After consulting my computer expert (Kelly Sutton), I’ve discovered the best way to keep your incompetent parents from inadvertently downloading porn. It’s called Ubuntu and you’ll probably have it installed before they figure out how to pronounce it. Just in time for Thanksgiving, you can get the whole computer running flawlessly in less than 2 hours – so that you’ll never have to waste away those precious breaks again.

Ubuntu is (one of) the world’s most popular Linux “distributions.” It’s going to replace Windows on your parents’ computer.

Here’s how you know it’s time for Ubuntu: you’ve moved your life on to a laptop and your parents now struggle with your Windows-machine that still has your entire high school career filed in a useless amalgamation called “My Documents.” All they need is: Internet, email and maybe word processing and picture viewing. Perhaps they need a few other basic capabilities, but in general, you’d rather trade limited capabilities for faster, virus-free, spyware-free and free (costs nothing), computer operation. You struggle every Fall or Christmas break, combating malicious programs that are sucked through that little internet cable – programs that you can’t even begin to understand, and once you’re done, you know there’s much more impairing the computer, hidden in the depths of its once-state-of-the-art mainframe. It’s time to start over.

If you aren’t willing to make this kind of a commitment yet, this Lifehacker article (though a tad dated) has helped me for the past two years:

Geek to Live: How to fix Mom and Dad’s computer

For those who dare, read on.

I’m no computer science major, so this is a walkthrough for those who are averagely to below-averagely technologically adept. It’ll only take a few pleasant hours to do the whole thing. I’m going guide you through installing Ubuntu and offer a simplified version of post-installation, because I assume your parents have no need for things like DVD playing capabilities: just the basics. But even with all of Ubuntu’s ease of installation, there’s a little more you’ll need to do to get your parents rolling in computer heaven.


The Computer Transition

The hardest part of this transition is making sure that you can effectively “start from scratch” with your home computer. It’s also the first step. Of course, you could always dual-boot or whatever – but I’m not that fancy, plus, the old PC could use a good hose down anyway. This is like spring cleaning, but in the fall.


You need to get everything off the computer that you may ever need in the future and be prepared to part from the rest of it. If you’ve gotten through college just fine so far, then most of it is stuff you don’t use. Give it a once-over, (honestly once, quickly, don’t waste your time) then bite the bullet: “fall_of_roman_empire.doc” will never come in handy ever again.

But before you zap the whole computer, make sure you burn the Ubuntu installation CD (explained below). If the computer is actually too frustrating to burn a measly CD from an image off the internet – which I can believe – then go to the library for the next part.


Preparing for Ubuntu

One thing you will come to appreciate about Ubuntu is their extensive library of help articles. I think they rival even those for Mac and PC. Most of the stuff is Wiki-based here — but you’re best off just doing a google search for most problems. This problem (how to install Ubuntu) can be solved here and maybe here, depending on your skills.


But I’ll also give you the breakdown, to minimize your clicking around. You will need:


  • A blank CD
  • A computer with a CD burner
  • An Internet connection
  • Patience for the download



Installing Ubuntu

Download the right copy of Ubuntu for your computer from here

for free.


Burn that image to an unformatted CD. This means that the file is not stored on the CD, but that the information from the file is burned on to the CD. In other words, a drag-and-drop will not work.

  • If you’re using a Mac to make the CD: Open Disk Utility from Applications > Utilities. Bring the ISO file into the Disk Utility and select Menu > Image > Burn. Insert the CD and let it go to town.
  • If you’re using a PC to make the CD: Open the software that came with your CD burner and look through the help manual for how to burn a disc image. Or, use this tutorial from Ubuntu, which uses a free, open source image burning program.
  • If you’re using Linux to burn the CD: then I’m jealous and you probably know how to do this already.

Insert the CD into the soon-to-be-decontaminated computer. Restart it. When the computer reboots, it should greet you with a friendly screen. It looks like Ubuntu a sunset the gates of heaven. If you don’t get that friendly scene, try rebooting again. This will help if that doesn’t work out for you.


