Linux  Beat
January 28, 2005

Building a Linux System Even Your Grandmother Could Use

by Bleek

I was recently handed the task (thanks, mom) of replacing my grandmother's ancient Macintosh with something she could use to connect to the Internet just to send email.  Some background:  My grandma Helen is 89 years old, is always smiling, has a touch of Alzheimer's, and for the last decade or so, she has been running Macintosh System 7.5 on an old LC II.  To my knowledge, she had only ever used it to type and print some letters using Claris Works.  She has never sent an email, she has never typed an instant message, she has never even been online in her entire life.

So I had a pretty big task ahead of me.  I had to set my grandmother up with something that was low cost (mom said to keep it under $700), had all the features Grandma needed, and most importantly, was easier for her to use than Macintosh System 7.5.

This is the SC750 full tower case I used to build my grandmother's dual Athlon system.

For the hardware, the rig I set up was a dual Athlon XP 1800+ with three 40 gig 7200RPM hard drives, 1 gig of RAM, and for video I gave her a dual-head ATI Radeon 8500 with 128MB.  That ought to give her enough speed to last a couple years at least.  I also popped in an old DVD ROM drive I wasn't using, and a CD-RW drive that I snarfed out of an old rig at work that they were throwing away.  I got her a set of nice Boston speakers and a 21-inch CRT monitor off e-Bay.  Total cost of hardware, $698.34.

When it came to choosing an OS, I was conflicted.  On the one hand, I really like Mandrake's simplicity and great desktop multimedia system right out of the box.  But I also really like the speed of Gentoo and the dependability of its Portage package management system.  I do feel that Mandrake Linux 9.2 is the best, most complete and stable Linux desktop distro available this week, but a new user is likely to learn more about the underpinnings of Linux by using Gentoo.  Since I couldn't decide which she would like better, I gave her both--I had a ton of hard disk space to work with anyway.

Well, two distros means choosing a good boot loader.  Which would my grandmother like better, Lilo or Grub?  Personally I think Lilo is more straight-forward, but Grub is easier to configure.  Since I wasn't sure if grandma Helen planned on getting under the hood of the boot process at all, I decided to install a boot switcher so she could choose between Lilo or Grub each time.

I installed Gentoo first.  I set her up with three user partitions across each of the three disks, one using ReiserFS, one with the venerable Ext3, and one with SGI XFS in case she gets into downloading movies and large warez.   

Then it came time to choose a window manager.  It's easy to narrow the field of dozens down to just three - KDE, Gnome and XFce.  But choosing a favorite between them is difficult.  KDE is infinitely configurable, looks great and has a ton of neat features, but it's also kind of bloated.  Gnome is lighter, faster, and has fewer configuration options to deal with so new users like it, but it starts to feel somewhat restrictive after awhile.  XFce is the fastest and lightest of the three, but it's not quite as mature yet as Gnome and KDE.  I still wanted to give it a nod, though, since it's headed in the right direction.

I installed all three so that Grandma could decide when she logs on which desktop environment she wants to use during her session.  Sometimes she might want more speed than eye candy, but sometimes she might want to do something in style even if it eats up extra clock cycles.

For email, I set up her up with Evolution and Kmail, because Evolution has a nice look and feel (similar to Outlook), but Kmail is faster and better integrated with the KDE environment. I also set up Mozilla Mail because I'm a big fan of the Mozilla suite of internet applications.  For instant messaging I set up Gaim and Kopete, and for web browsing she has a choice of regular Mozilla, Mozilla Firebird, Konqueror, Nautilus, or Galeon.

She likes to type letters on her computer, so for word processing I gave her OpenOffice, KOffice, AbiWord, Emacs and Vi to choose from.  

This is a screenshot of the KDE 3.1.4 desktop as I configured it for my grandmother's system.

I put Java and Limewire on it so she can start building a music library, and I installed CrossOver so she can run WinMX and Kazaa if she wants to leech some DivX rips.  I set up X-Chat to connect her to my favorite IRC network for warez, and as a courtesy I installed WineX so she can run Windows games if she wants.

I also got MS Office running under CrossOver.  The thought of my grandmother running MS sickens me, because I love my grandma, but my mom said to make her system as easy and compatible as possible.  As much as I hate to admit it, MS Office is the most widely used and one of the easiest office suites available.  I feel that giving her a choice between MS Office and four or five other office suites native to Linux was a good compromise between my political principles and her needs as an end user.  I'll put all the options on the table and "let the market decide".

For multimedia, she should be set.  She can play the ogg and mp3 files she downloads either with XMMS, Noatun, Mplayer, Kaboodle, or Xine.  They've all got their strengths and weaknesses.  She can use the two drives I put in her system to rip, burn and copy CDs with K3b or Gnome Toaster.  She can watch DVDs with Mplayer as long as she remembers to use the ++dvd flag when she compiles it.  And for image editing, does anything beat The Gimp?

So that she doesn't get bored with the look of the system, I set up cron jobs that change the desktop theme and widget set for her every day. 

She lives in a small condominium by herself, so I don't know if she's planning on running a network or not.  I installed Samba and the DHCP server just in case so she'd be good to go if she wanted to hook up a few more boxes or even get her own intranet going.  I'm not sure if System 7.5 can talk to Samba very well, but if she wants to patch the old Macintosh LC into her LAN she can probably h4xx0r something together in the smb.conf file.

Here it is running an emulated Windows 98 session inside a KDE session using Bochs.

Installing Mandrake after Gentoo was smooth.  I set it up mostly the same as I had with Gentoo except I chose different themes for all the desktops and moved things around to give each one its own style and feel.  I also and added a few more games in Mandrake, and I set up Bochs in case she wants to run a Windows 98 session in a window on one of her virtual desktops. 

I shipped the finished system (which I christened "The Beast") off to my grandma via UPS ground last week.  I know she has received it, but I haven't had a chance to talk to her yet to see how she and The Beast are getting along.  My mom called and told me Grandma hadn't made it past the boot switcher yet, so when I get some free time I'll have to give her a call and tell her what's what.  My mom also said that Grandma signed up for Internet access with her cable company already, which is great because that means I can get her subscribed to a Usenet LUG where she can post her questions and file bug reports if she discovers any. 

Also this weekend I'm going to see if I can SSH into her system and set up some shell scripts she can run.  That will probably make things a little easier for her as well. I'm sure she'll learn to love The Beast.

I'll keep y'all posted on how it progresses.

Out for now peeps,


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