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DEATH-PROOF your old XP netbook: 5 OSes to bring it back to life

Or: How to talk your child out of using an iPad..

By Simon Sharwood, 28 Nov 2013

My son's school has decreed that next year he'll need a computer of some sort.

Mr 12 wants an iPad. I want him to use the 2009-vintage Lenovo S10e Netbook gathering dust in the study, because it's already been paid for. The netbook is also fit for purpose: it was the very model handed out in Australian schools circa 2009.

It's also alive and kicking. That Redmond will turn it into a curiosity next April rankles, so I want to find something useful for it to do.

Mr 12 scoffs at such sensible arguments and cares little for the family budget. All he knows is that the single core 1.6Ghz ATOM N270-powered machine with its 2GB of RAM, 150GB hard disk and oddly proportioned 1024 x 576-pixel 10.1-inch screen runs like treacle.

After some back and forth, a compromise has been reached: if I can show him an operating system that makes the netbook faster and look cool, he'll give it a go.

To meet that challenge, I've installed five netbook OS alternatives – onto the bare metal when it's easy to do so and onto USB sticks in other cases. Virtual machines, we decreed, would not give a decent look to an OS.

Mr 12's assessed them for usability, Minecraft availability, and classroom cred. I've assessed them for general utility.

And so, without any further ado … let's get into it.

Ubuntu 12.04

Yes we could have gone with Lubuntu, but the extra bling of full Ubuntu seemed a useful way to get Mr 12 interested. Full Ubuntu installation is also stupidly simple: the 2.2MB Wubi download means just a few clicks get you to dual boot heaven … at least until Windows 8 comes along. More of that later.

Ubuntu is of course a sysadmin's dream, offering all the command line Linux goodness anyone could want. There's also a fine GUI that Mr 12 found in no way confronting.

Performance was poor: even though I defragged the drive in both Windows and Ubuntu, the laggy XP experience persisted.

Mr 12 was able to navigate the OS and had no trouble firing up a browser and finding Libre Office. He decreed the latter decent, if not as good as Office or Presi, the slideware-as-a-service he's used in class.

Ubuntu 12.04

Ubuntu 12.04's software manager: VLC yes, Minecraft no

The killer lack-of-app was Minecraft. I'd assumed the game was so cool Ubuntu's Software Centre would bring it to the netbook in mere moments. When it instead produced a Minecraft clone, Mr 12's mind closed to Ubuntu. Probably forever.

I could run Ubuntu happily. It's pleasant to watch and use, even if it doesn't improve the netbook's performance.

MacPup

Mr 12 prefers the Macs at home, largely because they're newer and faster than the PCs, so I thought perhaps MacPup – a distro that tries to reproduce the MacOS Finder in Linux - was worth a try.

The results aren't pretty and Mr 12 decided it looks like “A Mac made by someone who's only seen a Mac once,” a wisdom from the mouths of tweens moment if ever there was one.

Finding apps in MacPuppy proved its undoing: only Firefox awaits on the desktop seen at startup. That a left-click on the desktop rather than a right-click summoned the menu proved confusing.

MacPup in action

MacPup in action: A raw install has the faux dock but none of the other excitement.

On the upside, MacPuppy frolicked at delightful speed while running from a 2GB USB stick. It's Linux with a skin, so has all the possibilities of any Linux.

Bottom line? Mr 12 wasn't in the slightest bit interested. Nor was I, even if the OS was wonderfully swift when booting from a USB stick.

Adventures with Windows 8

A Microsoft spokesthing sent The Reg this advice about XP netbook owners:

For customers considering upgrading a device designed to run Windows XP, we recommend purchasing modern hardware – from touch laptops to tablets to all-in-ones – to take full advantage of the features and touch UI found in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.

If you must persist with a netbook, it recommends Windows 7. But there's a snag. Windows 7 Starter and Home Basic, the lowest-specced versions of Windows 7, are no longer on sale. The former was only ever an OEM product. The latter has been cancelled, so only Windows 7 Home Premium is now on sale. It has more or less the same hardware requirements as Windows 8.

I downloaded and tried Microsoft's upgrade assessment tool for Windows 7 and Windows 8 and both gave their approval to an install on the netbook.

For Windows 8, that approval did have one warning: the Windows Store requires a screen resolution of 1024x768 and would not run on the netbook. The S10e doesn't have this, so I knew this was a risk.

