things you can do with Linux that you can't do with MacOS or Windows

Today, if you have a laptop that was built within, say, the last 10 years, you shouldn't have any problem installing Linux on it.

But how? Let me show you just how easy it is.

How Linux can revive your aging laptop

The first thing to keep in mind is that we're going to wipe away the current operating system on your laptop. You'll first need to make sure you've saved every file and directory that you want to keep onto an external or USB drive. If you don't have either of those things, upload those files to a cloud storage account.

Once you've backed up all the data you need to keep, you're ready to install.

How to install Linux on your aging laptop

What you'll need: To make this work, you'll need the following:

I demonstrate the process below by installing the daily release of Ubuntu Desktop, which uses the installer that debuted with Ubuntu 24.04, which was released April 2024.

Also: How to create a bootable Linux USB drive 

That's it. Let's make it happen.

1. Insert your bootable Linux USB drive

Insert your bootable Linux USB drive into a USB port on the computer and power on the laptop. 

If your machine doesn't immediately boot to the USB drive, you'll have to reboot the computer to access the boot menu.

How this process takes place will depend on the make and model of the laptop, so you'll have to Google how to access the boot menu and then select USB as the boot option. 

During the boot process, the first thing you must do is select Try or Install Ubuntu, and hit Enter on your keyboard.

The Ubuntu 23.04 text-based installation prompt.

If this screen appears during the installation process, select Try or Install Ubuntu.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

2. Select your install language

Once the GUI installer opens, select the language you want to use for the installation and click Continue.

The Ubuntu installation language selector.

Choose the language that will be used during the installation process.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

3. Enable

In the next window, you can enable any accessibility features you require. Click through any of the options to enable various items. Once you've done that, click Next.

The Ubuntu 24.04 accessibility configuration.

Each accessibility section has different options to enable.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

4. Select keyboard layout

The installer should automatically detect your keyboard and language. If it doesn't, select both options from the lists and click Continue.

The keyboard layout screen.

Most likely, your keyboard layout will be automatically detected.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

5. Connect to the internet

I'm working with a virtual machine, so I can take screenshots for this article.

Also: How to create a Linux virtual machine with VirtualBox 

But since you're working on a laptop, make sure to select your wireless network. When prompted, type the password for the network and click Continue.

The network connection screen.

If you're using a wireless network, you'll have to select the Wi-Fi name you want to connect with and type the required password.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

6. Select Install

Here, there are two options: Install Ubuntu or Try Ubuntu. If you click Try Ubuntu, you can test out Ubuntu without making any changes to your hard drive. This is what's known as a Live Linux distribution, where everything runs from RAM. Select Install Ubuntu and click Continue.

The Try or Install Ubuntu screen.

If you want to try Ubuntu, without changing your hard drive, select Try Ubuntu, otherwise select Install Ubuntu and click Next.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

7. Select your installation type

In the next window, you can choose from a Interactive or Automated installation. The Automated installation type is for advanced users, so select Normal installation and click Next.

The installation type selector.

Select your installation type here.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

8. Select the apps you'd like to start with

In this section, you can either go with just the essentials (web browser and basic utilities) or the extended selection (which adds office tools and more). Select Extended Selection and click Next.

The Applications selection screen.

Go with Extended Selection, so you don't have to install as many apps once the OS installation is complete.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

9. Add proprietary software

Here, you can add third-party software for graphics and wireless hardware, as well as support for more media formats. Select both checkboxes and click Next.

The optimize computer screen.

Adding third-party software for graphics and Wi-Fi can make your post install life much easier.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

10. Disk setup

On the Disk Setup window, keep the default option and click Next.

The Disk setup screen.

Unless you know what you're doing, keep the default option selected here.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

11. Create your account

This is where you create your first Linux user account. Fill out the necessary options and click Next. For the Computer name field, you can name it anything you like but I would stick with something simple (such as ubuntu or linuxdesktop) or you can keep the suggested name given by the installer.

The Create Your Account screen.

Make sure you use a strong, unique password for your user account.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

12. Set your time zone

In the next screen, you'll need to select your time zone. To do that, type your location (in the form of City/State) and click Next.

The Timezone configuration screen.

Make sure to select the proper time zone, otherwise it could lead to problems with updating and installing software.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

The last screen asks you to review your changes. Click Install and Ubuntu installation will begin. When the installation completes, reboot. During the reboot, make sure to remove the USB drive, so the laptop boots from your hard drive. Once you reboot, log in with the user you created, and start using your new Linux laptop. 

Also: New to programming? My 5 favorite Linux tools will get you up to speed faster

This process shouldn't take more than 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the speed of your machine and network connection. Congratulations, you've just revived that aging laptop with a very powerful, flexible, secure, reliable, and user-friendly operating system. Enjoy!

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