Reincarnating our older Windows PCs
Dodging Planned Obsolescence #1 — Converting Windows PCs to Linux / Ubuntu.
The following is offered in good faith with no acceptance of responsibility for risk. There is always risk, and it is up to readers to do whatever other research is necessary to establish risk to their own satisfaction before proceeding with the procedures outlined below.
No-one likes the idea of planned obsolescence, except those that might profit by it.
Modern circumstances seem to dictate that it is practiced by pretty much all profit driven manufacturers, in order to compete.
The standard corresponding practice for us consumers, both individual and corporate, is to react by replacing our products when they no longer appear fit for purpose, as those purposes seem to move on.
That was all kind of acceptable, despite a nagging feeling of technology being hindered, before our eyes were properly opened to the horrors of rising global pollution, and now the economic effects of a global pandemic.
Now, most people, and most organisations, have more financial uncertainty, and much less money to spare, if any.
That might change if free money progresses rapidly, but that’s another story.
Meantime, we need to make best use of what we have.
Replacing Windows PCs, especially higher powered examples, is a luxury that for the moment, most can’t really afford.
And besides, the planet can’t really afford it either.
It turns out that in the majority of cases, we don’t need to.
And we needn’t spend a penny.
As we shall see, Windows PC hardware which was high-powered a few years ago, is still high-powered hardware today, and can be easily reincarnated to similar, if not even better performance than we saw when it was new.
And Linux is free, in all practicality.
What is Ubuntu / Linux?
Linux, is an operating system with a long heritage of development since the original kernel devised by Linus Torvalds.
Ubuntu, is a currently popular distribution of Linux which bundles graphic functionality with a slick Windows-like user experience, including such things as drag-drop, and context sensitive drop-downs, to carry out similar operations as done in Windows.
And it doesn’t break, at least not without good reason.
It also does not communicate with anything, or anyone, in any way that we can’t know about.
To those with little technical experience, far less any experience of Linux, making the switch to what seems like something as intellectually elite might at first seem daunting.
We’ve all heard horror stories of how clever one needs to be to use Linux successfully. And of course there are the usual bevvy of “Experts” who have colonialised knowledge to confuse all others, in the pursuit of profit.
But things are moving on, thankfully.
In my experience, the development of graphical windows-like distributions of Linux such as Ubuntu, have made adoption ever simpler. This is whilst Windows seems to have become ever more complex to use, over the years.
So now, Windows arguably requires more technical knowledge of users than Ubuntu.
This article is to use a little modest experience of Ubuntu, and Linux, to try to assist folk to beneficially to make the switch, using worked examples.
Ubuntu vs Microsoft Windows
Ubuntu is a free operating system alternative to Microsoft Windows.
The thing to note is that Ubuntu is built on a foundation of software which was mostly developed not-for-profit, in open source endeavours.
In other words, done for love, rather than money.
It is thus a far higher quality product, offering far greater value to us consumers than anything developed to make profit.
Further, open source is known to have the highest levels of security, defeating even governments intent on disruption, as evidenced by things like Bitcoin, which is open source.
Hence the reason that the vast majority of internet connected servers run Linux, rather than Windows.
Many of the things we normally need apps for to do in MS Windows are already fully integrated in Ubuntu.
Examples are things like printing to PDF, reading, writing, managing emails and calendars, and all manner of documents.
As I will show later, Linux also holds its own admirably, in graphic and gaming applications.
There is a growing Ubuntu ecology of free apps to do pretty much anything in Ubuntu, which we currently do in MS Windows.
Of course I don’t know them all, but thus far I have found very few limitations.
There are some proprietary codecs and things needed for some functionality, but all of it I have needed so far was bundled and linked in the Ubuntu installation, so it worked pretty much perfectly, “straight out of the box”.
I can’t imagine many machines being much more complex that this particular one, so I think it is reasonably safe to conclude Ubuntu 20.04 will handle just about anything.
Making the Switch
The example here is an Alienware 18 R3 laptop, bought fully loaded in 2014, with the highest specification in its day; the one on which I am typing now, using Linux, instead of Windows.
I consider this to be the best example I can offer, as it was the one with highest risk, but best outcome. It certainly was by far the most expensive PC I ever bought, and likely ever will.
In practice, when I finally “Took the leap” to switch this machine to Linux, it turned out to be the most simple.
My other experiences of planned obsolescence, affecting this 18" machine have been painful, to say the least.
It was originally bought for VR research and development business purposes as the only portable possibility of VR capable hardware, which I needed to demonstrate research and development work at the time.
Within two years, it was made unfit for the sole purpose it was purchased for by Nvidia, apparently in agreement with Oculus, by making the new graphics card Oculus drivers incompatible with “SLI”, the system of multiple graphics cards.
Nvidia at the time were offering their new 1080' card, which had performance higher than any other card on the market at the time, but still less than a pair of 980' cards used in SLI.
So of course they had to dampen our enthusiasm for SLI, in order to sell those new 1000' series GPUs. That dampening further included making Oculus refuse to work with anything less than a 900' series card, and never in SLI, with even a blatant message telling us as much, when we tried to continue using our older setups.
This was despite my own experience of VR working just fine on my machine as it had been.
Finally, after having been seemingly successfully upgraded from Windows 8, to Windows 10, a year or two later, my alienware 18 finally ground to effectively a dead halt, after an unrecoverable Windows 10 update, about six months ago.
Very frustrating, when we invest so much in hardware in good faith, using it successfully for a couple of years, then seeing it all deliberately disabled, in order to force-sell new products.
Since then, I have used a more modern, but modestly specced 1080' machine, to continue working with VR in Windows as my main workstation.
But I had also been using both machines together, to obtain network streaming capabilities only possible with multiple machines.
