Reviving old laptops with Puppy Linux (part 2)

In this article, the author shares his experience in creating such a bootable USB flash drive, comes complete with a working Puppy Linux distribution that is persistence. Unlike “live” bootable USB flash drive of other distribution, where once a session is over, all the updates, software installed are lost, Puppy Linux will keep all the these to make it persistence & adapt to the user’s needs.

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In the previous article, I covered the basic information relating to the preparation one needs to do in order to set up Puppy Linux on a USB flash drive that is bootable. I also gave the rationale for using Puppy Linux and shared some examples on how revived old PCs / laptops could be deployed. In this article I will share my experience in creating such a bootable USB flash drive, comes complete with a working Puppy Linux distribution.

Unlike most other Linux distributions that have the USB flash drive bootable feature, Puppy Linux has an added advantage. Puppy Linux installed on a bootable USB flash drive is in fact persistent in nature. What this mean is, unlike “live” bootable USB flash drive of, say LXLE, where once a session is over, none of the updates, software installed are kept, Puppy Linux will keep all the updates, software installations etc. I guess these are kept in the “personal file” as described in the last segment of this article. So you can keep updating Puppy Linux!

How to set up a bootable USB flash drive that can run Puppy Linux?

  1. Launch Unetbootin and select “Diskimage”. Keep the default “ISO” option.

  2. Click the “ ….” tab to the right of “ISO”. Navigate to the folder with the Xenialpup iso file (for this example it is saved in “Downloads”).

  3. Put something like “100 Mb” for the “Space” used to preserve files across reboots”, since Xenialpup is Ubuntu-based.
  4. Under “Type”, make sure “USB” is selected. Plug in your USB flash drive, & make sure it is mounted (you can see this using File Manager).

  5. If you don’t see your USB flash drive listed, go back to “Type” and reselect “USB”. It will look for the newly plugged in USB flash drive and under “Drive:” something like /dev/sdc1 will be shown.
  6. Click “OK” and the installation of a bootable USB flash drive with Xenialpup OS will run automatically.
  7. If your USB flash drive has any files on it, this message will show. Click “Yes to All” [Warning: this will wipe clean an used USB drive!]. Wait till the installation process is completed.

To run Xenialpup, reboot the laptop. Keep pressing and releasing F12 (the function key,  F12 works for both my Dell and Toshiba laptop, different brands may have different function key for this, but there is surely a function key to bring up the  boot up option screen of the computer) till the screen like the one below is show.

Use the arrow key to move to “USB Storage Device” or something like that and press Enter. That’s it!

The OS will load as shown on the screen captured above.

You will see a screen with a cute puppy when loading is done! Select Xenialpup” and hit Enter on your keyboard.

The OS will load automatically. When the loading process is completely done and the OS is successfully loaded the screen with a cute squirrel will be visible (as shown below). You are then set to rock with the old laptop / PC again!

What software are supplied with Xenialpup?

Puppy Linux is not just a distribution of Linux. It is a combination of different parts of different Linux distributions and thus comes with lots of pre-selected-installed-with-OS software. It works on the RAM of your computer and thus it can be very fast if you have 1 Gb of RAM or more.

Xenialpup comes with almost all the software and applications that  you will need. These are grouped into categories such as Desktop, System, Setup, Utility,  Filesystem, Graphic, Document, Business, Personal, Network, Internet, Multimedia and Fun. You can obtain additional software clicking the cute little puppy at the Desktop, called “quickpet”(as shown below). Expert users of Puppy Linux have been configuring additional applications and software specially optimized for Puppy Linux and shared with the community of Puppy Linux users. These are called “.pet”.

If you need to read Chinese text like I do, you will appreciate one of these “pets”, that you can download and just click to instal.

Likewise, you can download other software via “quickpet” such as Vivaldi browser, LibreOffice and install them with just a click (but make sure that you choose the correct version for your old laptop / PC, both of my old machines were based on 32 bits architecture and softwares for 64 bits machines will not work on them).

What you are expected to do?

Puppy Linux will automatically detect what sort of hardware that your old laptop / PC has and will do its best to optimize these for your OS to work. But two areas that you may need to do some tweaking are Internet settings and sound settings.

The first screen you will see in the Quick Setup screen is shown above. You can set up the country, timezone etc. here. You may want to enable Firewall and Time from internet too.

For Internet settings, the OS auto-detects what internet connections that you might have (such as wired connection via RJ45 cable or wireless-WiFi).  There is a choice of setup tools but the simplest is to use Barry’s Simple Network Setup.

In my case (as shown above), By selecting “Interfaces” tab and clicking on “eth0” tab (located at the bottom right of the box, with “wlan0” and “windows”),  the app will try to connect with the internet over the network cable connected to my broadband router and a “success” screen will show. Similarly you can connect to WiFi using the same way.

