Upcycle Your Old PC With Free Raspberry Pi Software

Don’t throw away that computer that’s too old to run Windows

The Raspberry Pi desktop — image by author

I hate throwing things away — especially if they still work. There are ways to dispose of old technology in an environmentally friendly way, but giving it a new lease on life is more fun.

Chances are that you have at least one old laptop or PC lying around, unused, in a cupboard or drawer. Maybe they used to run Windows Vista or even XP, and they don’t have the oomph for a modern operating system like Windows 10 or Unbuntu. They probably even struggle with running the original software they came packaged with.

So why don’t we fix them up to be useful machines again?

The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer that’s aimed at beginners. It’s a great little device and costs only a few dollars. In 2017 The Raspberry Pi Foundation started producing “desktop” versions of the Raspberry Pi operating system for PCs and Macs. The latest version (at the time of writing) came out in early 2021.

The Raspberry Pi OS is a proper operating system based on Debian Linux, and it’s easy to use. Because the actual Raspberry Pi started as a simple, low-powered machine, its operating system was built to run on simple, low-powered hardware — just the sort of hardware that formerly ran the old versions of Windows.

Running the Raspberry Pi OS on your laptop won’t turn it into an actual Raspberry Pi. The hardware is totally different. But it is pretty close as far as the software environment is concerned.

Most of the Pi apps are on the PC version, but a few apps like Minecraft and Wolfram Mathematica are missing for licensing reasons. If you can’t live without these, buy a Pi!

Out of the box, you get the Chromium browser, a capable office suite (LibreOffice), and the VLC media player for audio and video. You can program in Python, Scratch, and Java and play some games.

Running apps in the Raspberry Pi desktop — image by author

Since this is Linux, you can easily install lots of other software — often for free. For example, the image below shows the free Kodi Media player software that lets you organize and play your videos, music, podcasts, and other digital media from your computer or the internet.

Kodi — image by author

How to install the Raspberry Pi OS on a laptop or PC

Raspberry Pi OS installation is straightforward if a little tedious — there is a fair amount of waiting for the software to do its stuff. First, you need to download the ISO file, which contains all of the software, then you “burn” this onto a USB drive or a DVD. Finally, you use the USB drive or DVD to install the OS on your target machine.

Burning a DVD is simple (if you have a DVD drive!). Just right-click on the ISO file in the file manager, and it should give you a “burn” option. If using a USB drive is more convenient, you will need to download a utility to do the “burning” — the Raspberry Pi people recommend using a USB stick and suggest Etcher as a suitable tool.

You’ll find the full instructions on downloading everything and installing the software at Raspberry Pi.

It seems to run on anything!

I’ve run the OS on a variety of very limited hardware. Here’s a picture of my ancient Toshiba Portégé laptop that used to be an XP machine, must be at least 15 years old, and has only one gig of memory. It runs fine (the picture is of an older version of the OS). Although because the hardware is so old, it did take a bit of tweaking to get it going.

A stone-age laptop running Raspberry Pi desktop — image by author

It was much easier to install the OS on a Compaq Presario that has also seen better days (it originally came with Windows Vista). That one has a couple of gigs of memory, and installation was a breeze.

What are you going to use it for?

It’s just a computer so you can do whatever you like with it — browse the internet, play music, learn to program, write a novel (why not!).

You probably would not want to use an old laptop for heavy-duty jobs like video editing or for manipulating spreadsheets with vast amounts of data. And while programming in Python is easy with the built-in software, like Thonny, you probably would be best to avoid the all-singing, all-dancing IDEs that professionals use.

An old device running the Pi OS would also be ideal for a dedicated machine for the kitchen where you can read recipes or watch celebrity chefs on YouTube. (Hint: Cover the keyboard with a piece of cling film in case of spillages — but don’t block any ventilation holes. You want to cook your food, not the computer.)

Or add a pair of Bluetooth speakers and use VLC or Kodi software to create a stand-alone hi-fi system.

Or give to your kids to learn how to program with Scratch.

Nothing lasts forever, and you are going to end up sending your old kit to the recycling center at some point. But isn’t it a waste to do that when a small amount of effort (and no financial outlay) will transform it into a useful machine?

Technology, science and programming. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://technofile.substack.com/ . Web page: https://alanjones.pythonanywhere.com/

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