Friday, July 30, 2010

Get a Blazing-Fast Computer for Free

By Farhad Manjoo
Posted Monday, July 26, 2010, at 4:38 PM ET

So Ubuntu is good. But why should you use it? After all, nearly every computer you encounter will likely be running either Windows or the Mac OS. You can buy a new PC preloaded with Ubuntu, but they're not easy to find (and, anyway, you don't save too much by doing so). So what's the point?
To me, it's the perfect way to give an aging Windows PC new life. Many of us have an old computer sitting around that, theoretically, is perfectly usable—you've just given up on it because it's too slow and too broken down. Perhaps the machine doesn't run modern programs. Or maybe it's become bloated by software you should never have installed, or colonized by spyware that sneaked by your defenses. Or perhap! s the machine is just old—over time, computers, like people, pick up all kinds of annoying affectations, and eventually they begin to drive you insane. But unlike people, a computer can be completely remade. All you need to do is reinstall its operating system, wiping it clean of every tic it's picked up in its life. More often than not, this relatively simple step will make the machine as good as new.
If your machine is really old, though, reinstalling its original OS could be a step backward. Consider, for instance, the laptop that I purchased in the spring of 2006. The computer—a Dell with a Pentium M processor—came with Windows XP pre-installed. In its day, it was a pretty solid machine, and the only real hardware flaw it's picked up over the years is a busted battery—it doesn't hold a charge, which means I've got to keep the computer plugged in all the time. That hasn't bothered me too much; for about two years, as I picked up newer and better portable ma! chines, I've relegated the Dell laptop to my kitchen counter, where I use it mainly to consult recipes, check my e-mail, and listen to NPR while I cook (I lead a thrilling life). Despite this fairly undemanding assignment, I've noticed the machine getting progressively worse at simple tasks over the last few months. For reasons I haven't bothered to check out—maybe it was a virus or spyware, maybe some kind of hardware or driver error, who knows?—the laptop would take forever to load up a Web page and would completely bog down when more than two browser tabs were open. The machine needed a makeover.
Yes, I could have hunted down the Dell's original XP disks and reinstalled it to its factory settings. But it's 2010—why should I use an operating system first made in 2001? That's when I decided on Ubuntu. It took me 10 minutes to download the OS, and another five to burn a CD (you can also install it using a USB thumb drive). Installation took another 15 minutes, and it went swimmingly—Ubuntu detected all my machine's hardware (soun! d, Wi-Fi, and one-finger scrolling on the laptop's trackpad work perfectly), and it came to life with several key applications pre-installed.
One of the main problems I had with Ubuntu two years ago was its mysterious app-install process. Unlike on the Mac or in Windows, Ubuntu didn't really like when I went to the Web, downloaded a program, and installed it—it would either fail to install the program or fail to put the installed app where I could find it. Instead, Ubuntu wanted you to install programs through its built-in "package manager," a centralized repository of apps for the system. While the package manager is still the preferred route to get new applications, I didn't have any trouble downloading programs from the Web this time around. My only quibble: Ubuntu doesn't offer any kind of startup guide showing you around the OS's main features. You pretty much have to consult the helpful online communi! ty of Ubuntu devotees.