Over the past couple of years I have made about 70 free computers and phones available to refugees. When people in my community replace their old laptops, desktops, and phones, the give the old ones to me. I make sure all of their personal data and information is wiped away, and then I rehabilitate them.
The computers are usually more than five years old and were designed for Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8. Their owners regard them as slow and outdated. But the popular Linux Mint operating system does not need the robust computing power that Windows 10 or Windows 11 require. Mint works well with these older computers. It also works with most older Macbooks and iMacs.
Mint is free. To install it you must first download the free Rufus program that allows you to make a bootable thumb drive. Next, you visit the Mint website and download the latest ISO image. With an 8GB or larger thumb drive in a USB slot on your computer, run the Rufus program and paste the filename of the ISO image in the Rufus setup form. When you run the Rufus program, the thumbdrive becomes a working copy of Linux Mint with the capability of installing itself on the internal hard disk of the computer. I won’t provide detailed instructions here because they are abundantly available with a Google search.
To start Linux from the thumb drive, you must usually change where the computer looks to find its bootable device. Normally it boots from the internal disk drive. But you can change this to the CD drive or the thumb drive that you have created to install Mint.
When a PC computer is first powered on, you will usually see a brief message that says, “Press F2 to enter BIOS menu.” If you repeatedly tap the F2 key while the computer is starting, a special menu will appear, and one of the items will allow you the “change the boot order.” You want your new USB drive to be first in the list. Typically your mouse won’t work for these menus and you will need to use the keyboard arrow keys and enter key to navigate instead of pointing and clicking.
There is no standard key to press to enter BIOS. Most computers use F2, others may use Esc, or Enter, or F10, F12, or Delete. If you don’t see the brief message that tells you what to do, simply power the computer down and reboot trying each of the above keys, one at a time, until one works. Note that “F2” and other function keys may require holding the function key (Fn) while you strike the key labeled “F2.”
On Mac computers, you plug in your Mint thumb drive while the computer is shut down (off) and hold down the “option” key while you turn on the power. When you hear the chime, you can release the option key. It may take 90 seconds or more, but eventually you will see a selection of devices to boot from. Your thumb drive will usually be the one on the far right. When you click that, the installation will begin. THE INSTALLATION OF MINT WILL WIPE OUT THE ORIGINAL APPLE OS AND ALL OF THE APPS AND FILES ON THE COMPUTER. So don’t try this on a computer you might want to restore to its original state.
Once you succeed in booting from the USB thumb drive, the screen will alternate between the Mint logo, black, black with a cursor, and occasionally rapidly scrolling text. This start-up can take 90 seconds or more depending on the processor. Then the Mint home screen appears with apps and menus at the bottom. You can experiment with Mint using the thumb drive. Be sure to connect to the internet.
If the computer performs OK, choose the install icon and follow the instructions on the screen. Don’t remove the thumb drive until told to do so.
When the files are all copied and the installation is complete, you will be asked to reboot the computer. During the reboot process, you will be asked to remove the “installation media” meaning the thumb drive.
Once the computer restarts, it will be running Linux Mint. The computer will automatically check online for updates and you can proceed to install them as needed. Mint comes with the Firefox web browser, and Libre Office suite which in similar to Microsoft’s Office suite. In addition, the “Software Manager” app will allow you to choose from among about 10,000 additional games and programs, all of the free for the asking. I like to install the Linux version of Chrome and take advantage of Google’s online apps.
The volunteer developers of all of these programs provide updates from time to time. Unlike the Microsoft and Apple operating systems, these updates are not likely to make your hardware bog down. Typically the version of Mint you first install will continue to be supported for five years. Chances are, you will be offered new improved versions as they are developed, all for free.
Thus, for the time and trouble of downloading the software and creating an installation thumb drive, you will give that old computer a new lease on life.
If you want to know more about Mint, do a Google search and watch one of the many video tutorials.
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If you rehabilitate many old computers as I do, I recommend that you purchase a copy of Active@ Boot Disk. For $125 you get a set of invaluable tools for working on old computers with no working hard drive, or no password. This bundle of utilities on a bootable USB or CD lets you quickly decide if the computer is functioning well enough to rehabilitate it. It also includes a utility that reliably wipes out any confidential personal data on and old hard drive before you install Mint.
Another useful tool is Belarc Advisor. If your old windows computer still runs, Belarc Advisor will give you a detailed description of the computer’s system and the installed devices and software. In many cases it will give the product key that’s necessary to reinstall the old software. If you are replacing an old computer and want to salvage your software and install it on a new computer, having the product keys may save you buying the software twice. Belarc usually finds and lists keys for Microsoft products, Adobe products as well an many others. You may be able to download the installation packages for your legacy programs without paying anything extra. The installation process requires a valid key–the key that you recovered with Belarc.
If you want to keep an image of an old computer’s original hard disk, one that you can mount on a new computer to browse and perhaps copy files, get Macrium Reflect. It’s a solid, easy to use backup program that creates images of your disks. These can be “mounted” as virtual drives on another computer after you have wiped the original disk. You don’t have to worry about losing important financial records or forgetting to retrieve old photos if you have archived a backup image before your rehabilitate your old computer with Mint. Just keep in mind, Mint is Linux, not Windows. Although you can use a Windows emulator like Wine with Mint and run many Windows programs, I have never tried it with MacriumReflect. You will probably need a Windows computer to access your MacriumReflect image of your old computer.