This week I helped a friend make the jump from Windows Vista to Ubuntu Linux. She had been battling one issue after another on her 5-year-old Gateway notebook computer since nearly the day she got it. Despite the problems the machine was generally in good shape. It had 2 GB of RAM and a dual core Intel CPU running at 1.6 GHz so it should have been enough to meet her needs of e-mail, web surfing, photos and document editing. As near a I could discern the biggest problem with the machine was that it simply wasn’t powerful enough to run the Windows Vista OS that came with it when she bought it. Since she wasn’t ready to plunk down for a whole new computer she expressed interest in having me help her make the switch to Linux.

My first step was to clone the existing internal drive to an external USB hard drive using PartedMagic. After that I checked the SMART data on the internal 160 GB Western Digital Scorpio hard drive and saw that it was having some sector problems. This is not unusual on an older drive but also a sign that it’s time to start thinking of a replacement. I recommended that she replace it with a new drive before installing Linux. Because she did not have a tremendous amount of data I recommended that she consider switching to a SSD (Solid State Drive) instead of a traditional but much cheaper mechanical drive. I had recently had good success with an Intel 510 Series SSD as a boot / OS drive in a GPU workstation and I thought the added speed of the SSD would make the system substantially more responsive. Since her machine didn’t have the latest 6 GB/s SATA controller I ordered a 120 GB Intel 320 Series drive from Amazon and saved nearly $100 as compared to the 510 series drive.

After installing the Intel SSD in the machine I proceeded to install Ubuntu 10.04.3 (also known as Lucid Lynx) from a USB flash drive. My friend is concerned about security so I took the time to configure full disk encryption. After installing the base system and a few commonly used additional packages I migrated her data from the cloned drive to her home directory on  the SSD.  In earlier work I had done for this friend I had installed Thunderbird, Firefox and Open Office under Vista. This made it a very simple matter to migrate her files to Linux. It was smooth sailing all the way; even the dual band 801.11abg wireless card worked straight out of the box.

And now for the good part…

With Lucid Lynx and an Intel 320 SSD the 5-year-old Gateway notebook just screams! Boot time measured between entering the disk passphrase and getting a login prompt was about 9 seconds. The desktop and WiFi connection are fully operational about 4 seconds after keying in the user password! Applications like Firefox and Thunderbird start almost instantly. This clearly dispels the notion that Full Disk Encryption is too much overhead for most machines.

Needless to say, my friend could hardly believe her eyes. With Vista and her old hard drive she routinely saw boot times of 5 minutes or more. It was so slow she would go make coffee and sometimes breakfast before the machine even presented a login prompt. Now she barely has time to take a sip of coffee before the machine is fully up and ready to go.

Even though my friend knows little of Linux she’s very excited by what she’s already seen. She left with my Ubuntu Linux Bible in hand so I expect her conversion will stick.

Meanwhile, if you’re running Vista and your computer seems slow you may want to consider that it’s not your hardware that needs replacing.