Free Software - (Mostly for Windows PCs)

Try Linux?
You might not have heard of Linux but you will certainly have used it, perhaps without even knowing. Special versions of Linux are running in your TV, Set-top box, Tablet, Smart Phone and a bunch of other things. It is everywhere and not just computers. In fact, 'Android' is a version of Linux for phones and tablet computers. Schools are now teaching programming skills on the Raspberry Pi, which uses a light version of Linux.

There are many Linux distributions ('distros') about, such as Mint, Suse, Fedora, and most are free. Two popular distros are currently 'Ubuntu' and 'Mint'. Puppy Linux is a tiny version which can run on the oldest PCs, with small hard discs and memories. There are heaps of free Linux programs out there too, as you won't be able to run Windows programs (although sometimes it is possible using 'Wine', see below).

Try a 'Live' version First
Now that Microsoft no longer supports Windows XP, if you have an old PC that you can experiment with, I suggest you give Linux a go. Most of distros have try-before-install 'Live' versions, so you can give it a go without damaging your existing set-up. If you like it, click 'Install' and it will put it on (but see below first and don't wipe your data). In some cases, it might detect that you have Windows installed and ask if you wish to keep it. Then you would end up with a 'dual boot' system where you would choose on boot-up which system to load.

My old Windows 7 netbook slowed down so much to be almost useless, so I looked for a lightweight distro and took the plunge. There are a lot of choices out there and different desktop styles to go with them. The Linux forums suggested Lubuntu, a fast, lightweight and energy-saving variant of Ubuntu using the LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) desktop, particularly suitable for old PCs or low-spec laptops. I dumped Windows 7 (with trepidation) and installed Lubuntu, which was very easy to do. It came with a basic word processor and Firefox browser and was fairly quick to start up and shut down. I use it quite a lot, mainly for radio ham software and surfing the interweb.

How to do it?
I am not a Linux expert and will only do the easy stuff. Many of the 'distros' will run 'live' off the disc without installing, so you can see if you like them. Let's go with Ubuntu. This is one of the most popular flavours, with good info on the Ubuntu Installation page. Mint is another popular one. See the Mint Documentation pages. You will download your Linux from whichever site, but will need to know if your PC or laptop is 32-bit or 64-bit before starting, as the two systems use different installation discs. Here's the gist below. Before you start, you will need the wifi router password as the Linux system will need to connect to the Internet at some point. It will be possible to install without connecting. The installation will search for a strong wifi and ask you to input the router password. It is usually printed on its label (unless you changed it). Then ...

1. Save Your Old Files
You will need to save anything important from the old PC and keep your documents, smutfiles, etc. in a safe place because it will be a fresh start and everything must go.

2. Get Ubuntu.
The easiest way is to buy a Linux mag with a cover disc but there are traps for the unwary, such as the wrong version for your PC. You old machine will need a 32-bit version and most magazine discs are for 64-bit versions which your old box won't handle. Otherwise, go to the Ubuntu link and download a 32-bit version. Of course, if you have a high-performance modern PC, you might try 64-bit Linux if it is 'live' but be careful not to install it if you only want to see it in action.

3. Burn the Disc.
The file will be an 'ISO image' of a disc and will need to be burn it to a DVD (or possibly CD if it will fit) using the right tool, not simply copied as that won't make a 'bootable' disc. Alright, I've gone too technical, too quickly but it isn't very tricky. You need to install ImgBurn to burn the disc in the right format.

4. Install Linux.
If the PC can boot from a disc, bung it in and restart it. If it ignores the disc on boot-up, you will need to visit the 'Bios' settings to set the fist 'Boot Order' to CD or DVD. This might require the nearest spotty computer geek but is not difficult and they will enjoy the Linux stuff in among making you cups of tea. Don't change any other settings.

Upon restarting with the disc in, there will be a load of guff scrolling up or down the screen and it might go blank for a worrying time. Sit in a corner if it does and keep your hands off until it starts asking questions, such as: What Country - UK, What Keyboard Layout - UK, What Time Zone - UK, you get the picture. Nearly everything else will be automatic. It will probably ask you to name your PC a name and invent a memorable password, so you might ponder that as it whirs away. You will forget the password if you don't write it down. Trust me, you will.

If it goes pear-shape, I'm not an expert to deal with it but I can say that I have installed a variety of Linuxes and usually without serious problems. The more popular distros should install smoothly but don't get worried if the screen goes blank for a few minutes during installation, that's normal. By the way, Linux uses a different file system to Windows. It will read Windows files without bother but, if you were to put a Linux-formatted disc drive in a Windows PC, it would look like a blank disc.

5. Get Cracking
If all goes well, and it probably will do, you will log in with your username and password - and up it comes. When you try to use the web browser (probably Firefox) for the first time, it will grumble about having no Internet. That's when it will ask for the Router info. On the connection tool, you will probably see a few of your neighbours' routers listed and yours near the top with the strongest signal. Click on that and put in the password and away you go. It's usually fairly straightforward.

6. Install Programs
The normal way with Linux is not to download programs from websites but to use a Software Management system. You run that and choose what programs to download. The system will install the selected program and all 'dependencies' (ancillary files to make it work). These come from the approved 'Repository' for that Distro and should work without difficulty. Most are completely free. See Ubuntu's Installing Software page.

7. Want to Run a Windows Program?
It might not be too late for that, especially if it is an older program. There's a nifty utility program to install called 'Wine' which allows you to run most but not all Windows programs. It might be necessary to do a little tweak to get it downloaded and installed but I have used it before to run Windows programs in Linux. There are often some incompatibilities but, if you are lucky, they will be minor ones, such as not remembering Windows positions or slightly odd fonts. The biggie is that Windows programs can't 'see' USB ports. One hopes that a future version might crack that problem.

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