Elementary, my dear: How to revive an old PC with elementary OS

Breathe new life into tired computers by installing elementary OS, a Linux distro that feels like macOS.

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One of the easiest ways to get more out of an old or underpowered system is to free it from Windows and install Linux software instead. An excellent alternative OS for business, Linux lets the computer run at full speed and, depending on the variant you choose, it can cost nothing.

From Aurora to Zorin OS, there are dozens of Linux distributions to choose from. My current favorite is elementary OS. It’s a software shell that sits on top of the Ubuntu distribution. Looking a bit like macOS, elementary is meticulously designed and easy to use. You can pay whatever you want for it (including nothing), and it takes no more than 10 minutes to install.

Elementary OS 5 Juno is the current release. It comes with the basics (email, web browsing, calendar, and more), and an online AppCenter lets you add programs for everything from to-do lists to presentations to file encryption. The underlying Ubuntu software lets you use a system’s Trusted Platform Module (TPM) if it has one.

In this story I’ll demonstrate how to convert a budget laptop to elementary OS using a $250 Asus VivoBook W202N. With its 1.1GHz Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, the machine felt underpowered running Windows 10S, but I found it had more than enough juice for Juno.

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Installing elementary OS on a budget laptop was easy and worthwhile. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)

Here’s how to get up and running with elementary OS, including some tips to find your way around the Juno release.

Installing elementary OS

Get started: The first step is to read elementary’s installation guide (which you can customize depending on whether you currently use Windows, macOS, or Ubuntu) and then download the software from the elementary OS website. Click on the “Purchase elementary OS” button to help fund the open-source effort. It’s on the honor system; you can use a credit card or pay nothing. There is no commercial license needed, allowing the use of elementary on one or a hundred computers.

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Downloading the elementary OS installer

Make it bootable: I converted elementary’s .iso file into a bootable format using a utility called Rufus; other apps, like UltraISO or FlashBoot, should also work. In Rufus, I clicked Select to pick elementary’s .iso file and then Start to put it onto a USB flash drive. It needs 1.5GB of space.

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Saving the .iso file to a flash drive in Rufus

After opening the laptop’s BIOS menu by starting the system while pressing F2 (other systems might use F8, F10, or another key), I set it to boot from the USB drive. Next up, I inserted the flash drive and restarted the system.

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Setting the system’s BIOS to boot from the flash drive

Start the install and take a coffee break: Elementary gave me gives the choice of trying out the software, installing it alongside the existing OS, or wiping the system clean and starting from scratch. I chose to start from scratch. Installation takes 8 or 9 minutes, so it’s a good time to get some coffee or catch up on social media (on a different computer).

Finish up: When everything was loaded, I picked my language, typed a password, selected the keyboard layout, and connected to my office’s Wi-Fi network. Finally, I set Juno to automatically update itself. Unlike with Windows 10, this took just a minute or two.

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Setting the username and password for login

After a quick restart, elementary OS was ready and felt welcoming. After using the updated system for a week or so, I can say that it not only boots faster than it did with Windows, but seems livelier, with quicker responses from websites and in Google Docs. Elementary has given the VivoBook a new lease on computing life.

Finding your way around

Here’s a quick tour of elementary OS 5 Juno and some tips for getting the most out of the software.

Learn the layout: Elementary’s desktop environment, known as Pantheon, has a similar look and feel to macOS, with an app dock along the bottom of the screen and a file manager that’s reminiscent of Apple’s Finder. In the upper left corner is a link that opens to the Applications menu for browsing and searching your apps.

The top row of the interface also shows the date and time, as well as indicators for things like volume, Wi-Fi, and battery level. In the upper right corner is a power icon for locking the system, logging out, suspending it, or shutting it down.        

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The elementary OS file manager feels a lot like Apple’s Finder.

 Work with windows: Windows can be resized, moved, run full screen (the double arrow in the upper right) or closed (the X in the upper left). There are shortcuts for things like closing a window (right-click), zooming in on the display (Ctrl-+), and going back a page (Alt-left arrow); the full list is at System Settings/Keyboard/Settings.

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Shortcuts can help you navigate windows faster.

Multitask and more: Juno runs fine with several windows open, and its Multitasking View (click the blue and white icon toward the left end of the dock) shows open apps. The familiar Alt-Tab key combination cycles through them. Juno also has a Picture-in-Picture mode (Ctrl-F) that lets you run one app (like a browser or terminal window) on top of another. I set it up to watch the live launch of a rocket while doing some coding.

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Picture-in-Picture mode in action

There’s also a Do Not Disturb mode that eliminates notifications and other distractions. You can toggle it on and off by middle-clicking (with a three-button mouse) or three-finger tapping (with a touchpad) on the Notifications indicator at the top right of the screen.

Use hot corners: The screen’s four corners can be shortcuts for anything from maximizing a window to opening the Applications menu. Go to System Settings/Desktop/Hot Corners to set it up.

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Customizing the desktop’s hot corners

Add peripherals, tweak other settings: The horizontal switch icon in the dock opens the elementary OS System Settings. There, I added a printer and Bluetooth speakers and adjusted the date and time.

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Control both hardware and software in System Settings.

I also connected an external display to mirror the laptop’s screen, but the OS can alternatively extend the image. After I connected the display and Juno automatically detected it, I configured it at System Settings/Displays.

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Adding and configuring an external display

While I was on the Displays screen, I adjusted the display’s color by moving the slider control at the bottom. I also set up the Night Light function to automatically warm the screens a little at about 11 p.m. to get me ready for bedtime.

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Adjusting the color temperature and nighttime settings

Going to System Settings/Power reveals controls for adjusting display brightness and an option for automatic dimming. I also used it to control when the system goes to sleep.

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Adjusting the system’s power settings

Add apps: While it doesn’t compare with the breadth of programs included with Windows PCs and Macs, Juno comes with some nicely written basic apps including a web browser, email program, file manager, calendar, and music and video players. Elementary’s AppCenter (click the icon in the dock that looks like a store) has more than 100 others that start to fill in the gaps for business users. Like elementary OS itself, the AppCenter runs on a “pay what you want” model.

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At the AppCenter you can supplement the small collection of apps included with elementary OS.

These days, of course, many web-based apps have gotten sophisticated enough to replace desktop apps. Personally, I use Google Docs running on Juno’s included Epiphany web browser most of the time.

If your company uses its own software, it can be adapted to run on elementary OS. The site’s Developer section can help with information about the software, design principles, suggested coding style, and conventions of elementary OS apps.

That’s all you need to know to get going with elementary OS. For a different way to breathe new life into an old computer, see “Turning old PCs into new Chromebooks.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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