Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Reviving an old laptop: Puppy Linux

We have a shiny new laptop with a lovely wide screen and a multi-core processor; we love it very much and use it a lot. Meanwhile, our old laptop has been sitting idle - even when it would be handy to have a second laptop handy for some really essential web-browsing, we couldn't bear the eons-long boot-time and the extremely sluggish browsing experience that followed.

That bothered me; I started out on a 386 with a 25MHz processor 2MB of RAM, back when that wasn't a bad machine. Now, a 1.6GHZ machine with 512MB of RAM is too slow for me? Insane! I could have re-installed Windows XP (again), and that would have helped; maybe added a little extra memory. Instead, I opted for something a little more radical: Linux. Now, once upon a time, Linux was scary: an OS that was fast and stable, sure, but only for those who enjoy knitting their own device drivers of a winter's evening.

No more! Today, a wealth of Linux variants awaits, and initially I was thinking in terms of Ubuntu or SUSE. However, my quest for speed pushed me to look for ever-smaller distributions (Linux variants), until I came upon Puppy Linux - which, like its namesake, is small, friendly, and fast-moving - the download is only around 100MB. Burnt to a CD, this cool little OS is ready to go; I just popped in my laptop's CD drive and was able to boot into Puppy Linux straight from the CD without even installing it! I was very impressed to find that Puppy had no problem recognizing all my hardware, requiring absolutely no input from me to get the screen and speakers up and running - even my network and internet access via USB wifi dongle were handled easily - a far cry from my last Windows XP installation experience, which required much downloading of device drivers. Puppy is much friendlier than that!

Puppy turned out to be very, very fast, extremely responsive, even on this old laptop. Being so small, the whole OS easily fits in RAM; no churning hard disks here. Puppy even comes pre-loaded with a decent web browser, word processor, spreadsheet, vector graphics app etc. - so you can do quite a bit without installing any other software (and all these applications are just as nippy as the OS itself).

Having run Pupppy from the CD, I was totally sold; I copied all personal files onto a portable hard drive and nuked the laptop, opting for a clean Linux install (drastic, but easy to do). Now, that same old laptop we could hardly bear to use will boot from cold in 45 seconds flat. After that point, you can click something and have it launch instantly - whereas Windows, in my experience, shows you the desktop as a placatory measure, while it continues frantically to load things in the background.

In summary, reviving our old laptop with Puppy Linux was very easy and quick - much easier than re-installing Windows, and much cheaper than a hardware upgrade (it only cost me the price of a CD-R). My old machine is now an absolute pleasure to use, and I'm looking forward to filling up all the hard-disk vacated by Windows with some Linux-only apps I could never previously have run.

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