Microsoft's next trick is making it possible to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 8 but not from XP to 8.1. I planned to take the next step afterwards, but the Product Key I possess for Windows 8 would not allow an upgrade.

Windows 8 installed quickly, easily and truculently: it imposed its own boot loader on the netbook and did something unpleasant to the BIOS that removed its boot-from-USB option and imposed its own bootloader on the netbook. That bootloader was hostile to Ubuntu, which would not load after Windows 8 had been installed.

Long story short: thanks for nothing, Redmond, and avoid a Windows 8 install if you want a multi-boot netbook.

Mr 12 didn't mind Windows 8 at all once I showed him that a single click took him to the Windows 8 desktop, an environment he's familiar with.

The inability to access the Windows Store is an issue, because Windows 8 really, really, wants you to install apps. As a school machine it's therefore a writeoff: Mr 12 will need to install various e-reader apps and the such like and the absence of the Store would mean lots of in-classroom messing about that he can do without.

I wouldn't mind using Windows 8, because a quick CTRL-ESC gets me to a swift and stable Windows desktop. But overall, this was just a poor fit because the OS is crippled. Even if you don't like Windows 8, missing TIFKAM just makes things worse.

Mr 12 was confused by the mess. He likes the idea of Windows 8, but almost-Windows-8 didn't get any attention, never mind approval.

To give Microsoft its due, it did say try Windows 7. I probably will, later.

Jolicloud

I started work on this article before Jolicloud decided to focus on the web and abandon its desktop efforts, but included it anyway because it's the closest thing to a Chrome-OS-like experience I can find. I tried Chrome OS distribution at hexxeh.net but rejected it on the basis that it is now six months out of date and would not install to bare metal or run from a USB stick.

Yes, it is possible to install Chrome OS in other ways, but as it requires the slaughter of a virgin goat beneath a full moon, I figured it's not a sensible option for a working machine.

Jolicloud in action

The Jolicloud interface, still available online but soon-to-be-unsupported on the desktop

Jolicloud was beyond Mr 12, who didn't get its web-based interface or the idea of piping in web apps as if they were installed on the hard disk. He didn't mind the Google Apps word processor once we got that up and running and was pleased to be able to access Presi.

I've had a soft spot for Jolicloud for a while, but can't see myself using its desktop install now that it has been abandoned. A super lightweight install of something that booted straight into a browser pointed at Jolicloud could work, but without that I see no reason to revisit it.

Peppermint

When we covered the demise of Jolicloud on the desktop, a few commenters mentioned Peppermint as a decent alternative, thanks largely to its Ice application that allows the creation of single-site browsers (SSBs).

For those not familiar with SSBs, they spawn a single website into a dedicated window stripped of all navigational elements. That window also appears as if it were an executable when you ALT-TAB between programs. Chrome's had SSB facilities for years (but not in its Mac OS incarnation), but Firefox ditched the idea and the Prism plug-in that made it possible (and is probably glad it did now that Prism means something else entirely). Some folks swear by SSBs, plenty more get by without them.

Peppermint thinks they're so good it has an app called “Ice” that makes them and embeds shortcuts to the SSBs you create in the “Internet” menu that appears when you click on the bottom-right-corner start button clone. Some of the applications are actually web apps, but it's also possible to install software onto the hard drive.

Peppermint OS' Ice single-site browser creation tool

Peppermint OS's Ice single-site browser creation tool

Mr 12 found Peppermint's games, couldn't find a word processor and wrote it off immediately. And fair enough too because it is yet another Linux and Ice doesn't make it stand out from the pack.

Conclusion

To my eternal shame, Mr 12 is shy of the command line and so exposed to modern gadgets that the Linuxes tested didn't excite him. Windows 8 wasn't fast enough or sufficiently well-behaved to win his approval, while Jolicloud was just too weird. Having said that, he's played with Chromebooks and is leaning towards one as his school computer.

For me, if I had to spend serious time on this machine I would follow Redmond's advice and go with Windows 7. If the machine slowed significantly, I'd boot into Ubuntu from USB. ®

Bootnote: This whole test turned out to be moot because during testing the netbook's battery gave up the ghost: it will now only run when plugged in. I'm therefore hunting for a dedicated Bitcoin-mining OS to install on the hard drive, because with a 20v 2.0A power supply, I suspect it might just pay for itself if it ever mints a coin. Either that or a security-camera-centric OS to put its webcam to work as a view-from-afar burglar-spotter.

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