Trans­form a pile of junk and hand-me-down parts into a fully func­tional, mod­ern com­puter. Clive Web­ster shows you how

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The best free al­ter­na­tives to Win­dows, Of­fice, iTunes and more

IF YOU’RE ANY­THING like us – and you must be if you’re read­ing this – you’ve got a stash of spare parts, husks of old com­put­ers and var­i­ous ‘gifts’ of PCs past that friends and rel­a­tives were sure you’d find a use for. It’s time to put all that spare hard­ware to use.

A FRANKEN­STEIN PC needn’t be less than the sum of its parts. With Linux you can get a quick, slick and mod­ern-look­ing PC for no out­lay at all. Just hide the box, be­cause we’re sure it won’t look pretty.

De­pend­ing on how ‘gen­er­ous’ your friends and rel­a­tives have been with the hand-me-downs, and how much of a hoarder you’ve been when up­dat­ing your own equip­ment, you should be able to put to­gether a rea­son­able PC from spare parts. We won’t de­tail specif­i­cally how to put a PC to­gether be­cause we’ve cov­ered that plenty of times be­fore, and your PC will be dif­fer­ent to ours and ev­ery­one else’s.

Some gen­eral rules would be to choose the fastest, new­est processor you’ve got – if it’s still in its moth­er­board with its cooler at­tached, just use that com­bi­na­tion as your foun­da­tion. Then gather all the com­pat­i­ble RAM you can and shove that in (if the sticks don’t fit, they’re not com­pat­i­ble), plug in your fastest spare graph­ics card, then load the Franken-comp with any old disks, drives and ex­pan­sion cards you think might be use­ful. Just re­mem­ber that hard drives have a life ex­pectancy, so don’t do any­thing too crit­i­cal on your cob­bled to­gether PC. We see the Free PC as a muck­ing about box – per­haps for a young­ster – so if it fails, well, it was fun while it lasted.

Be­fore build­ing your Free PC, start down­load­ing your free op­er­at­ing sys­tem on your main PC – the 1.5GB file will take a while to down­load. We’ve de­tailed Linux Mint be­fore (see 341) so we wanted to give an­other flavour of Linux a whirl. That al­most in­evitably means Ubuntu th­ese days, as it’s reli­able and reg­u­larly up­dated with mod­ern fea­tures. Head to and down­load Ubuntu 17.04.

There are other flavours of Ubuntu that are con­fig­ured for spe­cific uses: Myth­buntu is a ded­i­cated PVR sys­tem, Lubuntu is for low-spec (or old) ma­chines, Ubuntu Stu­dio is for me­dia cre­atives (mu­sic, video or im­ages). We tested Ubuntu Budgie be­cause it’s a re­ally clean, stripped-back and el­e­gant flavour. How­ever, it proved un­re­li­able (ap­pli­ca­tions dis­ap­peared from the dock and set­tings changed be­tween restarts), so we’ll stick with plain Ubuntu for the Free PC.


The eas­i­est way to in­stall Ubuntu is to write the down­loaded ISO file to a USB drive with at least 2GB of free space. How­ever, you can’t just copy the down­loaded ISO file to the USB drive as that won’t make it ‘bootable’; in­stead, you have to use a tool such as Win32DiskI­mage (see

Once the ISO is writ­ten to the USB drive, plug it into the Free PC and press the power but­ton. Hope­fully the PC will POST (it will bleep and list its hard­ware) and you can en­ter the PC’s BIOS (by re­peat­edly press­ing Delete on the key­board, or pos­si­bly F2) to make the USB drive the first boot de­vice. This should be straight­for­ward, but as ev­ery BIOS dif­fers you’ll need to search your man­ual or the in­ter­net if you can’t find any set­ting that looks like Boot De­vice, Boot Pri­or­ity or HDD.

Once you’ve set the USB drive as the pri­mary boot de­vice, press F10 to save your changes and re­boot the PC. It should now boot to an Ubuntu screen, ask­ing if you’d like try Ubuntu or just in­stall it. As­sum­ing you’ve checked the disks of the Free PC for im­por­tant files and pho­tos, click In­stall Ubuntu. The in­stall process is sim­ple: down­load up­dates and third-party soft­ware, delete the contents of the hard disks and so on.

Once Ubuntu is in­stalled you’ll see a mes­sage ask­ing you to restart. Don’t pull out the USB drive just yet; click Agree and a fur­ther screen should ad­vise you to re­move the in­stal­la­tion me­dia and press En­ter. If not (as hap­pened to us), wait to make sure the sys­tem has def­i­nitely frozen, then pull out the USB drive and re­boot the PC man­u­ally.

The PC should recog­nise the cor­rect disk to boot from, but if not, you’ll need to re-en­ter the BIOS to set the right disk as the pri­mary boot de­vice. Your first job once Ubuntu has booted is to open Ubuntu Soft­ware (the brief­case with an A) from the Launcher side­bar, open the Up­date tab and click In­stall for the OS up­date. This may take a while.


