New Life For Old Laptops Running Ubuntu

We have these old Leader laptops at my school that were part of our original batch of teacher laptops and they have not really been used since those teachers upgraded to more powerful machines in 2006. We put them out in classrooms for a while as bonus computers but they've struggled with our network image. So they've been sitting in the technician's office (aka the server room) for over a year and I had this idea about using them as a side project for tech savvy kids in my classroom. One day when I was contemplating on Twitter what to do with our old Pentium 4 desktop that was being strangled by viruses, Chris Harvey recommended Ubuntu as an excellent operating system that would breathe new life into older machines. I know a few other members of my network are Linux advocates so I figured that it would very appealing for these tech savvy students to tinker and set up these machines in my classroom. So, I downloaded the latest version of Ubuntu and burnt it to DVD and grabbed one of the old laptops for the summer holidays.

So, you're thinking - big deal. I know that many of my network are avid Linux users (of which Ubuntu is but one option) and that installing and playing with open source products is just part of what they do. But I am no computer whiz. I have never installed any operating system on any computer before and never really used a Linux based operating system. I'm not really that technical minded as I discovered when I went looking for details on how to get rid of the original XP operating system. I got lost for several hours, looking through forums, downloading a couple of utilities only to discover that I needed to know how to get into BIOS, or how to partition a disk or any number of things that kept telling me I'm out of my depth. So, if anyone knows of an idiot proof way for me to ditch Windows and keep the Ubuntu install (or failing that how to wipe the laptop completely and re-install Ubuntu only) I would be most appreciative. These old babies only have 40G hard drives and I don't need any MS memory hogging stuff eating into that precious space. The batteries are nearly shot and they have makeshift power adaptors, but they do offer a chance to boost what we can do in our 2010 classroom.

My vision is that these laptops become an extra resource for students to complete work on, access the web, edit photos, create graphics and so on. The tech savvy kids will be able to install and uninstall open source programs (although Ubuntu comes with an excellent array of software as part of the package) and teach themselves and others a bit more in an environment that is geared towards education and help them to move beyond the Windows only world view of computing.

Here's where I'm open to suggestions. Your ideas on how I could use these five laptops would be greatly appreciated. Maybe I should get the kids to run a different flavour of Linux on each one. They could become the publishing and graphic design workhorses leaving the faster laptops we have for working on the wireless network. What technical challenges could I set my small band of junior geeks? I am sure that they will quickly master the particular pathways of the Ubuntu environment and show me a thing or two. What would you do?

ubuntuPosted from an old 2005 Leader Celeron laptop running Ubuntu 9.10. A bit less pretentious than posting from my iPhone.
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15 thoughts on “New Life For Old Laptops Running Ubuntu

  1. Paul Wilkinson

    Graham I spent the last holidays plying with the exact same scenario. I didn’t have any trouble with the install though. The CD I burned did the install fine. It gave me the option to completely format the hard drive which I chose to do and it all worked. (Not that that info is much help to you I’m sure.) I would suggest having a look at edubuntu as a tool set worth loading on top of ubuntu.

    Good luck with this. Give the whole process over to your students. If the laptops are no use then no harm is done if they stuff it up. Can you get them on the internet? Just that makes it worth having them.
    I’m still trying to work that out on our school network. They access the net fine at home but the school network is a little more problematic.

  2. Colby

    Hi Graham,
    My wife asked me to comment on your blog. I agree with Paul, in that the Ubuntu install CD should just walk you through it.
    I have installed Ubuntu a few times, but I’ve mostly gone for one step more of difficulty (like dual booting), but even with my google only knowledge I managed to do it every time.
    If you have any drama’s let me know (by posting a followup comment) and I’ll try to help in any way I can.

  3. Graham Wegner

    Thanks guys – I did download the standard Ubuntu iso image which I installed from within the XP environment which then turned it into a dual boot laptop. Maybe because it has a network image (showing more of my ignorance here) I have never seen the CD prompt start before launching into XP or now, straight to the dual boot prompt. From what you guys are saying, having the CD (does it matter that I burnt it to a DVD?) in prior to starting the laptop up should allow me the option to install over the top of everything?
    And sorry, Peter, your image link doesn’t work for me here, but hunting around that site does give me this page which might be what I need. Off to try it out now.

  4. Peter

    What you want is to enter your laptop’s BIOS before any operating system boots up. In the BIOS you need to set your laptop to boot from the DVD drive. Then put the DVD in and restart your computer.

    How you get into a BIOS on a machine is different between computers. Typically you press a key like F10 or F8 or ESC.