Now, with both machines again working, I can get back to those activities.
But I am so impressed with the outcome of upgrading the older machine, I have gone back to this as my main workstation.
It is that much of a pleasure to work with now, and I am sure others can experience similar benefits with older machines that they might already own, or can maybe purchase very cheaply, as machines no longer working under Windows.
I feel it is the least I can do to offer this kind of experience also to others.
To begin with, we need a usb stick, or some other blank, bootable storage device, ideally 8Gb or greater in capacity.
It might be possible using a still live Windows machine in safe mode or otherwise, to download the Linux installation to an internal drive on the machine, and install from there, but I think far safer to just use a stick.
The most popular, and easiest form of Linux for direct replacement of Windows, in my experience, is Ubuntu.
Ubuntu has an already respectable app-store, enabling us to carry out pretty much any office task, as well as many popular games and higher demand graphic applications, and seems to be compatible with pretty much any hardware we can throw it at.
I was expecting trouble with the unusual SLI graphics card setup on this machine, but it installed and worked without incident, though there are still some caveats and fiddling to get full SLI operation working, that is out of scope of this article, so I won’t go into detail there.
The important thing to know is that Ubuntu 20.04 LTS worked straight out of the box on my machine. The sound worked straight away, as well as all keyboard short-cuts, network WiFi, bluetooth, and special functions, barring some alienware specific extra keys. All of the required initial Nvidia drivers were installed, and all of the screen resolutions were automatically detected, and looked great.
(I did since encounter a later minor issue where screen resolution was lost due to me fiddling with related things, but it was very easily fixed)
Further, the machine was even ready to bench test graphic capabilities straight away, testing the GPUs one at a time.
And wow does it perform.
In Second Life, and the much more demanding Sine.Space virtual worlds, the machine compares very favourably with the newer 1080 Windows machine.
It runs quieter, at even higher frame rates, with exactly the same quality of visual rendering, as the newer machine.
A single one of the two 880 cards in this machine, now under Linux, looks to all intents and purposes, to have equivalent if not better performance than the 1080 card in the newer machine using Windows.
That is quite an eye-opener, after experiencing this machine being reduced to useless in Windows.
It is worth mentioning also another little bit of history; I did about a year ago have to physically disassemble this machine, and renew the heat-sink pastes used in the interface between cards and heat sinks, as it appeared to have dried out, resulting in intermittent shut-downs due to overheating cards. That hardware maintenance task appears to have cured those shut-downs. So, if your older machine has been heavily used, at higher performances over a long period of time, it is worth considering also the condition of heat-sink pastes, and whether or not to replace those.
There is no shortage of information on how to go about that physical work if/when needed, in the case of higher specification machines, much can be found in downloadable user manuals and youtube videos.
If we are in a mind to purchase an older machine for a Linux rework, we should research the availability of those kinds of support information prior to purchasing.
Navigate to, and download the correct Ubuntu distribution for your device to be reincarnated, from the Linux website:
Enterprise Open Source and Linux | Ubuntu
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Follow the instructions there, to create a bootable USB stick using the free Rufus application.
Re-boot with the system with bootable stick inserted.
If the system reboots, apparently ignoring the the bootable Ubuntu stick, it might be necessary to adjust the system BIOS settings to enable the machine to detect USB connected disks during boot.
Specifically in the case of alienware laptops, and probably others, the default setting, “Secure Boot”, means that the boot sequence excludes external drives, such as our bootable USB stick.
In those cases, it is necessary to change the BIOS settings to “Secure boot off”, to enable the boot sequence to detect the Ubuntu boot USB drive.
It is important to persevere against such obstacles put in our way, which appear designed only to try to prevent us installing alternative operating systems, thus locking us into proprietary operating systems such as MS Windows.
They do not own our machines!
Again, there is usually much information on the internet to enable one to make whatever changes are needed to the BIOS. Once done, these need not be revisited. The system will run just fine with the new BIOS settings regardless of which operating system is settled on.
If there are valuable files on the machine from its life as a MS Windows slave, that you might like to keep, choose to evaluate Ubuntu, rather than install, from the options offered in the Ubuntu splash screen.
Evaluation mode on the USB will run full Ubuntu with the capabilities limited to running with the system disk connected to USB, with no need to install. That includes Windows-like drag-drop file management capability between the disks in the machine, and any other connected drives.
It is possible to run indefinitely in evaluation mode from the stick with no need to install, but in practice this usually ends in tears, as any disturbance to the USB connection during operation has a reasonable chance of causing corruption which can (And does, sooner or later), break the integrity of the boot disk, so not advisable. A few hours is fine. A few months is not so fine!
Use the Ubuntu evaluation functionality to safely Backup any files you wish to keep, on a drive other than the main windows system disk, in the same way as you would use Windows.
Most higher quality machines have multiple disks, so it is usually a simple matter to backup copies of any valuable personal files on from the main Windows system disk, to a secondary disk in the computer. If there is no secondary disk, then a further usb connected drive or stick can be used.
Once you are happy all precious personal files have been safely moved to a secondary disk, the main installation can be commenced.
Reboot, and accept to install Ubuntu, making sure to correctly identify the intended target disk for installation on the machine.
And that’s it.
Now, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor, and the breath of fresh air you will feel seeing that machine back from the dead, reincarnated to full, if not greater than ever vitality.
This article has turned out to be much shorter than I had anticipated, so I can’t help feeling like I might have missed some details, as we often do when things have become routine to us, but which might be unknown to others.
So let’s keep open the possibility to provide more details as necessary, depending on feedback, as always.
As always, don’t be afraid to ask questions, or critique!
I will also do a follow up soon, with a part #2 for Mac OS machines, as I can see a need to do an old I-Mac 24".