BUILD A BOMB-PROOF PC
JONATHAN PARKYN EXPLAINS HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SAFE, SIMPLE COMPUTER FOR OLDER (OR YOUNGER) RELATIVES… WITHOUT TURNING YOURSELF INTO THEIR PRIVATE TECH SUPPORT TEAM
How to put together a safe, simple computer for older (or younger) relatives… without turning yourself into their private tech support team
Being the tech-savvy one in the family is a double-edged sword. It’s great to help elderly parents and other relatives, but once they know you’re willing to help them with their computer problems, you’re always on call. And, when ransomware or some other disaster strikes, it’s inevitably you they’ll turn to – not Microsoft nor their PC manufacturer’s actual tech support team – for assistance. With the best will in the world, it can be pretty annoying to find yourself reduced to the role of a helpdesk operator. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could prevent their computer from having any such problems in the first place?
Well, one solution would be to tackle the source of many problems: Windows itself. As much as we love Windows, it’s intrinsically prone to precisely the sort of problems – viruses, slowdowns, update issues and Blue Screens of Death – that you’ll be called upon to resolve. Installing security software often isn’t enough, either. Luckily, we have some alternative ways to make a PC easy to use, reliable and, above all, safe.
THE LINUX METHOD
Swapping out Windows for a Linux install – or running it side by side with Windows in a dual-boot configuration (see overleaf) – has several important advantages, depending on which distro you opt for.
There’s no shortage of choice in this regard and your decision is likely to be governed by your preferences, as well as the requirements and/or skill level of the person you’re building the PC for. We recommend Linux Mint, which, in recent years, has defined itself as one of the best distros for anyone switching from Windows.
There are four variations of Linux Mint available from linuxmint.com at the moment – Cinnamon, MATE, Xfce and KDE – each with a slightly different desktop environment. For older users who are familiar with Windows, Cinnamon is the best bet. It’s straightforward, clean and modern looking.
32-bit versions of all the desktop environments are available as well as 64-bit varieties. In addition, the distro’s lightweight system demands and support for a wide range of hardware means that Linux Mint works just as well on older systems as it does new ones. As such, it’s a great way to keep an older machine going when the PC’s original OS – XP or Vista, for example – is no longer supported and vulnerable to infection.
As well as looking and working a lot like Windows, Linux Mint comes pre-installed with many of the tools most users will need, including media players, email and LibreOffice, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has used Microsoft Office. There are hundreds of other software packages to install, too – including Skype, Spotify and other popular applications – which are all available for free via Linux Mint’s spanking new Software Manager.
The chief benefit of Linux Mint is that it’s secure. Password-protected root access prevents systemlevel files from being tampered with, and malware is virtually nonexistent. That’s not to say that Linux malware is completely The Cinnamon flavour of Linux Mint is ideal for users who are used to the Windows interface
You can convert a laptop into a Chromebook- like device via the CloudReady Home Edition software
unheard of. Earlier this year, a malicious package was discovered in the Ubuntu Snap app store – a cryptocurrency miner called 2048buntu, disguised as a game. Malware is still so rare, though, that you could get away with not installing any security software. For those who prefer to err on the side of caution, though, there are free antivirus (such as ClamAV) and firewall tools (such as Gufw) that can be put in place for a beltand-braces approach.
The main disadvantage of going the Linux route is that, no matter how similar distros such as Linux Mint may seem to Windows, it will inevitably take many users a while to get used to how certain things work, so you could potentially end up receiving more “support” calls in the short term.
TURN A PC INTO A CHROMEBOOK… SORT OF
Chromebooks make for a great alternative to a Windows system, particularly for those who need little more than a web browser and email. Chromebooks are usually lightweight, fast and very straightforward to use, thanks to Google’s Chrome OS operating system; this works more like a
“CHROMEBOOKS ARE FAR LESS SUSCEPTIBLE TO ATTACKS THAN WINDOWS PCS”
web browser running apps than a fullblown OS.
Just like Linux, Chromebooks are less susceptible to malicious attacks than Windows PCs. This is partly due to the fact that the Linux-based OS is much less of a target for hackers and malware writers than Windows, but also because Chromebooks come with advanced security features baked in – namely a custom rmware chip, which uses a process called Veri ed Boot to prevent malware from modifying system code. In addition, a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) generates tamper-proof encryption keys.
Their portability, relative simplicity and low cost make them ideal for students and younger users, but Chromebooks are also well suited to older users and anyone who doesn’t want the hassle of wonky Windows updates and compatibility issues. The trouble is that even the cheapest Chromebooks – such as the Asus C202 – will still set you back around $390.
However, there is a free way of converting an existing PC into a Chromebooklike device: by installing Neverware’s CloudReady Home Edition (neverware.com/ freedownload), which is essentially a version of the open-source Chromium OS that underpins Chrome OS. Load the CloudReady installer onto a USB ash drive, plug it into the PC you want to install it on, then reboot and follow the steps.
