Linux Gains Another User

1, Jan 2009


It seems that my family has started a new tradition. I get some time off around Christmas from my University, so I come home to visit my parents. One of the things that is always requested by my mother is to 'Fix my computer'. She is endlessly having troubles making the thing work correctly - this time she was complaining about how things seemed to be running a bit slower than they usually were. I told her I'd look into it.

Initial Observations

Her laptop is in pretty bad condition - physically. My family owns several dogs which are allowed full access to everything in the house; it was unavoidable to have some dog hair accumulate in the laptop, but I was surprised at how much hair there actually was in there. The keys had hairs nested in-between them, there was hair on the monitor, and even hair in the CD drive. Beyond that, there were also some general stains on the keyboard and surrounding areas - someone probably spilled something there. In addition, the 'a' key was refusing to respond to keystrokes. That was an easy fix though - I just had to jostle it around a bit so it would resettle into its place.

After some poking around in the file system, I decided it was time to clean things up. I installed CCleaner - Formerly Crap Cleaner. CCleaner is an excellent freeware program that helps you get rid of large amounts of unnecessary temporary files that tend to accumulate over time on Windows. It hits all the major areas: Recycle Bin, Internet Browsers (cache, cookies, downloads, etc.), Temporary Files, Recent Documents, and much more. I ran that, and it got rid of around 800Mbs of data. CCleaner also comes with a Registry Cleaner - which does pretty much what you'd expect. I ran a sweep of that, and it found around 80 issues with the registry to be cleaned up. Next up was the virus scan. A sweep with the standard Norton Protection system scan found several potential problems with a couple files that it didn't like - it was able to handle those issues though, and did something to fix the problem..

The Conversion

It was at this point that I decided it was time to try something new. I had briefly mentioned Linux to her at times before, but decided that it was time for her to test it out herself. First off, I downloaded and burned a copy of Ubuntu 8.10 to demo the live CD for her. Once I pointed out where Firefox lived, she was easily at home. She's used to using Internet Explorer, but the change wasn't that complicated.

The arguments that I used to get her into this are the standard ones:

I didn't talk about the customization options much at all, as I figured she would not be interested in anything like that. Anyways, I left the live CD running on her laptop for a couple days so she could experiment with things. As far as I can tell, during that time, the only program that she ever used was Firefox - of which she had great praise for. She repeatedly noted that it seemed so much faster and more responsive than Internet Explorer on Vista did.

It was now time to return to Windows and prepare for the transition. I did another scan through the system, this time picking all the files that needed to be kept and moved to Linux. I found around 2 gigabytes worth of pictures, and a couple of text documents - all of which were moved to a Flash drive for temporary storage. I then created a new 22 gigabyte partition on the hard disk, and left that unallocated. I then rebooted with the Ubuntu cd in the drive and followed the installation steps, selecting the Guided option when it came to partitioning. The installer took care of everything else, and even recognized the Windows portion of the hard disk in the GRUB bootloader, making dual booting into an amazingly simple task.

The Set-up

Once the system was installed, I ran an update check, and found a around 250 odd updates to download. Once that had been completed and the system rebooted, it was time to get everything working as it should.

Get Wireless Internet working.

I had already solved this problem when I was demoing the Live CD. It seems that there is no default support for the wireless card in the computer - a Dell Broadcom BCM4311 802.11 b/g card to be specific. Anyways, a bit of poking around on-line showed me how to get it working: adding the following commands to the /etc/rc.local file (which is called at startup) will ensure that the wireless card is activated:

modprobe -r b43 b44 ssb wl
modprobe ieee80211_crypt_tkip
modprobe wl
modprobe b44
/etc/init.d/networking restart

Install Flash and Video Players

My mom likes to watch lots of streaming videos on-line, both from news websites and from YouTube, so video playback is key. To get Flash Player working I ran

 sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree

This was quite painless, and after a restart of Firefox, YouTube flash videos played without issues (also serving as a test of the sound drivers). Next I had to get all of the other standard proprietary formats to work, and once again, Ubuntu provided a simple command to provide support for MP3s, Quicktime videos, WMA and WMV files:

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras

For watching downloaded movies on the computer Totem Movie player comes in the Ubuntu package. However, it seemed that Totem had a slight bug in video playback. The screen would flicker constantly throughout the video in a highly distracting and annoying manner. Once again some searching on-line quickly found the answer: From in the player go Preferencecs -> Video and switch Output to "X Window System".

Further Customization

Since her eye sight isn't that great, I've done what I can to help out there. I've increased all the font sizes from the default 10px to a slightly bigger 11px. Not much of a difference, sure...but it should help. Also, I've added shortcuts on the desktop to Firefox, Open Office Writer, and F-Stop Photo Manager. Since those are the programs she will be using most, I want to give easy access to them. Since she uses Hotmail, there was no need to set-up Evolution as her mail client.

I now await phone calls from home asking for help whenever they get stuck. However, I don't mind that much - I think in the long run, I've saved myself quite a bit of hassle.


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