Play with Ubuntu before you pull the trigger. After selecting “Start or install Ubuntu,” it’ll give you a little chance to have fun in your new OS. Nothing has actually been installed on your computer yet. Once you’re sure you’re ready to erase the whole computer and start from scratch:

Install Ubuntu by clicking the Install icon in the upper left corner of your screen.

The rest is self-explanatory. It’ll take you through some easy questions like: “Where do you live?” and: “What is your name?” If your parents can’t answer these, then maybe there was nothing wrong with your computer in the first place. Make sure that you note the user name and password that you end up with. Parents like this type of thing printed out on a label and pasted to the monitor. The only tricky part might be the hard drive spiel. All you have to do is select your “master” hard drive and allow Ubuntu to completely erase it and replace it with the new OS. At the end, click “Install” and get ready for a new life.


Enabling Repositories


First off, what the f-bomb is a repository? A repository is a large database somewhere in the world that serves out free software to Linux users. Once set up, you will never have to worry about them again.

Now that Ubuntu is installed, you need to start installing what doesn’t come built-in. To follow the rest of this walkthrough, first you’ll have to “enable repositories.” It doesn’t matter what that means, just do it. Here’s how:


  1. Open the “Synaptic Package Manager”: System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager.
  2. Open the repositories settings: Settings > Repositories
  3. Make sure that all of the boxes on that first tab are checked.



The Internet

Connecting to the Internet was a snap – at least for me. Even on a Mac, connecting to the net can be worse than plucking nose hairs. You’ll save yourself a lot of headache if you can just get a CAT5 right into an Ethernet port. Using a USB modem or funky software will be difficult with Ubuntu.


With the Ethernet coming right from my router into the computer, the internet was up and running right when Ubuntu finished installing. Firefox is the browser for Ubuntu, and it’s built right in.

The final portion making Internet-browsing carefree, are the plug-ins. You need Flash and Java. Open the Terminal (Applications > Accessories > Terminal), and enter these two chunks of info separately. It’s a little tedious to get all those characters perfect, but you should get it done after 24 or 25 tries. Type the following into the terminal.


sudo aptitude install flashplugin-nonfree


sudo aptitude install sun-java6-jre sun-java6-plugin sun-java6-fonts

The Java one will prompt you to accept a license agreement and require you to restart Firefox. (It’s basically just a Firefox Add-on.)



Email programs are a bitch, even for me and my Mac. Rather than install a whole new one, I just signed them up for Gmail – built right into the web browser with an excellent spam catcher.


The only thing you need to prevent is the craziness that could ensue if your parent clicks on a mailto: link like this one: [email protected]. We posted about this recently, but here, the solution comes in handy again. It’s an Add-on for Firefox — but it’s not available through the Synaptic Package Manager, so all you have to do is download it right from the Lifehacker page:





Selfishly, I have my progenitors install Skype on their computer so I don’t have to spend as much money calling them long-distance. I think it’s more justified from abroad. Here’s how easy it is to install Skype. Just open the Terminal (Applications > Accessories > Terminal) again and enter:


sudo aptitude install skype


Welcome to Freedom

Everything else your parents will need comes built right into Ubuntu: word processing through OpenOffice, picture viewing with Image Viewer…. But, if you’re looking for DVD-playing, advanced streaming video options or MP3 managing, you’ll need to go elsewhere. Personally, I think a home stereo is easier to use than a computer for these things. If you insist, there are a few guides that will help you with getting everything else your elders might need. They were also great references while I wrote this post, so you might use them if you have any other problems. And if you want to teach your parents to fish, a good place to start is this page, which breaks down some simple tasks your parents can do on Linux (without your help).


So that’s it, folks. Now, your parents will call you for fun instead of for computer help — and they’ll use Skype.