DON’T PAY FOR SOFTWARE
Transform a pile of junk and hand-me-down parts into a fully functional, modern computer. Clive Webster shows you how
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.
BRING THE PC TO LIFE
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 tinyurl.com/win32di).
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 IS FREE
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.
SOFTWARE IS FREE, TOO
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 www.opera.com rather than Ubuntu Software) might look cleaner, it has trouble with video services such as Netflix. Google’s Chrome (installed via www.google.
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.
THUNDERBIRD ISN’T GO
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.getmailbird.com).
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
www.winehq.org 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.spotify.com.
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 www.playdeb.net.
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. Gog.com 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 gog.com: The Dark Mod is a Thief-like stealth FPS (www.thedarkmod.com), Ryzom is a sci-fi MMORPG (ryzom.com), while Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is a rogue-like fantasy adventure (crawl.develz.org).
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 gog.com both provide high-quality, paid-for games