How I turned one very old laptop into “astronomy field machine”

I got one very old laptop, I think that it was bought sometime in 2005 as a new machine. The problem with this laptop was that the operating system there was not usable anymore. It was pretty old and unsupported, so nothing worked on that. And my question was, how to make this laptop be useful at least for anything?

My idea was to use this laptop at least for playing some DVD movies because I have a lot of them. Of course, I have also a normal DVD player, but to have a way how to play some movies when you are outside with no need to use my “new” machine (okay, my current laptop is also 10 years old, I have had it since Curiosity landed on Mars, so it has been 10 years this month!).

If you are curious about the hardware of the old laptop, here you are. Make: HP Compaq nx9020; 717 MB DDR SDRAM; 40 GB HDD; Intel Celeron 1,3 GHz.

So, the first thing was to search the web for ideas. My plan was to install some kind of Linux distribution. I have a lot of experience with Linux Ubuntu, but the last time when I was working with this system was also maybe 10 years ago. After searching the web, with many ideas, I returned back to the old Ubuntu 6 installation CD that I still have. The reason is a little bit funny – you know Linux users – everyone prefers their “best” distribution, so no chance at all to get some serious advice 🙂

But no problem. The installation of the Ubuntu was pretty smooth (like it always was). The last reboot and yeah, the new Ubuntu loaded perfectly. And then my problem started. I was so happy that it works, that I even did not realize that the system may be running smoothly, but the update repositories for the software will not work anymore and also that the web browsers will not work anymore. Web browsers are very specific kinds of software. These need to be always up-to-date, because of the security you need when entering the world of the Internet. The web browser is simply your gateway to the virtual world out there, so you need the last edition to be able to understand the security encryptions and the SSL certificates, websites’ code encryption, source codes of the websites, etc. And the old web browser in the old Ubuntu was 16 years old. So no way 🙂

I was slowly getting disappointed, but then I came to one solution. I remembered, that Ubuntu was using a list of the servers/repositories, from where it was getting the updates for the core of the system and for the applications/software that was installed in it. Of course, the repositories did not work, because the paths to them were already different (these were changed by the Ubuntu developers some time ago). I spent some time searching the advice on the web and again – so many people, many different opinions, etc. Then I was lucky and I got the solution.

How to install software or upgrade from an old unsupported release of Ubuntu?

Important thing is to have the laptop connected to the Internet. The best and the easiest way on the old machine is with the classic LAN cable (ETHERNET) directly to the router or LAN socket.

When you are connected, then you need to run this in the Terminal of Ubuntu:

1. First you need t log in as “root” (administrator in Linux/Unix systems), so type this

sudo -s

2. The system will ask you for your password. This is the password you use to log in to your account in the installed Ubuntu. When you will type the password, then just press ENTER (or RETURN, this depends on your keyboard).

3. Next step is to enter this string:

sudo sed -i -re 's/([a-z]{2}\.)?archive.ubuntu.com|security.ubuntu.com/old-releases.ubuntu.com/g' /etc/apt/sources.list

4. Then just press ENTER (or RETURN) again and wait.

5. When done, then you will need to enter this code to tell Ubuntu to get updates:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

6. The system will update itself – but of course not to the latest release of the Ubuntu, but to the stable release that will work with your old machine.

My old laptop was then able to connect to all software repositories. I was able to install also the astronomy software for my telescope’s camera that I use for some planetary astronomy.

Also, I was able to install some astronomy analysis software. So I did not expect that my old laptop will turn itself into a “field computer” or as I call it now “astronomy expedition computer”. When compared to current laptops, this old machine is robust, I mean the old plastic hardware. So I am not so afraid when taking it outside at night.

And what about the initial idea to use this old machine for playing the movies from the DVDs? Yes, no problem at all, everything works fine now.

There is just one thing that I still want to solve. The old laptop does not have WiFi, so I want to install the external “USB plug-in WiFi modem”. This is quite tricky because the modem I bought is quite new (made sometime in 2020), so I still do not have a solution on how to run this on the 16 years old Ubuntu machine. If you have any ideas, I would be thankful if you will share them in the comments below.

~Jozef

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