Angela’s mum’s just got broadband installed, but unfortunately her PC is a bit on the old side (450Mhz Pentium III & 128Mb Ram) and was running (just about) Windows 98. It would take about a week to boot up and then promptly collapse in a big heap with the first five minutes of use – a fresh install would probably a breathed some new life into it, but of course Windows 98 is no longer supported and I wasn’t even going to try and install Windows 2000 or XP, so it was time for a bit of a change.

All that was needed was something for email, web browsing, managing photos from a digital camera and a bit of word processing – nothing that should be beyond a 450Mhz PIII with 128Mb of memory. A quick trip to the Xubuntu website to pick up an ISO image of the install CD and we were off.

To quote the website

Xubuntu is a complete GNU/Linux based system with an Ubuntu base. It’s lighter, and more efficient than Ubuntu with GNOME or KDE, since it uses the Xfce Desktop environment, which makes it ideal for old or low-end machines, as well as thin-client networks.

I had a old hard drive knocking about so I was planning on installing onto that in order to keep the data and photos that were on the original (8Gb!) hard drive. Nearly fell at the first hurdle when I discovered the IDE cable in the PC had only one connector (cheapskates), but fortunately I had a spare with two connectors that I swapped it for. The install process itself was a breeze, choose your language and the hard disk to install on and off it goes, installing the base package set without a hitch – until that is, it got to the part where it tried to configure Xorg.

Now to be fair to Xubuntu it wasn’t the simplest of hardware configurations to deal with – the motherboard had an intergrated Intel graphics chip (which it correctly identified) but the VGA connector on the back had snapped off some time ago so there was a second S3 PCI graphics cards in one of the expansion slots (which it also correctly identified) which was the one that we wanted to use. Finding two graphics cards Xubuntu decided I clearly wanted a multi-head configuration with the (broken) Intel one as the master – result no X windows.

Fortunately the fix was easy enough – just remove the Intel and multi-head configuration from the xorg.conf file and normal graphical service was resumed. Xubuntu comes with Firefox and Thunderbird as your web and email clients, with Abiword and Gnumeric providing the word processing and spreadsheet options – all of which proved a good deal more responsive than their Micro$oft equivalents running from the Windows 98 install.

Like Ubuntu it uses Synaptic as the front end to the Debian package managment utilities, so installing F-Spot for photo management was just a couple of clicks worth of effort. Then it was just a case of letting F-Spot trawl through the windows disk (which I mounted in Xubuntu as read only to avoid inadvertant damage) to pick up and copy all the photos into it’s own folder, and the job was done.

We now have a PC that’s more than good enough for light duties that it will be used for, that runs faster than Windows 98 ever did but is a lot more secure and stable, and that didn’t cost a penny to ‘upgrade’. There’s simply not a Micro$oft solution that you can use for these sort of requirements on this sort of hardware anymore, and that’s even before they (eventually) release Vista and tell us all we need another new computer to run that!

Xubuntu was no more difficult to install than Windows, and it identified and installed all the hardware correctly (including the broken integrated graphics chip!) – something Windows wouldn’t have managed. You’d have needed to download half a dozen different drivers from half a dozen different websites if you were doing a clean Windows install on the same hardware. That’s assuming you could find Windows drivers for the hardware in the first place – it is 7 years old after all.

If you’re fed up with Windows and you want to try out Xubuntu, or Ubuntu (Gnome), or Kubuntu (KDE) then they will all run from a Live CD – just pop into your CD drive and reboot. You can try it out without having to install anything on your hard drive…

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