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System Recycling with Xubuntu

Have an old PC or three? Turn those aging hunks of silicon into refurbished Linux workhorses.

Perhaps, like many longtime computer users, you have old computers lying around that, for whatever reason, are no longer useful to you. Maybe the machines are four or five years old (or more), can’t run the multimedia stuff you love and crave, and can’t run recent versions of Windows or top-of-the-line Linux distributions. Idled some time ago, the hardware is piled high in a corner of the garage, gathering dust.

Still, you probably wish you could do something with those old systems besides throw them off the top of your office building just to watch them disintegrate in an entertaining crash. And if you’re anything like me, the idea of your old computers filling a landfill somewhere in some stinky pile adds to the undeniable feeling of guilt that you’re contributing to the destruction of our environment.

Toss It!

So, what else can you do with the aging silicon? For starters, there are many local organizations that you can give old computers to, and they are happy to take them. One such program is the Dell Online Recycling Center, which for a fee of $15, will send someone to your house to drag up to 50 pounds of computer equipment away, including old monitors. The Dell program disposes of the gear in environmentally-friendly ways, including donating your stuff to charity. And if you buy a new Dell machine, the recycle service is free. Given the fact that Dell is now using AMD chips in their servers and desktop machines, I can again strongly recommend them as a PC vendor. Go, Mikey!

Another good organization is Freecycle, a great way to get rid of all sorts of unwanted crap that you own, not just computers. Freecycle runs mailing lists all over the world where you can advertise what you want to get rid of (from old cell phone chargers, to vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, used doggie beds, sofas and huge pieces of wooden furniture) and people will just come to your house and haul it the hell out of there. And if you’re interested in someone else’s old piece of crap, you can just go ahead and take it, too.

I’ve used Freecycle myself — just ask my wife about the 40-year-old, manual meat slicing machine I decided to pick up. Freecycle lists are also among the major online hangouts for local charitable organizations that take old computers, refurbish them (often using Linux), and give them away to underprivileged families. If you take anything away at all from reading this article, I hope you give Freecycle a whirl.

Taking Stock of What You Have

Or maybe you’ve decided that you don’t want to throw away that old PC just yet. Perhaps it’s just not old enough to be considered junk, or you have some sort of strange sentimental attachment to it and you want to make it useful again. (Don’t worry: I have this disease, too). Maybe your daughter has been asking for a PC to build a MySpace (eek!) page and send instant messages to her friends, or perchance your five-year-old wants to go to Barbie.com or the Dora the Explorer site. Even better, maybe you want an extra PC in your kitchen, so you can go to ForkForums.com or OffTheBroiler.com (shameless plugs) while you are cooking. These are all rational reasons to recycle a PC.

First, you should determine if the machine has any real utility at all:

*If it’s a Pentium- class machine that’s 4-6 years old, it’s just on the cusp of not being able to run modern versions of Windows particularly well, but it is ripe for the Bird.

*If it’s a 386 (yipes!) or 486 machine and you want to use it as a desktop, you’re probably better off tossing it. 386 and 486 machines still have some utility, but not as desktop boxes; instead, look at open source projects like FreeSCO (http://www.freesco.org/) and the SME Server Project (http://www.contribs.org/) allow you to transform older machines into small appliance servers.

FreeSCO is more geared towards router and firewall applications, whereas SME Server is a full-blown, Web-manageable email, firewall, Internet sharing, file, print, and Web server Linux distribution for small businesses and workgroups. FreeSCO runs on a single boot floppy on a 386, whereas SME Server requires a (minimal) hard disk and a somewhat beefier processor. But when I say beefy, I mean something more like a first- or second-generation Pentium (of 133-200 MHz).

If you want to actually attempt to use one a much older PC for desktop use, I’d look at something like DamnSmallLinux (http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/), which burns to a business-card sized 50 MB live CD, and is bootable. DamnSmallLinux provides a desktop GUI and a Web browser (Firefox), an MP3 player, email client, and a bunch of other utility-type stuff, such as a terminal program. (See Figure One.) DamnSmallLinux can run on a machine as old as a 486DX 33 MHz with 16 MB of RAM, if you’re really got one of these old clunkers sitting around.

FIGURE ONE: The DamnSmallLinux desktop running on an old PC

Preferably, your old computer should have a BIOS that permits you to boot from the CD-ROM device; otherwise you’ll have to make boot floppies to install the distributions. Fortunately, floppy drives are super cheap these days and modern motherboards still support them (and there are USB ones on the market, as well. On the other hand, buying floppy media these days is a challenge. My local Staples and OfficeMax haven’t carried floppies for more than a year. I was only able to find some at my local Walgreens, which had one box of colored disks left in the entire store. Luckily, Amazon and other online retailers still sell them.

Another solution is to use one of your old PCs as a Linux graphical terminal. If you’ve got a fairly hefty desktop PC, you can slave several old 486 or first-generation Pentiums to it, run it completely diskless and run full-blown Linux desktop applications using the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). The May 2005 issue of Linux Magazine covered setting up an LTSP server using Symbio Workstation Manager, a free, shrinkwrapped, pre-packaged, open source, Web-manageable, thin client deployment suite that makes the whole LTSP provisioning process very easy to do. Provided your BIOSes support remote PXE network boot (and even if they don’t, you can get around it with PXE boot floppies ora bootable USB keychain), turning old hardware into a think client is a dream to use and one of the best ways to re-purpose an old system.

