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I’ve been trying to figure out a good & cheap computer solution for my kids’ remote learning. My requirements include:

  • Learning web app compatibility (e.g. Chrome/Firefox)
  • Webcam
  • Microphone

That’s about it! Since I have a handful of Raspberry Pis in my house, I decided to start there. First I tried a Raspberry Pi 4, and it worked pretty well, actually, but it was dreadfully slow. Just for fun, I tried the my Google AIY Vision Kit with a Raspberry Pi Zero W in it – no surprise there that it was even slower! So I pondered for a while…

Google AIY Vision Kit with Raspberry Pi Zero W inside

Then I was walking my neighborhood about a week ago and came across an older but clean-looking E-Machines computer complete with a 3.5″ floppy drive and cd-rom just sitting in a “Free” pile! Yes!!! To my pleasant surprise, there was even a 3.5″ disk in the drive! Freaking awesome! FYI: E-Machines was discontinued 7 years ago, but I have no idea how old this computer is.

A vintage e-machines computer (not the actual photo of the one I’m using)

Upon getting it home, I knew I would need a couple of things to test it out:

  • A 3-prong power cable, which I had in my attic treasure trove.
  • A VGI-to-HDMI adapter, which I purchased from Amazon.

After a week of waiting for the VGI-to-HDMI adapter to arrive, I was finally able to fire up the old E-Machines computer. And to my delight, it actually booted up! Unfortunately, it booted to a Windows 7 login screen. After hours of trying to hack my way around the Windows login, I sat sad with the knowledge that I couldn’t break Microsoft’s security protocols and pleased that I couldn’t break Microsoft’s security protocols (good job, Microsoft!).

Then I googled for about an hour and discovered I could, just maybe, boot this old Windows 7 machine as a Linux Ubuntu machine from a USB stick! I learned a ton in the process:

  • In order to boot from a USB stick, you need to change the boot order of the Windows machine, because it normally doesn’t look at the USBs when booting. But, of course, it isn’t that easy, because even getting into the Windows-machine’s diagnostics tool was a pain – I had to reboot about 10 times to figure out, through trial-and-error, that the “esc” key is the one that gets us into diagnostics on this particular machine (turns out every manufacturer chooses a different diagnostics shortcut key – agh technology).
  • You can actually run Ubuntu from a USB stick! This is insane!
  • But also (and better in my case), you can also install Ubuntu from the thumb drive usb stick, which I did, overwriting whatever else was on that old Windows machine, including Windows, itself.

So now I have a Linux Ubuntu machine running in my basement. And it’s way faster at surfing the web than my Raspberry Pi 4 – mission accomplished! …kindof. I still need to figure out a microphone and webcam solution. The E-Machines computer has a bunch of USB ports, so, in theory, this won’t be a problem, but I so far haven’t been able to get my 15+-year-old webcam to work (even though I was able to get it working on my Raspberry Pis!). And the only working usb microphones I have are big podcast- and pro-grade things, too big and bulky for this use case.

My First Impressions of Ubuntu

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Ubuntu. But after 24 hours or so, I gotta say – I LOVE IT!

Out-of-the-Box Ubuntu Desktop

Let’s take a step back here for the N00Bs (like me) in the room. Ubuntu is a derivative of Linux, which is:

Some of the many flavors of Linux!

So at a high level, if you’ve got an old computer sitting around and a handful of hours, I can’t think of a better way to invest that time & energy – just go for it! Let me know if you have questions or ideas to improve this article.

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