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I have a 2001-vintage laptop that is getting so slow my kids won't even use it much anymore. Is there anything I can do that's free or inexpensive to make it more usable for light-duty use (web browsing, checking email, etc.)? Things I've considered are:

  • Reinstalling the OS
  • Reinstalling with some small Linux distro (although I'm a little worried about compatibility with the Linksys wireless PCMCIA card)
  • Adding more memory (if that's even possible; I may have maxed it out already)
  • Getting a larger hard drive (which would certainly help, if could get one cheap)

I'm planning on buying a new machine for the kids, but I hate throwing stuff out if it has any life left in it. Is there anything that will make this a useful piece of hardware, or should I just junk it or donate it? The physical hardware itself (screen, keyboard, etc.) is in good shape, apart from the fact that the battery won't hold a charge anymore so it always needs to be plugged in.

Here are more or less the full specs:

  • Dell Inspiron 2500 laptop
  • Intel Celeron processor, 900 MHz
  • 10 GB (!) hard drive
  • 512 MB RAM
  • CD (not DVD) reader/writer
  • Running Windows XP SP3
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1  
Hard drives are pretty cheap these days. An upgrade (even to say, 40 or 60 GB) would be in order if the motherboard would support it (which I hope it would - it might have a problem with stuff over 137 GB being so old, but hopefully under that should work fine). Also, if you go Linux, I recommend Puppy Linux for being small yet usable. –  Nathaniel Dec 15 '09 at 0:35
    
If you have a copy of Windows 2000 laying around, give it a try. I have a 233MHz PC running W2K that works great for light web browsing –  zildjohn01 Dec 15 '09 at 4:21

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Some ideas:

  • Install a light Linux distro and install Chromium for browsing?
  • An ebook reader?
  • Dedicated MAME machine. Most of those old games will play just fine on those specs
  • Dedicated router with caching DNS and caching web proxy to speed up household web surfing and/or ad blocking (with privoxy)
  • Dedicated skype or IP phone appliance
  • Install Linux, attach an external drive, and have a dedicated video/music streaming machine
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+1 on the mame, show the kids how games used to be in the good ol' days ;) –  user155695 Dec 14 '09 at 22:02
    
Accepting this answer as I installed puppy Linux (a light distro if there ever was one) over the weekend and the speed difference vs. XP is night-and-day. –  Eric Pohl Dec 21 '09 at 14:23

Answering my own question because a followup seemed to be in order. Short answer is I used something from most of the answers given.

First, taking one of the suggested answers, I booted it off of a Puppy Linux live CD. I don't use linux every day, but it didn't take too long before I had the wireless network card working, and I even networked printing going using CUPS. Performance was excellent, at least compared to what it had been previously, so I was all set to turn this machine into my own personal Linux-based netbook (albeit a big, heavy one), and buy a new laptop for the kids.

However, my wife and I have been trying to do a better job of budgeting and saving money lately, and spending $400 or more on a new computer for the kids wasn't something we wanted to do right now. The kids would need a Windows-based computer for games and educational software, so I started to see what I could do back in XP. First, I used Revo Uninstaller to remove as much installed software as I could, particularly system tray apps that use up my already-limited RAM. This freed up enough disk space so that I could defragment the disk using Defraggler.

Things were running much faster now, but the 10 GB disk was still pretty much filled up. I ended up buying a new 80 GB hard drive on eBay for about $50 with shipping, which had the added benefit of being faster (5400 RPM vs. 4200 RPM for the old one). I replaced the hard drive, reinstalled XP, and carefully chose applications to install that were freeware and/or open source, and low resource usage whenever possible (lifehacker.com was a good resource for this). In particular, when installing apps, I tended to disable the options to "notify me when a new version is available," since these tend to be system tray apps that load at startup. The final list of installed apps looks something like this:

  • Firefox + Adblock Plus
  • OpenOffice.org
  • Paint.NET
  • Microsoft Security Essentials (antivirus)
  • Adobe Flash
  • Foxit Reader (PDF reader)
  • Notepad++
  • Defraggler
  • TweakUI
  • TreeSize
  • DropBox
  • KeePass
  • Various kid games and software

This is now a very usable machine, both as a kid computer and for the occasional on-the-go laptop use, or when someone else is on the "main" computer in the house. With a $10 car power cord, it could play movies on long road trips, provided I rip the DVD on a different machine and copy the files to the laptop, as it has no DVD drive). I have to say that I have newfound respect for Windows XP: through three major service packs and hundreds of updates, it is still chugging along after 8+ years. I still may continue to play around with a linux distro on it, although I may try Xubuntu, as I wasn't crazy about the fact that you run as root in Puppy Linux.

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a fresh installation of XP works miracles, especially when nLited and/or tweaked properly.

a Celeron with 1 GB is perfectly capable of running Windows XP (certainly faster than most modern Linux distros which have much higher system requirements than XP) and you have the guaranteee that all your hardware is compatible.

OTH, since the battery is dead, this laptop is rather stationary now. so, here's another thought: the power consumption of this machine would be reasonable enough to use as a home server, e.g. with FreeNAS (IF it supports USB 2.0 to attach external USB HDDs).

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free or inexpensive

Power isn't free, so unless you're wanting a new always-on (email server, web site) or fixed-location (email client, web browser) use for a computer, then it's cheaper to just do that with your newer more powerful per Watt computers.

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IMHO you will be happier if you sold this for what ever you can get at a garage sale or craigslist and just put the money toward the new laptop. A Linux distro will probably make it quite usable for web browsing and email, but kids being kids, they still won't be happy. If you prefer to donate it you can still get that added tax deduction before the year is out.

BTW - The only specs I can find for the 2500 list 512MB as the maximum RAM, so if you have a full GB in it you are already charting you own waters.

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I don't remember for sure - I know I added memory to it years ago, but the details are fuzzy, and I don't have the laptop in front of me right now. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have added more than the max called for. –  Eric Pohl Dec 14 '09 at 22:14
    
Well, actually you can sometimes add more than the max spec'd. Sometimes all the extra ram will work sometimes it won't. I doubled the "max" RAM on an old Compaq laptop (from 32 to 64 MB) before I found out it "couldn't be done". –  hotei Jul 28 '10 at 0:24

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