Friday, September 10, 2010

Computer Brain Transplant with Linux

Last April I became a volunteer at Free Geek in Portland, Oregon by signing up for their Build program. In a series of four-hour shifts, volunteers go through several stages: Hardware Identification (which is only 2 1/2 hours), System Evaluation, and Build.

Hardware ID is pretty simple and teaches volunteers to recognize various computer parts, especially memory. In System Evaluation, volunteers pick newly-donated computers from a stack, then, following a series of flow charts, check out whether the computer will be sent to recycling or whether it will be saved to be refurbished. The refurbished computers then are either donated to schools and/or non-profits, sold in the Free Geek Thrift Store, or given to volunteers in either the Adoption or Build programs.

In the Build program, volunteers assemble five computers and get to build a sixth computer which they can keep. Building isn't all that complicated. It's not like starting from scratch because one starts with a computer that has no hard drive or memory and which may not have the right CD/DVD drive. Builders just follow a series of steps to add memory, add a drive, swap the CD/DVD if necessary, and test things along the way. The work gets checked out at the end by one of the staff assistants. Later, another volunteer does a quality control check on computers built by another volunteer. Quality control actually a volunteers first task in the Build area, and after QC'ing a few systems, the volunteer then moves on to build machines.

Soon after I started volunteering, I took advantage of the volunteer discount in the Thrift Store to get a system. Of course, it's several years old, so it's hardly cutting edge, but I was getting concerned that my refurbished HP machine I'd bought from Frys about five years ago could start having problems. The one I bought from the Thrift Store was about on the same level as the HP although it had a bigger drive - 300 GB instead of 160 GB - and more memory - 2 GB instead of the 1.5 GB (about the only thing I'd done with the HP was to upgrade memory from 512 MB).

Last Thursday was the day I built my take-home computer. I went into the warehouse part of Free Geek and looked around for a computer in the Freek Box area. I found an HP Pavilion a1473w Mediacenter machine, which was introduced by HP about 16 months after the one I'd gotten from Frys. Specifications only allowed me to install 512 MB of memory and the hard drive was limited to 80 GB, but it was a SATA drive. I should've gone to the Thrift Store to get 2 GB of memory and test it, but it was late in the shift and I had an errand to run afterward. But I did get signed off on the machine and took it home.

I got more memory the next day, but they didn't have two maching 1 GB sticks. When I put them in, the new-to-me machine would only recognize one of them no matter what combination I tried. Both sticks worked, just not together.

The next thing I tried was installing an ATI video card with outputs for DVI and HDMI that I'd gotten for the older machine but which hadn't worked. But it did work in the new machine and I hooked it up to my monitor using DVI. It was very nice to finally get use out of the video card.

All the hard drives installed in the Build program already have Linux installed on them. Free Geek is now using Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx, a distribution that will be supported for three years from April 2010. Nothing special has to be done when a hard drive with Linux already on it is put in a machine. Just install it, plug it in, turn on the machine and it'll boot into Linux. It's very simple. If it were Windows, it would be another matter. Windows checks hardware and if it's not the original motherboard that particular copy of the Windows OS was installed on, it won't work without going through some complicated software fixes and even then it could still fail.

I got to thinking it would be better if my already set up Linux Mint 9 Isadora I'd put in the machine I'd bought in April was in the newer machine I'd built. I also thought it would be worth a try to see if the memory sticks from the older one would work in the newer one. If that were the case, I'd have the best components combined into one machine.

First I swapped the memory. The two matched sticks from the older machine worked just fine in the newer machine. When I put the sticks I'd bought last week into the older machine, I was pleasantly surprised to see that machine recognized both sticks, so I have 2 GB in each machine, the maximum I can put in them.

Next I swapped the hard drives. Fortunately both machines have SATA hard drives. The switch was simple. The newer machine booted up off the 300 GB drive and the only difference I noticed was the Linux Mint boot screen only shows the five dots that change from white to green as the system loads. The dots are bigger than they were before and I don't see the Linux Mint logo. That concerned me the first time, but the boot was successful and everything else looks and works fine.

One thing I haven't done yet is swap the CD/DVD drives. The machine I bought in April has a drive that will write both CDs and DVDs. The one I built could only have one that will read and write CDs and only read DVDs. I expect zero problems with the swap.

I've really gotten to like Linux since first putting it on the older HP machine last October. That machine can be booted into either Linux or Windows XP. Everything else is Linux. Linux is not only free, it's a lot easier to deal with when moving components around.

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