A New Computer for 31 Cents

My old ThinkPad X31 became new again last weekend. It took just over an hour, and a 31-cent recordable CD, but the one-step installation created a working computer with a full set of applications for everything from spreadsheets to Skype.

The old laptop had been leaning against a bookshelf for at least two years, useless. I could have rebuilt it one more time with Windows, but just putting Windows on it would have taken an hour. Then I would have had to re-install Office, Firefox, anti-virus software, a bunch of updates for each of them, rebooting maybe 10 times in all. At the end it would have been a painfully slow system soaking up anti-virus protection money. So it just sat there.

On Saturday afternoon I decided to give Ubuntu Linux a try. I had little to lose by then – If all went poorly I could reload Windows XP, or just lean it back against the bookshelf and avert my eyes. Ninety minutes later I was checking email, making Skype calls, rebooting just to see what a 75-second start looked like (if only my Windows systems would do this).

Why would you want to try this?

  • For a new system for kids, houseguests or yourself.
  • For insurance against the Great Windows Plague of 20xx
  • Because it is much easier than you’ve imagined
  • For hundreds of free applications, many of them better than what you are using now
  • For fun, including the ton of games that come with Ubuntu
  • Because it might surprise your friends

After reading Linux
horror stories I was ready for a system designed to embarrass non-technical folk like me, so it was a shock to learn how easy it is to use Ubuntu.

  • The desktop (see screenshot) looks roughly like a Windows desktop, only it’s much easier to find all your applications, files and system tools. No strangeness at all there.
  • Adding a network printer took about a minute, requiring no wizards or CD. Ubuntu found the available printer (a 5-year-old Brother) and the next thing I knew I was printing.
  • Adding applications is a matter of a couple of clicks to find a menu of around 100 free apps, then a couple more clicks to decide what you want and install them. Wow.
  • All the cool ThinkPad features still worked. (probably because they are controlled by the BIOS, not by the operating system)

There were a couple of hiccups. Burning the Ubuntu installation CD required adjusting the burner software’s write speed (not hard, see this article). The system boots quickly, but applications do run a bit slowly. And I had to consult Ubuntu’s confusing Help menus to make the speakers work for Skype (took 5 minutes to set speaker output to ‘Pulse’). But ease of use in other areas has generally more than compensated for any effort required to learn the new system.

You probably don’t want to try this for a business system. Eventually, you’ll figure out that the documents you write on an open-source word processor won’t work perfectly in the Microsoft world.

But it’s great for web browsing, email, working with Skype and playing lots of included games. Some of Ubuntu’s bundled applications (Gimp photo editing, for example) are more powerful than most of what is available in Windows, so you might find yourself firing up your new Ubuntu system yourself to get certain things done.


  1. Make sure your old PC has at least a 1 GHZ processor and 512 MB of RAM. Here’s how.
  2. Transfer all your important information (files, contact lists, email, etc.) from your old computer to a CD, another system or an external drive. Check to make sure your data survived the trip intact.
  3. Download the Ubuntu package from here. (note: you can also buy the CD from the publisher if you’d rather – in that case, bypass steps – )
  4. Download and install Infrarecorder on a system with a working CD burner.
  5. Burn the Ubuntu installation disk. Here’s how. Remember to set the recorder to burn at 4x or 8x speed.
  6. Confirm that the CD is correctly burned – put it into an optical (CD or DVD) drive, open up Windows Explorer and look for the Ubuntu logo on your optical drive.
  7. Set up the PC you want to install Ubuntu on so that it boots from its optical drive. Here’s how.
  8. Reboot the PC to be reconfigured, with the Ubuntu disk in the optical drive.
  9. Follow installation instructions. For help with this, go here.
  10. After you’re all done, re-set your computer to boot from its hard drive again.
  11. Have fun!