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Since at least the mid 1980’s, I’ve been a Microsoft Windows guy. After testing a few interesting Linux distros, I can honestly say that Linux is actually winning me over.
From MS-DOS through Windows 8.1, I remained staunch in my defense that the only way to have a full and productive experience as a computer user was to have a Windows PC with access to the wealth of software available to Windows users. However, after recently trying Chromebook, it dawned on me that maybe other operating systems can be just as productive.
Since Chrome OS is actually based on the Linux kernel, it then makes perfect logical sense to consider whether other Linux distributions could be useful. The ideal way to give Linux a try, for anyone who is completely new to Linux and unwilling to invest in new hardware, is to test it out using some of the older PCs that Windows simply stopped working on. Thankfully, I had three such systems to play around with.
Which Linux Distro Should I Use?
One of the most common questions I found in the “newbie” section of most Linux forums was new users asking what Linux distro they should try out. I had the same questions, especially since in my case my hardware specifications required a distro that wasn’t too demanding.
I actually received the best suggestions from the Linux writers here in-house at MakeUseOf. They suggested trying PeppermintOS, Bodhi, or a light version of Ubuntu, in that order.
This was the first system I was going to work with – a Dell Dimension 4600, with an Intel Pentium 4 processor.
The system actually ran terribly with Windows XP, even after a full restore, which made me wonder if possibly I was facing failing hardware rather than a bogged down operating system. However, the system BIOS included the ability to boot via USB, which made it a nice system to test out several distros of Linux without the need to burn a bunch of CDs.
I’ll go over the basic process of doing this, but over the years we’ve offered a number of very useful guides that are still relevant depending what operating system or hardware you’re starting from. If you’re looking for detailed guides on how to install Linux (as opposed to predicting what your experience will be like – which is the goal of this article), you may want to check out one of those guides.
To take a test drive with Linux on any old system you may have, you’ll want to use either UNetbootin or Rufus, depending on your preference. Our in-house Linux expert, Michael Tunnell, who helped me tremendously during this process, recommended Rufus as his app of choice to create a live Linux USB install dongle.
Create Live USB from ISO
No matter what Linux distro you want to try out, the process is nearly always the same. Download the ISO file, and then create a Live USB or a Live CD.
With UNetbootin, doing this is really simple, especially because it comes complete with the ability to select from commonly installed Linux distros – making downloading as simple as selecting the distro you want.
In my case, I had downloaded several ISO files already, so that’s the option I took whenever using UNetbootin. This option is at the bottom of the main window.
That’s all there is to it – you select your USB drive and UNetbootin creates the Live USB stick just like that.
If you can’t boot from USB (which many older systems can’t do), then you’ll need to burn a live CD instead. There are countless solutions out there for burning an ISO file to a Live CD, but in my case I chose CDBurnerXP, just because like UNetbootin it’s so easy to use – like one click to choose your ISO file and you’re done.
Boot to USB or CD
With most PCs, getting to the boot menu requires pressing F12 while the system is booting. This brings up a screen for you to choose what to boot from – hard drive, CD or USB. Once you choose whichever option has your Live install files, you’ll typically see the install menu for that Linux distribution.
Her’s a quick tip that will save you hours of intense headache: If you find that after you’ve chosen the “Install xxx” option ends up with your screen going blank and nothing happening, then you need to add “nomodeset” to the end of your boot parameters.
Don’t let that phrase scare you if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. It’s a common problem that happens, especially if you’re installing on an older system. Since most new kernels have the video mode setting built right into the kernel so users can have a high resolution splash screen leading to the login screen. The problem is that many of these older video cards won’t work properly because of this, so the “nomodeset” parameter tells the kernel to avoid loading the video drivers and just use the BIOS modes instead.
Adding this parameter is crazy simple. When the install screen from the Live CD or Live USB comes up, select the install option and then press “Tab” (or whatever option the screen says you should use to “add parameters”).
You’ll see a command string (usually starting with “/boot/” that often ends in “splash –” or “noram”. Regardless what the string looks like, remove any “–” at the end and make the next text parameter “nodemoset”.