Xubuntu Re-Animation

No doubt you’ve heard about the relatively new, free Linux distribution that’s taking the world by storm. Ubuntu, a product of Canonical, Inc. (http://www.canonical.com/) and the brainchild of South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, has been downloaded millions of times in the last two years and is quickly becoming the most popular Linux distribution, as tracked by DistroWatch (http://www.distrowatch.com). Ubuntu comes in a number of flavors, and supports several machine architectures, including x86, x86-64, for AMD processors, and 64-bit Intel x86, as well as PowerPC for Macintosh and IBM POWER series machines, and Sun’s UltraSPARC processor.[ Ubuntu was covered in-depth previously in “On The Desktop” in the September 2005 issue, available online at http://www.linux-mag.com/2005-09/desktop.html.]

One particular flavor of Ubuntu that is useful for resurrecting old hardware is Xubuntu (http://www.xubuntu.org, shown in Figure Two), which differs from the standard Ubuntu distribution in that it features the XFCE desktop, an extremely lightweight and fast GUI shell that is used in place of either GNOME or KDE. GNOME and GTK and KDE and QT applications can still be used, but XFCE is used as the window manager. In Xubuntu’s implementation, XFCE closely resembles the aesthetic and general behavior of GNOME 2.x, and has a large suite of GNOME applications and utilities installed, so if you’re a GNOME user already, you won’t have much of a problem adapting.

FIGURE TWO: The Xubuntu Linux distribution

For “low-memory” systems, the version of Xubuntu you’ll want is the “Alternate” install image. It uses a reduced memory kernel and is tweaked to run optimally on machines with less than 192 MB of memory – however I think that if you have 256MB of RAM or less its probably the best way to go. If you have a 512MB machine, you can certainly get by nicely with the regular Ubuntu CD, or even Kubuntu, the KDE version, but the regular Xubuntu install image should work very well also.

As of this writing, Xubuntu (both the regular and “Alternate” installs) can be found at http://cdimage.ubuntu.com/xubuntu/releases/6.06.1/release.1/. Download one of these images for your processor architecture, burn it to a CD-ROM, and then boot with it to start the install.

iMacs Aren’t Garbage Either

If you’re a former member of the Church of Jobs and your Bondi-blue iMac from six or seven years ago can’t run anything better than Mac OS 9, these are good candidates for Xubuntu, too, if you don’t mind dealing with a few quirks.

The original iMacs — with a 233-700 MHz PowerPC G3 processor dating back to 1998-2001 and as little as 128MB of RAM out of the box — aren’t exactly state of the art anymore, but they are cute little machines that are great for that kitchen browser box or the kids’ playroom.

To get an iMac to run Xubuntu, you’ll first need to go to the Apple web site and make sure the machine has the latest firmware, because that’ll be a major gotcha if it isn’t. There are a number of relevant pages:

*Slot-loading iMac firmware can be found at http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum= 88010.

*Older (original) iMac firmware can be found at http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum= 60384.

*Available updates for iMac computers are listed at http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum= 58174.

*You can learn how to install an iMac firmware update at http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum= 60385.

Once you’ve upgraded your firmware, insert the Xubuntu CD in the CD-ROM reader, and hold down the” C” key while rebooting the machine. This puts the iMac directly into the Xubuntu boot loader.

Note that this procedure only works on an iMac or on “New World ROM”-style Macs from the original iMac upwards. If you’ve got an old PowerBook, such as the “Wall Street” with an “Old World” style ROM, you might need to take some extra steps. The Macbuntu blog (http://gonz.wordpress.com/) has some helpful tips to make Xubuntu work on these machines. A useful URL is

http://gonz.wordpress.com/2006/03/22/installing-ubuntu-510-breezy-badger-on-an-old-world-powerbook-g3-wallstreet/.

An iMac running Xubuntu is shown in Figure Three.

FIGURE THREE: An iMac running Xubuntu

Free Your XBOX

In closing, let’s switch to the XBOX. Despite being introduced several years ago, the XBOX sports a pretty decent processor (733 MHz) a good-sized hard disk (8 GB), a built-in DVD drive and a sophisticated graphics chip. For all practical purposes, its a PC, albeit one locked down by Microsoft.

With special versions of Linux you can get around the software restrictions of relegating the XBOX to a game machine and use it as a Linux workstation that can display applications on your TV. And with the device’s built-in Ethernet card, you can also browse the web and use email and other Internet and network-enabled applications, and play multimedia files.

If you have an XBOX that you want to give a Linux-style rehabilitation to, head over to http://www.xbox-linux.org/, where you’ll find a grand repository of information on the XBOX-Linux Wiki. You can discover how to install various versions of Linux (Xebian, xUbuntu, GentooX, XFedora, on XBOX systems. Some methods involve strictly software-based hacks using special, saved game files using the Action Replay (http://www.codejunkies.com/) hardware accessory ($20 retail); others involve the use the use of “Modchip” hardware hacks. Modchips are completely legal, provided they aren’t used to pirate software, and many of the Modchips for sale are “solderless” installs, meaning you pop the chip onto the XBOX motherboard, align a few connector wires (that look like unbent paperclips) to a few solder taps by hand, and close the lid.

Now, go grab that old PC in the garage and resurrect it. It’ll warm it’s heart.

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