For audio, you may need to configure the audio card.  Go to Menu->Setup->Alsa sound Wizard.

Select the Multiple cards section (No. 3). Select a sound card and select the “Test Sound” tab below. A new window will open. You should hear sound generated on the left and right speakers follow by the bark of a puppy. If you do not hear anything, put the volume to maximum and repeat.

The only other setup you need to do is the printer.  As there are many brands, it will be best to be general here. Go to Menu->Setup->CUPS Printer Wizard and follow the instructions to add a printer. Don’t forget to hook up your printer first.
[I must say, if you have a HP MFP laser printer, you may not be able to use CUPS Printer Wizard effectively. This is the only grouse I have with Puppy Linux and it is not its fault but rather HP’s complex number of models! At the time of writing, I have still not completely installed a proper driver for my HP MFP 1132 printer & scanner.]

Don’t forget to save the personal file!

When you need to exit, unless you are just evaluating and not saving the applications and software you have installed, you should save your personal files. Here is why you are advised earlier on to use a USB flash drive that is at least 8 Gb (16 Gb and higher is even better). The “system” file will need at least 1 Gb to work well (the more the merrier) and there is another partition that is made by the OS to serve as “swap”. I think “swap” as the name suggests, serves as the swapping of memory that helps the OS to run on RAM by “renting” or swapping memory on the fly (when you switch / load different software, for example). Although the system says that you will need to have at least another 500 Mb for your personal file, this is the bare minimum. I personally prefer the personal file allocation to be as big as possible to accommodate all the software and applications that I want to install. It will also carry my personal data files. But with the increasing use of cloud storage, I hardly store documents such as this piece of writing on the laptop, preferring Google Drive instead.

Thus if you are running the entire work from the USB drive, it is wise to have as big a memory as possible. I had chosen to save my personal files on the hard disk of my laptop to speed things up (and on account that I used only a 4 Gb USB flash drive!). But putting your personal files on the USB flash drive, you are truly portable! Provided that a host’s PC or laptop allows you to access the boot option (which most would), you can bring your entire computer on a USB flash drive and work on a “borrowed” PC such as at the internet cafe or a friend’s laptop safely.

With the second or third sessions of your usage, Puppy Linux will load a lot faster as it needs not tweak the system further as all the settings are saved before. So don’t pull the USB flash drive until the laptop / PC has shut down fully!

Happy Puppy Linux-ing!

Woof woof!

Revive old laptops with Linux, Puppy Linux (parts 1)

This article contains the sharing of experience & learning on how to revive old PCs/laptops using the light weight Puppy Linux as OS to replace Windows. It gives step-by-step details on how to fit the entire OS plus applications & software into a USB flash dive of a minimum of 4 Gb, with larger capacities being more effective.

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You have that 7-year-old PC / laptop lying around gathering dust. The Windows operating system (OS) is too old but your hardware cannot cope with the latest Windows OS. Worse, the web browser is old and the old OS cannot support the new version of the browser anymore.  Thus there are security issues which are stopping you from accessing some crucial websites. You are thinking that this old laptop is as good as junk.

You have heard of Linux which is free (well most distributions are indeed so). However you are under the impression that you will be required to know a lot of programming stuff to use Linux. And you have also heard that the most popular and user-friendliest of the Linux distribution, Ubuntu is known to be getting heavy on resources. Thus Ubuntu may not work well with your old PC / laptop.

But hold on. Don’t junk that old laptop yet. There is a way to get more mileage out of the old workhorse. It is called Puppy Linux. Here, I share my close to a decade of experience with Linux, especially on Puppy Linux.

That’s life still in that old piece of hardware!

I cannot do any programming, I don’t know much about HTML, less so about php or java. But you don’t need to know these to use Linux.  I had switched from Ubuntu to a light version distribution of it called LXLE in 2011. While evaluating the latest LXLE version  (based on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS aka one version behind the latest, LTS stands for Long Term Support, about 3 – 5 years)  I discovered that although the OS worked well with my 8-years-old Toshiba Portege T210, it could not be loaded on my 11-years-old Dell Inspiron 1520!

Old laptop
Toshiba Protege of 2010 vintage (left) & Dell Inspiron of 2007 vintage (right)

I used to run my old PC (bought in 2004) on one of the lightest Linux OS, Puppy Linux. Puppy extended the usefulness of the old Dell for years till the PC’s motherboard died in 2017. Hence it is a no brainer for me to try the latest Puppy Linux on the 11-years-old Dell laptop.  The latest version of Puppy Linux,  Xenialpup is also based on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. And it could be loaded on the 11-years-old Dell!