Before you sign up your entire family, there are some caveats to consider. Firstly, unless the PC concerned is on Neverware’s list of certi ed models (https://guide.neverware. com/supported-devices/), compatibility isn’t guaranteed. Uncerti ed PCs may still work, but “may have unstable behaviour, and our support team cannot assist you with troubleshooting,” according to the tool’s installation page. That said, we’ve got it working on several non-certi ed machines without any deal-breaking bugs.
Many non-of cially sanctioned PCs also lack the TPM hardware needed to capitalise on the operating system’s encryption features, and Veri ed Boot isn’t supported under CloudReady at all. Updates won’t necessarily come as thick and fast as they might on a real
Chromebook, either – CloudReady users can expect to receive patches and security xes four to ten weeks after they’re released for Chrome OS. It’s also worth noting that many central features of Chrome OS are missing or work differently under CloudReady – even basic functions, such as sharing les from within apps and geolocation in Google Maps, don’t work.
Those quali cations aside, CloudReady offers much of what many older and younger users will need, without the risk of installing a dubious EXE le, encrypting a hard disk with ransomware or spending six hours rebuilding a PC because of a borked Windows Update. And it will look instantly familiar to anyone used to running Chrome on a PC.
RUN WINDOWS 10 IN S MODE
Windows 10 S used to be an entirely separate edition of the operating system, but since the April 2018 Windows Update (see issue 286, p52), it has been of cially recategorised as a “mode”. Some consider Windows 10 S mode a direct competitor to Google’s Chrome OS, by locking down the OS to make it more secure and streamlined. In S mode, users aren’t able to install or run Win32 desktop applications – only Windows Store apps can be used. Other functions are either disabled (including command line controls) or restricted – the only default web browser allowed is Edge, for example.
This may sound limiting, but it theoretically makes the OS a much safer environment. For instance, Windows Store apps are vetted by Microsoft and aren’t
“THE S MODE WOULD BE A LESS RISKY OPTION THAN FULLFAT WINDOWS 10 FOR LOYAL USERS”
allowed access to system folders in the way that desktop programs are. Performance should be improved too, since apps don’t slip themselves into startup routines.
Windows 10 in S mode doesn’t eradicate the need for security software altogether, though, and users will need to rely on the OS’s built-in Windows Defender program, since there are currently no third-party antivirus tools that support the mode. Even so, S mode would be a less risky option than full-fat Windows 10 for loyal, older users who are reluctant to leave behind the familiar Windows environment.
But there’s a problem. Currently, Windows 10 in S mode is only of cially available on a handful of devices, including Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop. You can “test” S mode by downloading the Education preview installer from tinyurl.com/yb2m7lso, but there are numerous stumbling blocks to contend with. Driver support is limited, for example, so there’s a chance some of your devices may not actually function once S mode has been installed. Moreover, the S mode installation can only be activated if your existing device is running Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Pro Education or Windows 10 Enterprise. If the PC concerned is running Windows 10 Home, you’re out of luck.
In a recent blog post (tinyurl.com/ yc gdeo), Microsoft’s Joe Bel ore con rmed that further changes to S mode are inbound: “Starting with the next update to Windows 10, coming soon, customers can choose to buy a new Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro PC with S mode enabled.” This may be worth future investigation.
DUAL-BOOTING AND VIRTUALISATION
One of the biggest barriers to building a non-Windows box for older relatives is compatibility. Not only do they have to get used to an entirely new operating system, but they also have to learn how to use all of the programs and tools that replace the ones they’ve been using for years on their Windows PC. In some cases, you’ll nd like-for-like replacements; LibreOf ce and Gimp are virtually identical whether you’re using them on Windows or Linux, for example. But there may be Windows-only applications that your users just won’t be able to do without.
One option here would be to create a dual-boot con guration, so that the PC started in a safe OS by default, but could also be booted to Windows, should the user ever need to access a speci c application. Linux Mint supports dual booting and, assuming Windows is already installed, it’s pretty easy to achieve; just select the “Install
Linux alongside Windows” option when installing the OS. Sadly, dual boot support is being phased out of CloudReady and is no longer available for fresh installs – see tinyurl.com/y9qzca8x for more.
Linux users get another option for running old Windows applications: virtualisation. Wine (winehq.org) has been allowing users to run Windows programs under Linux for years, but support is far from universal. A further possibility would be to run an entire virtualised instance of Windows under a Linux host – virtualbox. org would be your best bet for that. You could even sandbox the Windows VM by disabling networking, thereby effectively eliminating security risks. The only real drawback with this is that you’d need a full copy of Windows and valid licence to activate it.
“YOU CAN RUN A VIRTUALISED INSTANCE OF WINDOWS UNDER A LINUX HOST”
TOP: The Surface Laptop comes ready equipped with Windows 10 S ABOVE: Try out Windows 10 S mode by downloading the Education preview installer
Linux Mint supports dual booting and makes it easy to set up