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The Free Linux Laptop...

July 10, 2006

... well, almost free.

Back in 2001, if you were a manager at my company, if you were lucky and had been good, you might have been given a Toshiba Tecra 8100 PIII to play solitaire on in the airport lounge. List price back then, around $3600 (the docking station another $399). As a foot soldier developer I have had a series of unremarkable, but solid, Dell desktops. If I have wanted a laptop, it has been on my own dime.

Fast forward to 2006; during a corporate spring-cleaning, what was once $4k worth of laptop and docking station, now ends up in the trash. For my wife's sake, I have been trying to curb my dumpster diving tendencies but what's the harm in checking out a free (if old) laptop? Admittedly, a P3 800 it isn't cutting edge technology but it had 256mb of memory and a DVD player and looked like it would be fine for playing with Linux on.

First things first, people don't just throw a working laptop in the trash, even a five year old one, so what was wrong with it? The first hurdle was that it had no power supply. That was easily over come as a previous dumpster diving session and won me a handful of suitable Toshiba laptop power supplies. So I plugged it in and turned it on and the message I saw suggested that something was wrong with the hard drive. A quick boot from a Unbuntu live-CD seemed to confirm this - it would boot from the CD but would not install to the hard drive no matter how long I waited. I went out to eBay and picked up a new 40gb laptop drive for $65 shipped and turned off the tecra while I waited for the new hard disk to arrive.

The Unbuntu Cult

The last time I'd tried to install linux was 4 years earlier and it was far from successful. Back then I tried to create a server out of a very old Celeron 333 machine and Red Hat. Everything was a struggle; nothing went smoothly and after a couple of frustrating evenings the attempt was abandoned and that old PC, parted out.

We use Linux somewhat at work so I know my way around as a user. Professionally, I've been using Unix for a couple of decades but never as an administrator. I have installed various flavors of Windows numerous times but Linux installations always seemed a technical breed apart. In short I'm a geek but not an alpha geek. All the talk about distro choices and code compilation turned me off.

Then I read a blog posting about one of the Mac faithful defecting to Ubuntu. I've never owned a Mac but I know enough to see that, if a former Mac user found Ubuntu to his liking, I should at least be able to install it and find my way around. A little google work and I found that Ubuntu was dismissed as the neophyte's Linux by the hardcore Linux fan-boys, but as a Linux-newbie that characterization suited me down to the ground. I also found an enthusiastic cult of Ubuntu converts and taking heart from their experience I fitted my new hard drive and a cheap wireless card into the laptop and got familiar with Ubuntu..

Downloading the Unbuntu 6 ISO image to burn an installation CD was quick and painless as was booting from the live CD. Installation was equally simple; you simply click the install icon from the live CD boot and answer a couple of questions about which disk to use, who you are and what time you're in, etc. To be honest, I was timing it, but if I was asked I'd say it took a little over half an hour to complete the install on this older laptop. Most of that was unsupervised and default options were accepted where available. I will say that the installation was simpler than a Windows install and the result was a more complete desktop. Open office, firefox and Gimp were all there from the get go. Also from the outset nearly all of the hardware just worked. This includes the video, sound, wireless WEP networking, touch point navigation device, laptop power options, etc. Changing resolution to the maximum available on the Tecra's 14.1" display resulted in plenty of useable and readable work space.

The bottom line? Within and hour of starting the install I was mindlessly surfing the pipes of the interweb with my 'new', 'free' laptop.

So what is the experience like for a Windows user? There isn't a huge learning curve; most of the Gnome desktop works just as you'd expect. It's solid; although I've only been using it lightly for a couple of weeks, I haven't seen a crash yet. Installing additional software is simple but takes some getting used to for a Windows guy. Everything isn't perfect; I've clicked on a few help buttons that result in sparse documentation that isn't much help. I've tried to open a couple of administration applications which either do nothing, or open and close before I can do anything with them. Then there's the fonts; they aren't exactly pretty even when they're optimized and I was disappointed to see how my protopage looks different in Firefox on Ubuntu compared with XP.

The font issue I see some fixes to and I will address this next. In the meantime what am I going to do with this Ubuntu laptop seeing how I already have a perfectly good XP, ultra portable laptop at home in addition to several desktops? Well, I wanted to get more familiar with Linux so a couple of evenings a week I'll try to use the Gnome laptop instead of my usual windows machines. I doubt we'll see a massive shift from Windows in the US in the foreseeable future but as the second and third world come online with machines like the MiT $100 laptop the percentage of the global community using Linux is likely to rise. I'm interested to see what their experience will be like. So far, I'm very encouraged. I was expecting Ubuntu to feel incomplete and second rate compared to the Windows experience but my dabbling so far finds that Ubuntu to be the exact opposite. I'm excited what this may mean for the further democratization of technology and the net.

I also admit that I like the geek points that come with running a Linux laptop. Windows is common place and powerbooks are now mainstream in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. There's a certain novelty and nobility about pulling out a battered laptop that you rescued from the trash and being able to keep up and 'work'.

More, as I discover it.

Continue reading "The Free Linux Laptop..."
Posted by mhtaylor at 4:12 PM | Comments (1)