Linux penguin looking washed up with a cigarette and a beer

Reviving an old laptop with linux

21 July 2021

In 2016, back when we could freely travel without being a virus vector, I went on a 6 month trip through Europe. I needed a cheap crappy laptop to check emails, read books, and go on the internet.

I ended up with the Acer N15P2. A little plastic thing with a tiny screen and a single core Intel Atom (slow) processor. It was nice and light and although it wasn't the fastest computer, it was exactly what I needed.

It's been 5 years now and the old dog hasn't been used a lot. It's well and truly slowed down. There was nothing on there that I hadn't already copied somewhere else, so I decided it's time to see whether it would run faster on the world's favourite open-source operating system. I had know idea what weird world I was getting into.

Deciding on a distro #

First I needed to decide on a Linux distro. I wanted something that could run on a low powered computer and found the cutely named puppy Linux which was designed to run on slow computers. Step 1 was downloading the distro from their website. But it turns out there are a lot of different types of puppy Linux to choose from. After doing little-to-no research i went with a version called fossapup.

Using Rufus to set up the USB drive #

The next thing to do was add the distro's ISO to a USB stick. You can't just drag the ISO file onto the disk though. You need to use a tool to convert the USB stick into a bootable drive. A good windows tool to use here is Rufus. The USB stick needed to be completely wiped to be converted into a bootable disk so I pulled off the ebooks I had stored on there.

Now there's two different ways to set up the disk: GPT and MBR.

It looks like GPT is a newer, better way of storing the data, however older computers use MBR. My computer being 5 years old was still new enough to use the GPT version though so if youre following along (godspeed if you are) you probably dont need to worry🤷.

Then it was time to plug the USB stick into the laptop and boot from it.

Booting from a USB drive #

Here is where we start interacting with firmware 😬. At this point you need to tell the computer that you don't want to boot from the normal disk with the previous operating system, and instead boot from the USB stick.

To get to the setup for the firmware on windows you can use instructions from this guide.

From the firmware settings you'll need to get to advanced settings and turn secure boot mode off. I'd love to provide step by step instructions on how to get there but there seems to be differences in the BIOS/UEFI menus between different computers. You'll also need to enable the F12 startup menu on some computers- my laptop didn't have an option to do this but it automatically worked.

Now that l’d set up the firmware settings to allow me to potentially ruin the laptop, I restarted it and started bashing F12 until a menu opened with two options: windows boot manager and my USB. I selected the USB and I was in fossapup!

Fossapup #

Fossapup seemed really cool - it was super small, super lightweight, and worked absolutely fine with my touchscreen and keyboard. It had a bunch of open source programs for pretty standard uses. I love how simple all of the names of the apps are too - “write”, ”edit”, “listen”. Listing the exact thing we want to be able to do with each app.

Unfortunately, you can't actually run puppy Linux without some external drive to boot up. So it wasn't going to be quite the windows replacement I wanted. I didn't want to have to keep a USB stick to start the laptop. So it was time to try another distro.

Other distros #

I tried to install a few different distros: linuxlite, absolute Linux and then Ubuntu, but none of them would show up as an option on the old acer’s boot menu.

I had already deleted windows when fossapup was running (yolo) so what the computer was booting into was something called an EFI shell. I tried typing a few commands but I had no idea what I was doing so got nowhere.

Bootia32.EFI #

I was ready to throw the laptop into the nearest stream when I found some post deep on a forum showing some commands in a shell dialect which looked absolutely nothing like bash or powershell. Apparently UEFI uses a DOS style command line language. So I tried a few commands and found the USB stick and the “BOOT” folder within it.

I tried to run the boot command and it gave me an error message that you can't run a 64bit boot method on a 32bit UEFI system. This was quite weird as the laptop has a 64bit processor? I even downloaded 32bit Ubuntu and tried to boot off this - but no dice.

Another deep dive on the internet and it turned out a lot of cheap laptops from the mid 2010s used 32bit UEFI systems with 64 bit programs.

So how do we get around this? well yet another search through the internet yielded some results. I found this life-saving Medium article. It turned out the ISO we’re booting off needed something called a bootia32 file which you can download from this github repository from a guy called Hirotaka Niisato. I’m not sure what black magic he used to create this file but he is a hero.

To use the bootia32 file you need to place it in the EFI > BOOT folder. So this means you need to first extract the ISO using a program like 7-Zip, add the bootia file, then rebuild the ISO file using a program like ImgBurn.

Reincarnation with Ubuntu #

After doing this I could boot into Ubuntu! Aftter booting from the USB it allowed me to install Ubuntu onto the laptop’s main disk and it’s been running well since. Ubuntu comes with a host of programs including the Libreoffice suite, Mozilla Firefox, and a music app called Rhythmbox. Although Ubuntu isn't the most lightweight version of Linux, it does seem to run smoother than the heavyweight windows 10. And now I can sit down on the couch and read ebooks from it, which it was too frustrating to do before.

It also means I have a computer to natively practice bash scripts and writing with C, as linux ships with GCC and grep. And generally it feels kind of good to be using a free open platform to get things done.

I haven’t had any problems with the laptop’s hardware other than the screen getting stuck rotated to portrait. Uninstalling the screen rotation program solved this. And although it does seem to run faster, I think running absolute linux or linux-lite might speed it up more. After all the energy I’d put into getting this far though I don’t have the energy to try other distros again, so Ubuntu it is!

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