Ubuntu can be a lit­tle be­wil­der­ing at first, but most things can be changed if you just can’t live with a be­hav­iour or quirk. Let’s first ex­plain the vanilla setup.

Most of Ubuntu’s ba­sic cus­tomi­sa­tion op­tions are ob­vi­ous to tweak. If you like to see the day and date along with the time, right-click the clock Indi­ca­tor and se­lect Time & Date Set­tings. If you want to change your de­fault ap­pli­ca­tions, right-click Sys­tem (the cog, top-right), se­lect About This Com­puter and choose De­fault Ap­pli­ca­tions. Change which ap­pli­ca­tions are locked to Launcher by right-click­ing their icon and tick­ing the Lock/Un­lock op­tion.

Some op­tions are buried a lit­tle deeper. Open Ap­pear­ance (search­ing via the Dash is eas­i­est) and you can re­duce the size of Launcher – we thought 36 was a bet­ter set­ting for our 1,920x1,080 screen. Open the Be­hav­iour tab and you can change a few more quirks. For ex­am­ple, Ubuntu fol­lows OS X’s lead in dock­ing the menu bar of ap­pli­ca­tions

across the top of the screen; it also hides the op­tions. Peo­ple used to work­ing in Win­dows (where menus are al­ways at­tached to their win­dows and never hid­den, so you know ex­actly where to find them) will want to ad­just the two menus’ set­tings.

You might also want to en­able Workspaces. This is Ubuntu-speak for vir­tual desk­tops, some­thing that Linux has had for years and Mi­crosoft only added in Win­dows 10. You can ei­ther use the icon on Launcher or move around the grid of four desk­tops with Ctrl-Alt-Ar­row Key. Vir­tual desk­tops work bet­ter in Linux than in Win­dows 10, help­ing mas­sively to sep­a­rate tasks – for ex­am­ple, if you have a Li­breOf­fice Write doc­u­ment open on Desk­top 1, you can open an­other on Desk­top 2 by mid­dle-click­ing the Write icon on Launcher. Try to do the same in Win­dows 10 and you’re wrenched back to Desk­top 1 and have to move the new doc­u­ment man­u­ally. Even this task is eas­ier in Ubuntu: right-click a win­dow’s menu bar and there are op­tions to move the win­dow to an­other desk­top.


Like most Linux OSes, Ubuntu comes pre-loaded with soft­ware for most tasks, mak­ing it easy for you to get on with us­ing your PC. How­ever, the pre-in­stalled apps aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the best, and there are ver­sions of pop­u­lar Win­dows apps that run on Linux as well. Of­fice ap­pli­ca­tions are best left to the pre-in­stalled Li­breOf­fice, but you might want to con­sider the Gnu­meric spread­sheet as an al­ter­na­tive to Li­breOf­fice’s Calc. Mean­while, Oku­lar is a more so­phis­ti­cated PDF viewer (and ed­i­tor) than the stan­dard Doc­u­ment Viewer.

The de­fault web browser is Fire­fox, which is your best bet for com­pat­i­bil­ity. While Opera (in­stalled from rather than Ubuntu Soft­ware) might look cleaner, it has trou­ble with video ser­vices such as Net­flix. Google’s Chrome (in­stalled via

com) can play Net­flix and Ama­zon In­stant Video videos, but doesn’t con­form to the same lay­out as other Ubuntu apps, which can be con­fus­ing. Note that pro­tected video (such as from Net­flix or Ama­zon In­stant Video) will play in SD as Linux lacks HDCP sup­port.

To make Fire­fox look more mod­ern, click the Menu and then Cus­tomise (at the bot­tom of the menu). Use the Com­pact theme, then drag away any items from the tool­bar that look su­per­flu­ous – the sep­a­rate search box and most of the but­tons, for ex­am­ple.


We dis­like the de­fault Thun­der­bird email app – its long menus and finicky op­tions are meant to al­low you to com­pre­hen­sively cus­tomise Thun­der­bird’s ap­pear­ance and be­hav­iour, but the re­sult of 10 min­utes tin­ker­ing still isn’t par­tic­u­larly clean. How­ever, we strug­gled to get any other Linux email client to even work with our Gmail ac­count.

Geary Mail is a sim­pler email ap­pli­ca­tion, but re­fused to work with Gmail. Mean­while, the Out­look-ri­val Evo­lu­tion re­quired a few at­tempts and re­boots to fi­nally sync. While Evo­lu­tion has plenty of tools and abil­i­ties – from col­lat­ing mul­ti­ple email ac­counts to news feeds, con­tacts and cal­en­dars – it’s pos­si­bly more vis­ually an­noy­ing than Thun­der­bird. We missed the sim­plic­ity of Mail­bird Lite (see www.get­mail­

Ubuntu comes with a de­cent video player (called mpv Movie Player), but for max­i­mum

If there are Win­dows apps you sim­ply must have, we rec­om­mend in­stalling Win­dows as a vir­tual ma­chine with Vir­tu­alBox

com­pat­i­bil­ity – and min­i­mum fuss – VLC is avail­able in Ubuntu Soft­ware. If you of­ten watch videos housed else­where (on a NAS, for ex­am­ple), the Videos ap­pli­ca­tion is handy. Once in­stalled you can right-click a video file on your NAS and se­lect Open with Videos. Or there’s Kodi for a me­dia-cen­tre-like in­ter­face.