As long as the old PC / laptop has at least 1Gb of RAM (Puppy Linux could even run on 500 Mb RAM) and could run Windows XP before, it will be able to run on Puppy Linux. For older machines, there are even versions of Puppy Linux with smaller footprint that could ran on low level of RAM, as low as 256 Mb. A list of RAM-operated Linux distributions is available at Wikipedia,  but I have only tested a few of these and found Puppy Linux to be best supported and relatively user-friendly .

How can I deploy revived old PCs / laptops?

When I commenced on operating a university college as its CEO in 2015, I faced the problem of dealing with many seemingly obsolete PCs. Most of these PCs were still in good physical working order, only the operating systems were out of date. This meant that most could not cope with the demands of resources heavy design and editing softwares. But, for simple web-browser-based usage such as searching for library information, wordprocessing, keying data etc. these old machines, if their OS could be updated via Linux could have a second bout of useful lives.

Together with my institution’s then Head of IT Services, we embarked on a small project to revive as many of these old machines by changing the OS from Windows to Linux, using the LXLE distribution which I was already very familiar with. Here are some examples of how we redeployed these revived machines:

  1. As data capturing device for marking the attendance of staff, tracking keys to rooms & tracking of tools at the workshop:
    Google Sheets can be hooked up with a barcode scanner to capture data from barbodes.

    Barcodes on ID cards & cards attached to keys and tools are captured & recorded in Google Sheets for admin purposes.

    We sourced for barcode readers (RM180 – RM350 per item) and hooked these up with a Google Sheets. Users just have to scan their staff identity cards to have their attendance recorded. The same set up could also track keys to rooms where a user just need to scan the barcode on the card that came with the key (or tool) and then his/her  own staff/student identity card to have the record taken.

  2. For students to fill in different forms created using Google Forms:
    Almost all student admin work involving forms were converted to data capturing via Google Forms at the institution I managed.

    I moved as many of the routine administrative tasks to Google Docs / Sheets / Form as possible to cut down on paper usage and to have almost instantaneous capturing of data. Thus revived PCs were placed at strategic locations such as the Registry, the Library and the Student Recruitment office for this purpose.

  3. As terminals for accessing information at the library:
    For accessing local server’s information (of the institution’s library) and on web-based information and resources, these revived PCs, with up-to-date web browsers could be used effectively.
  4. For general usage of students in computer laboratories:
    Revived PCs were deployed for general usage by students of the university college.

    We refurbished the hardware of some of these old PCs to have higher RAM and deployed them at general computer laboratories for students to use for writing, doing email, data logging, doing desk research on the internet etc.. This allowed us to reserved the new PCs with resource heavy software (for design, programming and visual editing work) in other locations specifically for classes requiring such softwares.

The above are just some obvious examples of how redeployment of revived PCs / laptops can be implemented in an education institution’s setting. For private or business usage. The revived old PCs / laptops can, at the very least, used as a data entry terminals, extra desk research PCs and even playing presentation of videos or Powerpoint slides etc.

What you need

I shall confine this article to my experience with Puppy Linux’s Xenialpup version. But most of the steps are applicable if you choose other versions / Linux distribution.

In terms of software here are the ones that you need to download.

  1. The image (iso format) of the OS, Xenialpup. Don’t worry if you do not know what iso do. Part (b) shall cover this.
  2. Download and install a copy of Unebootin, the little application that allows you to write your OS onto a USB flash drive. There are versions for Windows, Linux and Mac. The instructions to use Unebootin will be covered in a section below.
    To install Unebootin for Windows is easy. It comes in a .exe file, so just click on this file.
    For Linux users, there is a bit more work to do:

– Note where you have downloaded Unebootin (it will be a file with a name like unetbootin-linux-661.bin). Usually this will be the folder “Downloads”
– Alt-x to bring out the Terminal.
– Type (without the quotation marks) “cd Downloads” or the exact location where you’ve the file.
– Type “chmod +x unetbootin-linux-66l.bin” or whatever name the downloaded file is called to make it executable.    (you can also do the same to change the attribute of this file in File Manager: highlight the file->Right click->Properties->Permissions->Execute (change it to “Anyone”))
– Type “./unetbootin-linux-661.bin”
– The small application will be installed.
(For making a .bin file executable & run it, I followed instructions from this site)

For hardware, you will only need a USB flash drive. While I used an old 4 Gb drive, you should use one that has at least 8 Gb capacity with 16 Gb being even better (as we shall see later why this is so). If you are using an old USB flash drive, you need to know that during the “burning” of the iso file, your existing data could be wiped out.

It is best to use a USB flash drive with as large a capacity as possible, min being 4 Gb.

In the next article, I will cover the details on how to go about creating a bootable USB flash drive containing the entire Puppy Linux OS. I will also share our experience on how best to configure the OS so that it works well with an old laptop.