    BIOSs are often different but many have a “BOOT” menu. In that menu you can select the device booting order. Just make sure the DVD drive is #1.

  5. Peter

    Oh I went and read the link that you posted after I hit send. I see it pretty much said what I was saying about the BIOS. The only tricky part can be finding out what key you need to pound on when the computer is turned on. If it doesn’t tell you you can probably search the net for your make/model and find out that way.

    Good luck!

  6. Graham Wegner

    Thanks for your guidance here. I managed to get into BIOS without any dramas and found that the DVD/CD drive was already selected as the First Boot Device. So, I went back to the Ubuntu forums and deducted that maybe my media source was the problem – that a CD-R might work better than a DVD-R – and the install is now humming along as I type. Will maybe do a post about a newcomer’s impressions in the near future with an educator’s hat on. I know that the South Australian education system is particularly MS biased and I have a Windows only technician on site so my only exposure to any Linux flavoured insight has been via the web and educators like yourself. Thanks again.

  7. leighblackall

    Ive never had to go into BIOS. I just put the CD into a Windows run tray, and in auto starts asking me if I would like to try Ubuntu from the CD, or install it from the CD. When I choose install, it asks me if I want to wipe clean or partition. I always wipe clean, I don’t want any dirty widows on my revived old bessy.

    My suggestion is stop

    Give the laptops to your students and their job is to work it out.. all the way.

  8. Graham Wegner

    Don’t worry Leigh, I intend to hand the job over to the students in the classroom – there are still four more laptops to use. That’s where maybe trying the different flavours (Edubuntu, Xubuntu etc) might be good as the kids can set them up for different purposes, evaluate one against the other and so on.

    What I’m doing now is for my own learning, and a “proof of concept” type of thing so that I can explain where and how these old machines can be used. Peter Ruwoldt from Mount Gambier already does a much better job where his students refurbished old PCs with Linux, then set them up for community groups. This is just a starting point for me – sort start up a little opportunity for interested kids and see where it can grow from there. We’ll see.

    And yes, you can order the CDs still – – but downloading and burning a CD wasn’t a big deal, even for ME!

  9. Kevin Kirton

    Seems you’re on the right track now, but since I’ve installed Ubuntu on a half dozen or so old computers, I thought I’d share some experiences.
    You don’t need to uninstall Windows first. The Ubuntu Cd will take car of that for you. If you don’t need Win XP on the laptops, I’d definitely choose the option on the Ubuntu CD that lets you do a clean install over Windows.
    It might be interesting if you let the students try to find things they like about the new systems and things that the new system can’t do out the box (DVD, MP3, shockwave are examples), then see if they can work out how to get those things working.
    I’d also see if any of them can use a USB memory to get a working “Sugar on a stick”

  10. Graham Wegner

    Thanks for those ideas, Kevin. That’s definitely the way to go – if the students realise that they can customise an older computer with open source software that is free for them to access and install, it means that they may well be able to apply this knowledge elsewhere. They will realise that they don’t need to shell out megabucks just have an effective digital learning tool. I want to see what they can teach each others and even me as well.

  11. Tim Szerlong

    I think it is great that you want to resurrect some old laptops. Ubuntu has to be one of the best ones for those that do not know much about linux, but I have a few suggestions.

    If you want to just get them running for everyday use and to get the computer up and running for uses such as using Open Office or browsing the internet the newest version 9.10 is your best bet.

    Now if you want to use these computers as an educational tool to maybe let some students really learn linux I would stick with Ubuntu but go with version 8.04. 8.04 is the most stable and has the most support and resources written for it. A couple projects that students can possibly complete would be to create an Apache server (Web server) and maybe even setup a blog such as WordPress. The computer only needs 128 MB of ram tops to run a great webserver.

    Here is the book I use for everything Ubuntu 8.04

    Keep playing with it, it is a great OS that anyone can use.

  12. Angela

    I’m attempting to use linux systems in my class this year as well. I’d be interested to hear how your children go with installing etc. I’m going to install the systems myself to start with as I have a younger group of children that aren’t quite up to installing operating systems yet… maybe later in the year.

  13. Graham Wegner

    @Tim Your ideas are very helpful – thanks. I discovered one little issue today in discussion with my technician I have to solve is a lack of power packs (which is one of the reason the laptops were taken out of commission). I’ll have to do some hunting for some cheap suitable packs. I will be guided a little bit by what the students are interested in I think but your book tip is handy.

    @Angela Good luck with your venture. Will you be blogging your tribulations and triumphs as you go?


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