Mom’s experience with Ubuntu (and her first real computer)

MacBook, coffee mug, and cactus

Last updated on December 10th, 2021

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I brought home to my mother an early Christmas gift: my old desktop PC, a 3.5-year-old Dell Dimension E521N with 1GB of RAM, an AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800 processor, a 250GB hard drive, and an NVIDIA graphics card, all running Ubuntu Linux 10.04 LTS (64-bit version). All of the numbers, however, don’t mean anything to my mother, who only uses computers at her job (in education as a teacher’s assistant), and only occasionally at that. This will basically be her first computer (well, not counting an old one someone gave hear that was pretty much nonfunctional, and sat as a doorstop until she got rid of it). I thought it was time Mom got online, and figured that giving her my old computer would be an affordable way to do it.

My first step was to set up the old PC with a long-term release version of Ubuntu, to avoid frequent version updates. For this, I used my Ubuntu 10.04 (64-bit) CD. After installation and installing the usual codecs, I installed a few extra programs, on the assumption my 8-year-old niece will also want to use the computer. The extra programs include:

  • TuxPaint: the popular painting program for children.
  • TuxType: an educational typing program that makes fun use of Tux the penguin.
  • Frozen Bubble: the highly popular game.
  • gufw: a firewall management program.
  • ClamAV: an antivirus program.

I also changed some basic settings to make the desktop (and programs) more familiar-looking to my mother, whose computer experience mostly involves Windows. For example:

  • Removed the bottom toolbar, moved the top bar (and its settings) to the bottom of the screen, and added a hide desktop button and a window switcher applet, to reflect Windows’ look.
  • Changed the theme to Clearlooks.
  • Set Rhythmbox to import CDs in MP3 format, and set OpenOffice to save word processing documents as .DOC.
  • Set computer, trash, and home directory icons to be visible on the desktop.
  • Preinstalled a few wallpapers, photos, and music files.

One flaw so far: I underestimated the number of Ethernet cables I’d need, thus the computer isn’t online (and likely won’t be until I come home for Christmas with an Ethernet cable in tow). I also bought a router, to split the house’s Internet connection from my brother’s computer. The router, a wireless DLink N150 that was on sale at OfficeMax, worked fine for the *wired* part, but wouldn’t let me log in from a wireless device like my laptop or Palm Pre, despite going through the router’s settings/setup manually and with the CD’s installer. Unless I’m missing something obvious, this won’t be a brand I’ll be recommending to others in the future.

After some setting up (i.e., finding a spot for the computer), I showed and explained to my mother the basic features of the computer, including what Linux/Ubuntu is, then let her try using it. Her reactions (and my adjustments to the PC):

  • Mom seems to like Rhythmbox the most (not surprising, given her love of music), especially after showing her how to import her CDs to it. She looked forward to using the PC as a stereo for her bedroom and using Rhythmbox to handle her iPod (until now left to my sister to put music on with her PC). She asked if listening to the radio was possible, after seeing the “radio” feature of Rhythmbox; I explained to her how streaming audio worked. If she’s ever interested, I’ve also bookmarked’s MP3 store in Firefox, and showed her the Ubuntu One Music Store icon in Rhythmbox.
  • seemed reasonably intuitive to Mom, given she’s presumably seen or used Microsoft Office before.
  • Mom didn’t care for the Ubuntu log-in chime, finding it too loud/annoying. I promptly deactivated it, or at least tried to; upon restarting, it still played for some reason. Mom figured she’ll just turn down the sound instead.
  • Frozen Bubble also impressed her, though more as a game for my niece to play. Mom also thought TuxType might be useful for improving her typing skills.
  • The default home directory and its subdirectories pre-installed by Ubuntu (Documents, Music, etc.) were reasonably intuitive, though I had to explain to Mom what a “template” (after seeing the “Template” directory) was.
  • Mom doesn’t care for conventional computer mice, apparently preferring a trackball (I assume what she has, or had seen/used, at work).
  • I showed Mom how to change the themes, but she thought the default Ubuntu 10.04 theme was “too dark” versus Clearlooks, so I put it back. I also enlarged the menu, desktop, etc. text from a 10 point font to a 12 point font (Mom wears reading glasses; she found the larger size “much better”).
  • While the PC’s not online, I also showed Mom the bookmarks in Firefox (some PBS Kids bookmarks for my niece, and YouTube, TV One, and the local school system’s site for my mother). I also promised Mom (once Internet access is installed) to set her up with a Gmail email address (and work with her to come up with a username). Mom noted an interest in possibly meeting with old classmates or finding coupon sites online, but has no interest in Facebook (my sister being the only one in the family on Facebook).
  • Finally, I showed Mom the Ubuntu Software Center, telling her she can use it to install software, games, etc., which also gave me cause to tell her the computer’s password (something easy for her to remember, though she was amused by the one I chose). I also explained how user accounts work (per the possibility of giving my niece her own account separate from Mom’s).

Barring some unforeseen future problem, it seems Ubuntu (and the computer itself) will be successful. Mom likely won’t need anything proprietary or Windows-based for her needs, and if she does, my sister or brother’s computers, running Windows XP and Vista respectively, should handle it. If not installed by then (unlikely), I’ll have Internet access running on it at Christmas. I’ll report here with any future developments on how things develop.

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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