Linux runs on old computers, doesn't it? Many people have heard or read that also old computers can run Linux. This is true, but you should not expect to be able to run newest multimedia programs or play 3D games on old hardware. If you just want to read and send email, write a book, browse the Internet, learn to program, or maybe write a book with your computer, read on. Only your imagination can limit the uses of old hardware or modern hardware with low specifications.
Save your money for better uses. You don't have to buy a new computer just to update the operating system. Even computers one can get free or buy for a few euros or dollars can be used to run a modern desktop with lightweight software. Everyone living in the industrial world can afford a used computer for running a free operating system. Thus Linux helps to cross the digital chasm between those who can afford to participate in the modern computerized world and those who cannot.
If your computer is not older than ten years, it definitely can be used as a Linux desktop. You can either use a distribution specifically tailored for older hardware or you can use almost any modern distribution and customize the installation for your needs. You might have to hack some configuration files with a text editor and forget using the latest GNOME or KDE. You might have to install the distribution of your choice in text mode. You might need some help in tweaking your system to run as smoothly as possible.
You can also help to save our environment by using your old computer or by using recycled hardware. Even if the power consumption of old computers can be relatively high compared to modern computers, using an old computer saves energy that is spent for producing the computer and its components.
Nowadays, computers that have very low power consumption (less than 10 W) are also available for public. This usually means their specifications are rather low on modern standards. Thus information on this site could equally well be used for building a usable desktop on such a box. Using low specs or recycled hardware is truly green computing, a part of modern and sustainable way of living.
Only you can decide, whether to install Linux on an old computer or to recycle it. Even if you have another, modern desktop computer, you could use the old one with Linux. You could use this as a learning experience: you will learn a lot about how the operating system works. This knowledge can be useful, and learning is always fun!
If you want to run a modern system with an old computer, you have to compensate some of the missing GHz and megabytes with your own brains. You have to know what you are doing. You have to know what you want your computer to do. Only so you can build a system that is ideal for your needs and your hardware.
This means you have to be ready to learn something about Linux and how it works. It is not rocket science, it is something everyone can do. If you are willing to learn, you can realize the full power of Linux.
We are lucky to have a lot of free documentation. There are even many good introductions to Linux. Most of them are published by The Linux Documentation Project. I suggest you first familiarize yourself with the site just to see what kind of documentation there is. Depending on what you already know, select some of the guides where you can learn at least something new. Just remember: learning is fun and knowledge is power!
There is no need to use an old version of Linux as long as you choose the distribution wisely. You can either install a lightweight distro that is designed for old and limited hardware or you can use an ordinary but lightweight distribution like Slackware, Debian or Arch to build your own custom desktop using only a lightweight window manager and other lightweight applications.
To get started, read my top 10 of lightweight Linux distributions.