Spotlight On Linux: wattOS
So many computers head for landfill when they are still able to carry out useful work. However, some organizations and individuals do what they can to put these machines into the hands of people who can use them. Naturally, this is an ideal application for Linux, and having had a quick look at it, I suspect that wattOS would make a good choice for refurbishing older computers.
[Update: Full developer interview on site. ]
wattOS is derived from the current version of Ubuntu, giving it an advantage when it comes to hardware support. Another good thing about being tied to one of the big distributions is that there's less of a chance of being stuck for a application that you need.
It runs as a LiveCD and the hard disk installer is invoked by double clicking on the install icon on the backdrop. The installer itself is from the Ubuntu mold in that user interaction is limited to a few questions at the very beginning. Helpfully, it begins with a prompt to enable the downloading of updates while installing and also the installation of media codecs.
The installation itself is uneventful, and after a reboot, an LXDE desktop pops up. This gives a familiar desktop layout, complete with a start bar, that should be familiar to anyone who's used a computer in the last ten or fifteen years. As you might imagine, things are pretty snappy, speed-wise, thanks to LXDE's focus on efficient use of hardware resources.
The application list strikes the right balance between being resource friendly and well-featured. AbiWord and Gnumeric from the Gnome Office Suite are present instead of the the more common heavyweight Open/LibreOffice, and I'm glad to see them here as they are great applications in their own right. The music player is Foobnix, a library based application. There are also applications for photo editing, torrent downloading, video playback and optical disk burning. The utility suite includes a tool for configuring a wireless network, setting the screen resolution and setting up a printer. The web browser is Firefox, and I'm left wondering if they could have chosen something stripped down that still uses the Gecko engine, or perhaps even Chrome, just to get a bit more performance out of older machines.
If there is an aspect of the application load-out that you're not satisfied with, it is possible to add and remove applications using the standard Synaptic package manager front end. Let's face it, for better or worse, what we're dealing with here is basically, a customized Ubuntu derivative. You can therefore do anything with it that you would do with standard Ubuntu.
Once you have customized things, it's possible to make an installable copy of the entire system using a tool called Remastersys Backup (see my overview). This is an ideal way of working, as you should be able to do a standard installation, customize it, and then create a disk for further deployment.
Could my personal favorite, Puppy Linux, be in with some competition? wattOS is very much an Ubuntu derivative, and Puppy is a custom distribution that now makes use of Ubuntu resources and packages. I suspect that Puppy could still be the go-to choice for really, really old computers as it comes with a collection of tools and scripts for dealing with awkward hardware. In fact, I tend to carry the Puppy disk around with me as a recovery disk. With wattOS, if you can't get it to work with a system, you're going to have the follow the same diagnostic and work-around procedures that you would with standard Ubuntu.
If you're interested in easily refurbishing old machines to state where they offer an attractive desktop for standard tasks, wattOS offers a well thought out minimalist desktop that is easy to customize and troubleshoot .
UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.