The example screen above is from the SliTaz distro I tested. In that case, it was still too laggy on my Pentium 4. But, we’ll get to the Linux distros I tested below, and I’ll show you the one that I ended up keeping, because it worked so much better than Windows XP ever did.
Installing Peppermint OS
The first Linux distro that was recommended to me to try on this older system is Peppermint OS. It just looks fantastic, and supposedly can run well on older hardware.
When I first ran the installer off the live USB stick, correctly configuring the nomodeset parameter, I thought everything had gotten screwed up, because this was the screen that I saw.
However, in no time, I started seeing regular install screens.
The first verified my hard drive size was appropriate, and told me that I forgot to plug the PC into the network (whoops).
Remedying the network issue with a long network cable, I continued. On the installation type screen, you can choose to dual boot Peppermint OS with whatever your current system is. In my case, I wanted to completely wipe Windows XP and start fresh.
The next screen asked for my geographic location, I assume to correctly set my date/time.
And finally, it let me set a login ID/password and the computer name for network ID purposes.
The interaction with the installer was honestly that simple. Unlike my attempts back in the 90s, this was a real eye-opener. No crazy command-prompt jazz, no partitioning or creating swap space….nothing crazy or more complex than anyone with a basic knowledge of pointing and clicking a mouse can accomplish.
Once the installer was finished, the PC rebooted, and when it finally came up, I was presented with this beautiful desktop, and a “Quick Setup” window for date/time configuration.
This honestly would have been the end of my story, if it wasn’t for the fact that Peppermint OS ran DOG SLOW on this Pentium 4. I mean, I would move the mouse and count to between 5 to 10 seconds before it would respond. Again, I suspect hardware (hard drive) issues, but not one to give up so easily, I decided to see if I could find a light enough version of Linux to run smoothly on this system.
In the process, it would give me a chance to see the flavors of different distros.
Testing Linux Distros
The next distro I went for was Bodhi Linux. I was informed by our MakeUseOf Linux experts that Bodhi is often considered to be one of the more lightweight, yet “pretty” and feature-filled distros, given the low hardware requirements. This sounded good to me, so I loaded up a Live CD and booted up the PC using it.
As you can see on this menu, the same rule applies. Hit Tab and append “nomodeset” to the boot string or else the screen will go blank.
Unlike Peppermint, there’s no “Install” option. You need to launch the Live System, which will start into a desktop environment and you’ll have the option to install Bodhi from there.
Like Peppermint, the installation was fast and painless. In 15 minutes I was staring at the fully installed Bodhi Linux desktop.
I actually liked the look and feel of this, but yet again, the cursor kept locking up on me every few minutes. I’d have to wait 30 seconds before the cursor would start moving again. I was starting to have some serious concerns that the issues with the computer have less to do with difficulty running Linux distros and more about a failing CPU or hard drive.
As one last ditch, I decided to give Xubuntu a shot, since I had heard that it is extremely lightweight and highly regarded across the Internet as a good OS for older hardware.
In this case, the Live CD did include an “Install Xubuntu” option, but to set the nodemoset parameter requires pressing F6 and selecting the option from the list.
Once again, I was just completely taken aback by how fast the install happened – far faster and less painless than any Windows installation I’d ever witnessed. In no time, the Xubuntu desktop was up and running (taskbar on the top of the screen – interesting!)
Finally, I had discovered a lightweight distro that worked really well on this old hardware. No mouse pointing freezing up, no churning CPU without any activity — nothing to suggest there were any problems at all really. In Xubuntu, I had discovered the saving OS that would give new life to this old tower.
Playing around a bit with Xubuntu – seriously, the first Linux OS I have ever tried in my life – I was quite pleased. The file manager actually had the look and feel of just about any other file manager I’d ever used on Windows or Chromebook. The layout wasn’t confusing or unusual – a refreshing change from the 1990’s when I last used Linux. Back then it was the most atrociously complex OS I’d ever witnessed.
This OS is actually rather impressive. Clicking the upper left icon that represents the equivalent of the “Start Menu” brought up a start menu that I’d actually be satisfied using. It had not only the basic apps you’d expect from an OS, but it also included a bunch of preinstalled apps like Pidgin, a Word Processor called AbiWord, and of course the Ubuntu Software Center to load up more apps.