Mu­sic is han­dled by Rhythm­box by de­fault, which is fine be­cause it’s neat, in­tu­itive and sup­ports net­work shares. As the Free PC prob­a­bly isn’t your main PC, it’s point­less to store your mu­sic files on it. In­stead, open Rhythm­box, head to Edit, Pref­er­ences, then open the Mu­sic tab. Find the mu­sic folder of your re­mote PC (or NAS) via the Browse but­ton and click Open. You should see Rhythm­box pop­u­late its iTunes-es­que lists with your mu­sic col­lec­tion; th­ese lists will up­date ev­ery time Rhythm­box starts.

Speak­ing of iTunes, you can’t have it on Linux. There is Wine (which adds a trans­la­tion layer of Win­dows pro­to­cols, al­low­ing you to in­stall Win­dows ap­pli­ca­tions on Linux; Wine is not an em­u­la­tor) but as Shop­per has a gen­eral no-swear­ing pol­icy, we won’t de­tail the lengthy and con­vo­luted process of set­ting up Wine to make Win­dows ap­pli­ca­tions kind of work, mostly, but th­ese im­por­tant bits don’t. Read the com­ments for iTunes at if you don’t be­lieve us.


If there are Win­dows ap­pli­ca­tions that you sim­ply must have ac­cess to, we rec­om­mend in­stalling Win­dows as a vir­tual ma­chine with Vir­tu­alBox (avail­able in Ubuntu Soft­ware). We de­tailed us­ing Vir­tu­alBox in Shop­per 313, and it’s the same on Ubuntu as on Win­dows.

While iTunes will in­stall on a vir­tual ma­chine run­ning Win­dows, the au­dio out­put is poor, with fre­quent and prom­i­nent crack­les. It’s also very tricky to set up iDe­vice sync­ing from the host (Ubuntu) PC to the vir­tual iTunes. Spo­tify is avail­able as a na­tive Linux ap­pli­ca­tion, but you need to in­stall it from www.spo­

There are many games worth look­ing at in Ubuntu Soft­ware, from the def­i­nitely-notMario-Kart Su­perTuxKart to the sus­pi­ciously Worms-like Hedge­wars. Other high­lights in­clude the turn-based strat­egy Bat­tle for Wes­noth and Transport Ty­coon Deluxe re­vamp OpenTTD. More free games can be down­loaded from­

Valve’s re­cent push into Linux gam­ing means you can in­stall Steam on Ubuntu; just use the Steam In­staller in Ubuntu Soft­ware to ac­cess games such as Civil­i­sa­tion 6, Dota 2, Counter Strike: Global Of­fen­sive and oth­ers. also sells high-qual­ity Linux games, such as Waste­land 2, Pil­lars of Eter­nity and Su­perHot. There are im­pres­sive open-source (and there­fore free) games be­yond Steam and The Dark Mod is a Thief-like stealth FPS (www.thedark­, Ry­zom is a sci-fi MMORPG (ry­, while Dun­geon Crawl Stone Soup is a rogue-like fan­tasy ad­ven­ture (­

Ubuntu’s Start menu. Hit the Win­dows key and type to find ap­pli­ca­tions, files and al­most any­thing. Click ‘fil­ter re­sults’ and you can ex­tend the search sources across the in­ter­net, or to spe­cific fold­ers and ap­pli­ca­tions

This is ex­actly like the Task Bar in Win­dows, where fre­quently used ap­pli­ca­tions can be pinned (locked, in Ubuntu par­lance)

Drag files, fold­ers and ap­pli­ca­tions here to make them easy to find, launch and open ⬆ Ubuntu can take a lit­tle get­ting used to, but you’ll soon get to know your way around the OS

Just like the Sys­tem Tray in Win­dows, con­trols and no­ti­fi­ca­tions for vol­ume, Wi-Fi re­cep­tion and so on are grouped here

Holds tools to in­spect and main­tain the PC, as well as lo­gout and shut­down op­tions. To restart your PC, se­lect Shut Down and then Restart Dash Indi­ca­tor Menu Sys­tem Launcher Desk­top

⬆ ➡ Take a couple of min­utes to tweak Fire­fox’s look

⬆ If you sim­ply must use Win­dows-only soft­ware on Linux, Vir­tu­alBox is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est op­tion

⬆ As well as free open-source games, Steam and both pro­vide high-qual­ity, paid-for games

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