Pet Project: Loading Linux To Make My Netbook Sing Again

I've had an old Acer Aspire netbook for quite a few years now. Pretty much since they started coming out. And it just can't handle Windows 7 anymore -- so I decided to try to make it purr again with Linux. Here's how I did it.

Old Netbook picture from Shutterstock

After several trips, the trusty netbook was at a stage where it was unusable. I wasn't demanding of it -- all I used it for was word processing and internet browsing. Ideal for overseas work trips and holidays. But even those basic functions were becoming unbearably slow, sometimes taking minutes to load up. But with some of the lightweight Linux distributions out there, old hardware can be made useful again. Even with a depressing benchmark test like this.

My first step was to load Ubuntu. I did this fairly simply by following the link on its site to download a USB installer, popping that in, and after backing up all the necessary work files, starting the format.

This was all fairly straightforward. Ubuntu has done a good job of that. Once it was installed, it had all the basic functions I wanted, and while I'm not that familiar with Linux, it was easily usable.

The problem is, it was still slow.

I hadn't really looked up the recommended specs for Ubuntu, but clearly they're higher than what my netbook has: An Intel Atom N450 @ 1.67GHz, with 1GB DDR3 SDRAM @ 1MHz. Loading Ubuntu had improved things, but it basically had upgraded it from "unusable" to "unbearably slow". I was looking for a bit of a better improvement than that.

So I looked up some info on super lightweight Linux distros, fully aware that the pendulum was swinging the other way and I was overshooting the mark. I just wanted this little thing to run something that wouldn't challenge it at all.

What I decided on was CorePlus, the "heavier" version of TinyCore, a super lightweight distro that's about 15MB in total. CorePlus comes with such luxuries as WiFi support and graphics in the OS, for the more "bloated" size of 75MB. If this couldn't make the little guy go fast, then it was a hopeless task.

I downloaded the image from its site, and used UNetbootin to make a USB installer. Then, I started the new format on the netbook.

This time, things were a little less user-friendly, and for a newbie like me, it was harder to know what the hell was going on. I ended up installing the OS onto the USB drive instead of the actual HDD, and wondering why it wouldn't boot properly. It took me an evening to finally do it properly.

Here it is today, running Lifehacker:

The good news? It runs extremely fast now. There's no lag, on anything. I don't know what I'll do with my newly free 250GB though, seeing as all I can do on the thing is type out documents and surf the web. It feels great, and in theory, CorePlus has everything I need. I could feasibly take it on a work trip, write and organise everything, and be happy.

But as I said before, this is overshooting the mark. CorePlus, while being the more "luxurious" option, is incredibly bare-bones. I don't need anything too special, and I'm happy working in a terminal for things like WiFi, but I'm considering meeting my netbook somewhere in the middle here.

It might take a few more attempts. I've got my eye on Easy Peasy next. But I've shown myself and the little netbook (which I call Mutalisk, because the Starcraft fans out there will know it comes from A-spire... Nyuk, nyuk) that it's possible for this outdated fossil to sing again.

It's great having a little netbook that I don't actually care about. It cost a few hundred, years ago, and rather than spend a few more hundred now for a new one, it serves its function and I care even less about it. That's wonderful for the thing I use it for most - travel - because if it gets stolen, who cares? Working in the cloud on terrible hardware -- it feels a lot like freedom.

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Comments

    Is Debian + XFCE(or something like openbox/fluxbox) really so heavy? I've run it on some VERY light systems without issue. It seems like Firefox would be the slowest part of your setup.

      I can't comment on Debian + XFCE, it looks like a good option. Ubuntu looked nice but ran at a discouraging speed. I'm not even married to Firefox -- as long as it gets the job done, I'm happy, though so far the bare-bones tools tend to assume a lot of experience in the Linux world.

      +1. I have a netbook with the same internals as this one and it flies with debian testing. I use openbox but anything vaguely lightweight like LXDE or XFCE should do just fine.

      Surprisingly it also runs pretty well with windows 10 preview. Boots in seconds, short period of lag after login, then the only lag you get is loading up apps. with a small ram upgrade and maybe a budget SSD I don't see myself replacing this before it falls apart.

        How does WiFi go with debian? I haven't tried WiFi on it for ages and used to be a pain. You'd have to use windows drivers with a wrapper and other tweaks. Not sure about latest versions though.

          It's a lot better than the old days (probably partly thanks to ubuntu), I haven't had to struggle with ndiswrapper for at least five years.

          Some random notes:
          -It usually picks up wifi chip out of the box, but I've had to compile a module or install a .deb a few times over the last couple of years.
          -I've had weird issues with a lot of the budget chinese wifi dongles using realtek chipsets. they work perfectly for days, and then just freeze up until you unplug/replug them. Haven't tested them for a year or so so it may be fixed.
          -I mostly use second hand hardware so it's pretty well supported by the time I get it. YMMV if you're throwing it on a brand new computer.

          Honestly, if you google the wifi chipset ahead of time you can usually figure out how much effort it'll take and you can boot to a usb/cd install if you want to test more thoroughly.

          (unrelated note: now I've had a look I'm pretty sure my netbook is a rebadged version of the one in the article)

    I've got a little Samsung N150 (very similar specs to the one in the article). I've found that Xubuntu runs a good line between being light on resources and easy to use.

    Linux Mint might run nicer? Mate or Cinnamon edition should do well. I ran it on a single core atom netbook back in the day.

      I haven't used mint but was going to comment about it. I have heard some very good reports of it on eeepc's

        Yes can confirm as have Mint on an old Asus Eepc (700 series). Little sluggish, but hell of a lot more responsive than Windows 7 on it.

