Hacking Old Tech With Kids: An Update

Back in February, I wrote about Hacking Old Tech: Breathing New Life into Old Devices. I advocated the benefits of not only taking it upon ourselves to refurbish old tech, but also to teach our kids to do so. Some people remarked that they were unsure how much their kids could do and at what age, so I thought I would share our experience.

As I mentioned in that post, the Dude had been hinting not so subtly about wanting a new laptop since my Windows 7 machine was just. so. sluggish. Under no circumstances were we prepared to buy him his own machine, but I was more than happy to refurbish and teach him how, along the way.

This wasn't a seamless process, but at no time was there frustration: I used the set-backs as opportunities to problem solve and explained that the process was iterative. Try something, maybe it works; if not, try something else. Google is our friend for troubleshooting and looking for solutions. In the end, it was a very positive experience and the Dude was beaming with pride at the finish line.

Here's how it went down:
  • Backing up the computer: After we had a few unsuccessful attempts to back up the machine to some of our external hard drives, I finally opted to increase my Google Storage allotment to back up everything into the cloud. For $2 a month, I now have 100Gb of storage. It took a few days to back up all my photos and files into Google Drive (I went from 9Gb to 75Gb with that one backup :) We've had some bad luck with corrupted drives in the past, and since most of the files were family photos, I finally resolved myself to the security and redundancy of cloud storage (it was long overdue). After we had a few issues connecting to hard drives, the Dude actively helped monitor the uploads to our cloud storage.
  • Factory reset: A lot of the issues we were having with the computer performance were due to malware. Sure I could have installed Linux directly and had it overwrite the hard drive instead of doing the reset. But this process went down over a couple of weekends, and we were still using the computer to access the Web in the meantime between steps. Doing the factory reset meant we still had a functioning computer until we were ready to do the Linux installation. I did this step on my own, sans Dude.
  • Picking a Linux Distro: This is always the hardest step. Finding the right distro means making sure that you're picking the version of Linux that is compatible with your hardware and the experience you want from your operating system. Because the Dude was familiar with the Windows 7 environment, and based on the specs of the machine, I settled on Linux Mint 17.1. It's a nice clean user interface, and comes with a lot of added applications (like an open source Office equivalent, Firefox, calculator, and other apps you'd normally find in Windows). I knew it would provide him with a short learning curve. 
  • Making a boot CD/ DVD/ USB Drive: I had previously tried to install this distro on an old laptop belonging to my Dad, so I had already had boot CDs for this distro. If you need to make your own boot files, the key is to use the right software so that you don't just copy the files, but you actually prepare them to run during the boot sequence (aka burning the ISO image to a disk). I used InfraRecorder for this step. Some of the more recent distros won't fit onto a CD, so a DVD or USB drive is better. The Dude was with me when I created the CDs for my Dad, and learned about the process. He readily admits that this part eludes him, though. :-)
  • Change the computer's boot sequence: Changing the BIOS requires interrupting the boot sequence while the computer is trying to boot up, and getting into the settings. It's always fun to take the Dude into the BIOS since he thinks that the DOS screens are so retro :) We had to change the boot sequence so that the computer didn't boot off the hard drive, but read the CD first.
  • Boot using the Linux CD/DVD/ USB Drive: Then we rebooted the computer with the CD in the drive. It opened a Linux desktop (which was very exciting!). We connected to the Wifi to enable automated file downloads during the installation, then launched the installation from an icon on the desktop. Apart from configuring a few settings, the computer pretty much did the rest, which was nice. We followed the instructions in the Official User Guide for our Linux distro (PDF), to make sure we went through all the necessary steps. And suddenly, we were done.
  • Final step - Customization: Of course, the first thing the Dude did was head to Google images and search for a Minecraft Wallpaper. I was pleasantly surprised with his choice:
    SuperMeatBoy Creeper (Credit: AlphaCoders)
    Isn't that fun? It's a SuperMeatBoy/ Creeper mashup! Love this so much.

And of course, a refurbished computer doesn't feel like a new computer until it gets a new skin. So I applied this amazing decal we got from DecalGirl, entitled "Invasion":

Laptop Decal applied (Credit: Spydergrrl)
It's like a brand new machine. And the Dude had a hand in refurbishing it himself, which truly makes it his laptop (she writes, typing on said laptop ;)

If you've been through the process yourself, you know that refurbishing hardware is just a matter of following steps mixed with trial and error. That in itself is a valuable lesson for kids: try stuff, try again. Our kids can do amazing things with tech, given the chance. Especially if we don't make it seem too big, too scary, too complicated. And if we break it down for them.

I'm at once amazed and insistent that a kid can prepare and update a computer. To be honest, it took me years to gain the confidence to play with hardware as an adult. And to him, it's just normal; something we did over a few weeks, no biggie.

Kids can hack. We just have to let them.