Sunday, November 14, 2010

Computer Problems...and a Nifty Solution

I just wanted to relate a useful experience with a bit of software.  If you're looking for FED analysis for your insomnia or whatever, you'll have to wait for some other post.

I have been using a Dell laptop for my computing needs for about three years that finally became annoyingly slow about two months ago.  It had run out of hard drive space about a year ago, which was irksome because I was unable to fix it up with a new one and had to erase a bunch of applications I really would rather have kept.  I probably could have taken it in to be worked on, but that just doesn't make any economic sense when the parts and labor alone will run you somewhere between a third and a half the price of a new computer. 

So, I tried to put one in myself and ran into one problem after another, each of which seemed to have a more expensive solution than the last, and most of which stemmed from the fact that my computer, like most, comes with MS Windows preloaded -- but no installation CD to reload it in the event of changing out a hard drive.  Being a phenomenal cheapskate, I wasn't really happy with the situation.

I finally broke down and bought a new computer a couple of months ago, which came with the added bonus of inducing a temporary ceasefire in hostilities between my wife and I over facetime in front of the computer screen.  My wife immediately appropriated the new machine for watching Korean soap operas, a real memory hogging operation compared to basic web surfing and reading pdf's (and blogging), which I am usually up to.  But I was okay with that.  By cleaning out the laptop, I could do the things I wanted to do well enough.

That happy situation came to a close fairly rapidly as the laptop slowed to an intolerable crawl.  I restored it to factory conditions, eradicating the endless Windows updates that I've found to be a principle culprit in rendering a machine worthlessly slow, so that at least it would be useful off-line.  I've done that in the past and kept using a computer just for basic purposes for many years.  But even that didn't really work.  It was alternately acceptably fast and then ridiculously bogged down with some process that would periodically incapacitate it.  I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

I've always kind of hated computing for this reason -- I'm perfectly happy reading and doing simple basic things that don't require a lot of computing power.  I don't much care for all the fancy graphics and such all that much.  But just to keep access to the things I want to do, I have to keep forking over money for machines and software that are ever more complex.  Even the software nowadays will run you as much as a new machine -- software that does nothing more from my point of view than give me access to the machine, which I only need because the old software ran the last one into the ground.  All of this just to access the same old stuff I've been looking at for ten years.

So, I was pretty angry.  I had almost consigned the thing to the scrap heap.  Well, probably the pawn shop, at least.  Then I had an idea.

I'd been wanting to try out the Linux OS for some time.  But it was a bit intimidating to try something like that on a computer that was already running Windows acceptably well and risk messing up a perfectly usable computer, and, as a corrolary, having to actually spend money getting somebody else to fix it or buy a new one.  I'm not very tech savy and don't have much talent or patience for this stuff, as I've previously explained.  I could probably get proficient if the motivation were there, but I just don't get excited with tech stuff anymore.

But to get back to the story, I now had a useless computer on my hands that I figured was still probably quick enough to keep up as far as hardware was concerned, if I could keep the crap processor-overloading software out of it.  I wondered if Linux might not bog the thing down quite as badly as Windows does.  So, I thought, what the heck?  It would be tough to make things any worse.

So I searched for Linux systems online, of which there are actually a surprising number.  I had heard of Red Hat, but looking into it, it seemed too complicated for somebody like me.  Then I stumbled onto a system called Ubuntu.

Strange name, but a fairly user-friendly system that I found myself just competent enough to install.  It wasn't that hard.  I just downloaded a file from their website and followed their instructions for burning to a CD (it has to be burnt as an image file or the CD won't be bootable, which you need to get the computer to recognize it as the booting instructions instead of Windows.)  I had to go into CMOS (I think) to change boot priority to the CD drive, which of everything was probably the most difficult task.  It took a few tries to get it to boot up successfully, and when I did, it was extremely slow directly from the CD, at least the first couple of times.  I think that this is because residual Windows crap was slowing things down.  It seems that Vista didn't want to go down easy.  But by the third time things were going okay.

Once I actually installed it to the hard drive, it ran pretty quick.  Not quite as fast as when my computer was fresh out of the box, but close.  And since I now had a bootable disk with a complete OS on it, I finally got to install my 'new' hard drive.

Ubuntu is a little strange at first to someone who is used to Windows, but graphically it looks very nice and is quite user friendly for basic tasks.  I've been using it for a couple of weeks now, and I've had no problems with viruses or crashing.  It comes with a basic 'office' type program called Open Office that works about like Microsoft Office.  And in another surprise, I was still able to use it to look at things like YouTube videos and, yes, Korean soap operas without appreciable slowdown.  Before, the computer had pretty much croaked at that request.

Oh, and did I mention that it was all free?  I just got probably 90% of the functionality I had with Windows Vista, which would probably cost on the order of $250 or so, for free, and it runs faster.  It does everything I want of it, faster than Vista could.

I'm sold.  I've even thought about ditching Windows altogether and putting it on the brand new computer.

There probably are downsides to running primarily on Ubuntu.  I've heard that many if not most Windows software will not work on it.  On the other hand, there is loads of Linux freeware out there that does a pretty good job on most applications you can think of.  I've been using Open Office for some time (it also works in the Windows environment), and it does most everything most users would want it to do, plus it can save files which are in the same format as Word documents.  So, you can open, modify, and use them in either program.

All said and done, I'm happy as a clam with my newly refurbished computer.  It works great.  I wish I'd tried Ubuntu before I got the new computer.  If you have an older computer that you put away or are thinking about putting away because of speed issues, it might be worth your while to check out Ubuntu.

----  Update... ----

Since composing this post, sadly I must report some difficulties that I've had.  After a few days of my wife watching her Korean soap operas, the thing croaked again.  The processor was overwhelmed with who-knows-what, and I had to wipe the hard drive clean to get rid of whatever it was.

I couldn't get the original Ubuntu CD to load properly again for some reason.  So I went back to their website, and after a little external research, figured out that my laptop was designed for 64-bit software and that the 64-bit version of Ubuntu might work a little better.  My laptop can handle 32-bit, but since it was really designed for 64-bit, I thought I'd give 64-bit Ubuntu a go before I gave up.

After several tries, it finally worked.  As of this writing, I am using 64-bit Ubuntu.  The 64-bit version seems not to be quite as well supported in terms of plug-ins and updates, so maintaining it is a little more work.  Many installations do not have the fancy automatic loading features, so you have to use the Linux terminal to get it done.  The terminal is a lot like DOS, and a bit intimidating even for someone who used DOS fairly extensively back in the day.

Still, 1) my computer works, which it did not before, and 2) it is faster than ever.  So I can't really complain.  Maybe it's worth the headache of familiarising myself with Linux operation to avoid the hassles of Windows.  The nice thing (I think) about this system is how small it is.  Even old machines will still work with the latest Ubuntu, which means that I shouldn't have to buy computers nearly as often.

So, I suppose if you've got a working computer with Windows, it probably isn't worth it to switch.  But if your machine is a little older, you might think about trying Ubuntu on it.  If you get to know it well enough, you may be able to switch permanently and never need Windows again.

Oh, and the thing still can't handle Korean soap operas.  I had to reboot it after trying just one video.  But Youtube is fine.  So I suppose that's the other moral of the story -- don't let your wife watch Korean soap operas on your computer.

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