Preparing Retired Laptops For Computing Beginners

I’ve just finished looking over several old laptop computers with an eye for using them as robot brains running ROS, a research project made possible by NUCC. Independent of my primary focus, the exercise also gave me some ideas about old laptops used for another common purpose: as cheap “starter” computers for people getting their feet wet in the world of computers. This intent involves a different set of requirements and constraints than robot building.

In this arena, ease of use becomes paramount which means most distributions of Linux are excluded. Even Raspbian, the distribution intended for people to learn in a simplified environment on a Raspberry Pi, can get intimidating for complete beginners. If someone who receives a hand-me-down computer knows and prefers Linux, it’s a fair assumption they know how to install it themselves as I had done with my refurbished Dell Latitude E6230.

Next, a hand-me-down laptop usually includes personal data from its previous owner. Ideally it is inaccessible and hidden behind password protection, but even if not, the safest way to protect against disclosure is to completely erase the storage device and reinstall the operating system from scratch.

Historically for Windows laptops such cleaning also meant the loss of the Windows license since the license key has almost certainly been separated from the computer in its lifespan. Fortunately, starting from Windows 8 there is a Windows license key embedded in the hardware, so a clean install will still activate and function properly. For these Windows laptops and MacOS machines, it is best to preserve that value and run its original operating system. This was the case for the HP Split X2 I examined.

If a Windows or MacOS license is not available, the most beginner-friendly operating system is Chrome OS. It is available for individuals to install as Neverware CloudReady: Home Edition. Putting this on a system before giving it to a beginner will allow them to explore much of modern computing while also sparing them much of the headaches. And if they dig themselves into a hole, it is easy to restart from scratch with a “Powerwash”. This was what I had done with the Toshiba Chromebook 2 I examined.

But modern computing has left 32-bit CPUs behind, limiting options for older computers lacking support for 64-bit x86_64 instruction set. It meant Neverware CloudReady is not an option for them either. It is possible the user can be served by a machine that is a stateless web kiosk machine, in which case we can install Ubuntu Core with the basics of web kiosk.

And if we have exhausted all of those options, as was the case for the HP Mini netbook I examined, I believe that means the machine is not suitable as a hand-me-down starter computer for a beginner. Computers unable to meet minimum requirements for all of the above would only be suitable for basic command-line based usage. And whether computing veterans like it or not, current convention wisdom says a command line is not the recommended starting point for today’s computing beginners.

So in order of preference, the options for a beginner-friendly laptop after wiping a disk of old data are:

  1. Windows (if license is in hardware) or MacOS (for Apple products)
  2. Either original Chromebook/Chromebox or Chrome OS via Neverware CloudReady.
  3. Ubuntu Snappy Core in Web Kiosk mode.
  4. Sorry, it is not beginner friendly.

[UPDATE: Since the time I wrote this up, I have discovered a lightweight Debian distribution suitable for old x86 computers made by the Raspberry Pi foundation. I put it on the HP Mini as well as an even older Dell Latitude X1 and it appears to be a valid option between steps 3 and 4 above.]

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