I have to say the one thing that impressed me the most about the experience was how effortless the Internet setup was. I moved the computer to an area of my shop without wired Internet, so before installing Xubuntu, I plugged in a wireless adapter to see how Xubuntu would handle it.
To my surprise, after the install, without any special device installation required, Xubuntu recognized and started using the Linksys wireless USB adapter and spotted my wireless network. No questions asked.
I launched the included web browser (Firefox) and connected to Google. Only moments after install, I was online and surfing the web on this old beast of a machine that previously had struggled to run Windows XP.
I’m not sure what I’ll be using this old tower for – maybe as a file server, or as a simple terminal to run some dashboards – but what I can tell you is that installing and using Xubuntu was much easier than any OS install I’ve ever gone through. And the quality of the OS, at least based on first impressions, is that it’s nothing less than a professional OS with a lot to offer.
Installing Linux on REALLY Old Hardware
My next experiment as a first time Linux OS user was to put the lightest Linux distro I know of – Puppy Linux – on the oldest piece of software that I own. This is an old Pentium II Dell Latitude that formerly ran Windows 2000.
Installing Puppy Linux is almost as easy as installing any other distro, but there are a few caveats. First, running the Live CD will boot you into the Puppy Linux desktop after running through this initial window.
Once you get to the desktop, there are a few things you need to do if you want to do a full Puppy Linux install. Murga Linux offers one of the closest step-by-step procedures I’ve found for Puppy Linux, but basically here’s all you need to do:
- Partition and format the hard drive using Gparted
- Don’t forget to create the linux-swap partition as well, as described at the Murga Linux link above
- Use “mange flags” in Gparted to set the main partition as a boot drive
- Install Puppy Linux using the Puppy Universal Installer (FULL installation)
- Install GRUB so that the PC will boot up into Puppy Linux
All of the installation utilities you need to perform the steps above are included in the Puppy Linux live CD, and running through them all is very easy.
Puppy Linux loaded right up on this old laptop once I rebooted after install. It was snappy, lightning fast, and included everything I needed to make this old laptop fully functional again!
Installing Peppermint OS
Getting a taste of Peppermint OS on the Dell tower really gave me incentive to get it to work smoothly on a faster PC. Thankfully, I had one on hand – this Dell Optiplex that formerly ran XP and I’ve had stored away in my basement for a while.
The CD drive still works great, so I popped in the Peppermint OS Live CD, booted it up and remembered to click TAB and edit the nomodeset parameter just to be sure the graphics card would work fine during install.
The install ran even faster on this PC, and before I knew it, it booted to the awesome-looking Peppermint OS desktop (I really love the look of this OS!)
Just like Xubuntu, Peppermint OS immediately recognized the Linksys wireless USB device and connected to the Internet (after prompting me for the wireless password). Checking out the “start menu” for the first time, I was pretty excited to start exploring – Chromium, Graphics software, Office software, and the Software Manager to start browsing for more (FREE!) software!
Opening up the Software Manager, I got pretty excited pretty fast. Thousands upon thousands of software packages available across so many different categories. Where to start??
On the advice of MUO Linux guru Michael Tunnell, I uninstalled the “bloated” Chromium browser and instead installed QupZilla straight from the Software Manager.
Without a doubt, this Peppermint OS install on the Optiplex is the fastest, most impressive Linux distro install yet. I’m pretty excited to start playing around with what other software packages area available and seeing what else this baby can do.
Using Linux as a Primary OS
Just browsing through the available software so far, it seems like I can set up this PC to do everything that it could do when it was running Windows XP and more. In fact, it looks like I could get it to do just about everything I can do with my Windows 8.1 laptop.
The ultimate question will be this: will I end up using Peppermint OS more than my other computers? Will I like Linux more than any other OS I currently use? Stay tuned for future articles, and we’ll see what we see…
Are you a brand new Linux user too? What was the first Linux distro you went with, and which one do you use today? I’d love to hear why you chose the one you did, and if Linux is now your primary OS. Let’s discuss in the comments section below!