Installing Ubuntu on an old netbook with hair tearing and profanity

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Credit: Ubuntu Logo

Installing Ubuntu from a USB drive on an older machine is easy if you have one key bit of information ...

After a few extremely frustrating hours trying to install Ubuntu 14.04.1 LTS, the latest version of the Ubuntu operating system for desktop PCs and laptops, on an older netbook style laptop (one with only USB ports) I finally succeeded.

There was one crucial piece of information missing which, if I’d had it, would have made the whole process take perhaps half an hour. But I didn’t have that piece of information  and, as a result, there was a lot of tearing out of hair and profane utterances …

Old Hardware 

First of all, the machine I was installing on was a Sony VPCM121AX which has an Intel Atom N470 Processor, a measly 1GB of RAM, a 250GB drive, 10Base-T/100Base-TX Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth v3. It came with Windows 7 Starter Edition (32-Bit) which, given its processor, meant that it ran on the ragged edge of exhaustion for most tasks so Ubuntu was a highly desirable alternative.

Sony Vaio vpcm121ax w Sony Corp.

Sony Vaio vpcm121ax netbook

As there was no CD/DVD drive and the internal drive had been replaced with a new and OS-free one, then obviously the new OS was going to have to be loaded from a USB drive.

Now, if you follow the instructions on the Ubuntu site for OS X (or, for that matter, for Windows or for Ubuntu) on how to do this and, particularly if you’re on OS X, you will most likely find yourself going down “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” from which there is no escape because there’s one detail about older hardware (“older” being just four years) that’s missing … which I’ll explain in a moment.

UNetbootin

First, I’d suggest ignoring all of the downloading and command line stuff that the Ubuntu site tells you to do; sure, you can probably get the job done that way but there’s a GUI tool that makes the process much easier. 

The tool is UNetbootin, that:

... allows you to create bootable Live USB drives for Ubuntu, Fedora, and other Linux distributions without burning a CD. It runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. You can either let UNetbootin download one of the many distributions supported out-of-the-box for you, or supply your own Linux .iso file.

UNetbootin UNetbootin.org

UNetbootin user interface

UNetbootin makes it really easy to install a bootable distro on a USB drive but that doesn’t mean it will actually work as you hope. What lead me to UNetbootin was after trying the command line approach with various tweaks and a couple of USB drives I still couldn’t get the netbook to load Ubuntu. When UNetbootin made the process easy and it still didn’t work I knew something else had to be wrong. 

OS X and the Right FAT

After some digging around in online forums I realized that my USB drives were formatted as FAT32. While the netbook could read the boot loader on the drives it couldn’t understand the filesystem as the USB drivers can only handle FAT16! The result was the boot loader complaining it couldn’t find a kernel to load. The image of Homer Simpson saying “Du’oh!” came to mind.

Now formatting a USB drive as FAT16 is easy under Windows but under OS X 10.9 the GUI disk management tool, Disk Utility, only offers the option MS-DOS (FAT) by which it means FAT32. So, it’s off to the command line we go ...

diskutil partitionDisk path MBR "MS-DOS FAT16" "name" 100%

(Thanks to Alastair Tse for a note on how to do this in his blog.)

Let’s break this down; we’re using Apple’s diskutil ...

  • partitionDisk -  (re)Partition a disk, removing all volumes.
  • path - this is the device name and path such as /dev/disk1
  • MBR - specifies that Master Boot Record format is to be used
  • "MS-DOS FAT16" - specifies the file system to be used
  • "name" - specifies the name to be given to the drive
  • 100% - specifies that the entire drive space should be used (note that the limit for FAT16 is 2GB

Once I had reformatted the USB drive and then, using UNetbootin, installed Ubuntu on it the netbook had no trouble reading the drive and installing the operating system.

So, that’s what I spent my morning doing. I have very little hair left.

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