      I am chief technician with more than 10 years of experience with Linux. Mint is what I will recommend for anyone most of the time because it works out of the box with minimum setup.
      They also have few varieties to choose from and most of the time, you can find one suitable for your netbook. I recommend Mate or XFCE for Aspire One.

    Try any of the many versions of Puppy linux, it will pretty well surf/edit/play anything you can name. You can install it or run it happily off usb and it only takes about 120Mb (more if you go for the fancier versions).
    http://puppylinux.org/main/Download%20Latest%20Release.htm

      Lucid and Slacko work great on an Acer One!

    I've got an old EeePC that's still in great condition. I used to run Ubuntu Netbook remix (10.04) that really shone on it. I was so bummed that they discontinued it. Since it finally ran out of support, I tried a few lightweight distributions before settling on Xubuntu 14.04 LTS. While it's not quite as snappy as the old netbook remix it's a good compromise while still looking nice. Some of the really lightweight distributions were a little too bare bones for my taste.

    Try Bodhi Linux. It is based on Ubuntu but designed to run fast netbooks and older machines. Use the legacy version with e17 (not 19 which they are phasing out). It is quick and easy to install.

    Try Lubuntu. It works great on old systems.

      Lubuntu works great, and it has a good amount of software one can ad.

    Peppermint OS should run quite well on a netbook. Most applications are web-based so it should run just fine. It's a fork of Linux Mint created by some guys that used to develop for Linux Mint. I wouldn't recommend Mint with Cinnamon as Cinnamon does require a bit of resources. The Mate and XFCE version of Mint should also work fine.

    Try Chromixium, turn it into a Chromebook!

      This is now called Cub Linux. This just works great on the Acer One!

    Five year old ASUS 1015B AMD powered netbook running Ubuntu from the day of its purchase, its running 14.04 today with 2GB or RAM. The netbook was the cheapest then and the AMD CPU is weaker than its Intel Atom equivalent but with slightly better graphics than its counterparts then. Runs daily without any issues.

    We use Linux Lite built on Ubuntu and it is Great on old slow computers and does so much for a light version, we put it on old computers in the shop I work at. We are also taking in old computers and putting Linux Lite on them and giving them to the Schools here in Meridian, Ms. AOTECH Computers and United Way have a program called HTTP; Helpful Technology for Todays Pupils.

    Linux Lite works great for old computers, built on Ubuntu and does so much for a light version. Linux lite 2.4

    You might want to try xubuntu.
    It uses the light weight xfce desktop environment.
    I use it.
    It runs well on old machines.

    I have a netbook with 2 gb ram and atom processor, Xubuntu, Lubuntu I couldn'y get much performance, will give it a try

    Bodhi Linux is by far the lightest Linux distro I have tested on the oldest and slowest computers.

    Besides that, it is super customizable and looks great with the default dark grey theme. You can make it look like any graphical interface you want. You can have docks if you want, panels if you want, task bars, etc. And it comes preinstalled with launch everything or run everything which is a pretty amazing launcher.

    As previously mentioned you want to get the e17 version.

    I'll put money on it that it is faster than any open box based distro out there. I've tested many lightweight distros and Bodhi is by far the best and most usable.

    Woah, for sure wipe the food grease off device before snapping pics of it bro.

    How did you get 1024x768 resolution? I'm stuck at 800x600 with latest CorePlus.

    I have a mutiboot system with the original XP, Lite Linux, Puppy Linux, and now CorePlus for fast web browsing.

    Typing this from a HP mini 210 with an Atom N455, 1gb ddr2 533mhz ram and an intel 20gb ssd, but I used to run a 60gb Hitachi travelstar I got out of a scrap dell d530.
    I'm using LXLE (Lubuntu Xtra Life Extension), an offshoot of Lubuntu, Version 12.04.5 LTS and the only difference after the (ebay) ssd swap is the boot time - somewhere in the region of 20secs, giving that the entire deal has cost me less than £30, including a funky purple carbon vinyl wrapped lid, and a new charger, I'm taking that as a massive win :-]
    Got my mate hooked up with a copy to flatten and fix the Win7 toshiba netbook that he long term lent to his sister and niece, resulting in a virus/trojan/sh*te infested mess upon return.
    It's got an Atom N270, 1gb ram etc... All netbooks are a a pretty standard affairs, and It runs firefox etc. just fine.
    Also today dropped a copy onto a IBM T42 with an early dual core intel, 30gb IDE 4200rpm hard drive and 1gb DDR RAM. This has had a massive improvement, My IBM T60 has seen a 20deg drop in average temps since it's clean slate install, due to not pushing around all the junky rubbish it was before.
    Above all though it's sparked an interest messing with computers and DIY techying, something I didn't know I had, or could do before this winter. Turns out that once you strip away all the BS surrounding a given subject, and call a potato a potato, stuff's not all that hard...

    Here is what happened to me.
    I had an Aspire One Netbook, Atom, upgraded to 2 GB RAM, 160 GB HD.
    I broke the screen.
    I found an older Aspire One Netbook on Ebay, no adapter, no hard drive, Atom, w/ 2 GB RAM, for $25 w/shipping included.
    I took out the 160 GB Hard Drive, and this older netbook uses the same adapter as my newer one.
    I put on Chromixium, (now Cub Linux), Puppy Slacko, Lucid, and Lubuntu. When I go to McDonald's to use it I can choose which one I want to use.
    Most of the time I use Chromixium, or Cub Linux, it is pretty amazing!
    I trying to download EasyPeasy right now to see what it is like.

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