cimorene: A black-and-white vintage photograph of 1920s singer Helen Kane in profile, with a dubious, side-eye expression (um excuse me)
Cimorene ([personal profile] cimorene) wrote2013-09-15 02:06 pm
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Making a Computer Setup for Parents and other Computer Dependents

My mom is a 56-year-old public school art teacher. She has numerous volunteer commitments and home projects, as well as a young lab-mix dog (and two cats!). She has her own computer at home (not shared with anyone except occasional houseguests) for casual use and basic tasks:
  • scanner and digital camera management with online Picasa integration

  • checking her Gmail once a month or so, without, however, ever clearing her inbox

  • Pinterest

  • Appearing on Twitter to reblog 2-4 social justice links and then leave again every few weeks

  • Occasional word processing, like simple letters

  • Reading my blog and my photoblog

  • Occasionally watching Youtube videos, at my or my sister's instigation

  • Frequent transfer of image and document files via USB to/from Windows computers she is required to use at work

So, unlike us, she doesn't need:
  • Any but the most basic video and music playback, for very infrequent use (e.g. no codecs or converters needed)

  • Gimp or any other drawing/image manipulation (although they are default components of modern Mint)

  • Twitter, chat, BitTorrent, or email clients

  • Google calendar integration or Samba filesharing

Several years ago I built her a simple system and installed Linux Mint on it, which I judged the most friendly Linux OS for her needs. Mint 10, based on Ubuntu Jaunty, was a long-term support release supported until April 2012. When I set up the system for her, I created a separate partition for her files and set it to auto-mount on system boot, creating a link. I explained that she should save her personal files that she wanted to keep on it so that they could be kept separate from the OS files for upgrading.

Well, I've been trying to encourage her to upgrade with increasing urgency for a year and a half now, but it didn't happen until yesterday, week 2 of her having her new tablet at home so we could use it for skyping through the process. We also installed Team Viewer, a desktop sharing program, and Wax (because I couldn't install it as quickly on my newer system) used it to create the install disk.

But when we got Team Viewer up, we found her desktop covered with files and folders. Wax dug into the computer and found out that:

  • The data partition I set up was empty and unused

  • All the files had been saved to her home directory and many to her desktop, with no organization. Folders with names like "New hair March 2012" (containing 3 files) were mixed with empty folders and folders like "architecture" and "[music album]".

  • At some point someone had installed Windows on the computer. She did not know about this, or didn't remember, and had no idea who could have done it. The partition was still there.

Fortunately I had made her home 20 GB, because she'd used 17 of it (contrast this to the empty data partition's 400 GB).

Ultimately, Wax simply preserved the home partition untouched, formatted the 400 GB partition, and then, after install, copied the old folders to the larger partition, providing numerous links to them from the desktop and file manager.

She can't touch-type and is confused by right-click menus, but she isn't a novice at computers: my parents have owned a computer since they were in college, first a Commodore 64 and later a Windows 3.0 machine. They used a dot-matrix printer for years and my mom was competent at DOS and an expert at the pre-desktop-OS word processor WordStar, which she used while working as a managing editor in a scientific journal for several years when I was a kid. Unfortunately, she's got a distractable personality and finds it difficult to follow computer-related directions exactly, so Team Viewer was a real life saver here. Trying to direct her what to do over Skype was difficult. Fortunately being yelled at didn't make her mad.

All in all, via Team Viewer on both systems and verbally on Skype in between, Wax and I were occupied ~ 5 hours last night with this. This system set up involved several restarts after boot, all but the first few of which Wax controlled via Team Viewer. But when I got up at noon (4 am their time), there were messages waiting for me from both parents via email, as well as by Twitter and Facebook, that my mom's computer "won't boot Linux". Apparently she "was editing" (what?) when it froze and she restarted via the power button, after which it they claim it froze in a black screen and wouldn't boot. I suspect it was just checking the disks, which can be time-consuming and modern Ubuntu-based systems use quiet boot by default, which means you can't see any sign that it's doing things. That can cause anxiety. But by then they'd gone to bed, so now I have another tech support session to look forward to. Hopefully it won't involve reinstalling.

Although looking at it in retrospect, given how little mom requires of her system, I think perhaps we should have gone with an Xfce desktop. It's more lightweight and I think more easily tweakable, and it's not like she needs widgets, applets, web apps, or any of the other things that make me reluctant to use the lightweight desktops. My personal biggest quibbles in Xfce are things like lack of built-in Samba support (unnecessary, in her case) and fewer file browser features (but she isn't aware of those anyway). On the other hand, generally you're more on your own if you have a problem in a lightweight desktop. The main edition of Mint has the most built-in support and direction, I think.

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