Breathing new life into an old laptop

I'd like to breathe life into an old laptop so I can use it for web browsing and email. It's an old work laptop, a Dell, running XP Pro with Service Pack 2. It's very bloated with lots of unused apps and files all over the place, and it has security policies set up by our network admins to prevent problems for the whole network. I want to pretty much trash all the existing files apps and user accounts to get a slimmed down operating system in place that will run relatively quickly, without too much effort. I don't have the XP installation disks. I use an Apple iMac at home, but I'm lost when it comes to Windows. I'm trying to avoid buying an iPad or second-hand MacBook seeing as I have this old laptop available.
Ben Whittle
Corporate IT departments have different priorities to home users, and your best hope is that the laptop can be restored to "factory condition". Nowadays, Dell ships almost all of its laptops with a copy of the operating system image on a hidden partition on the hard drive.

You can access this by holding down the control key (Ctrl) and pressing F11 while the system is starting up. You should be able to check if that's the correct key combination by searching the web for "factory condition" and your Dell laptop's name and model number.

Dell has a support page that will walk you through the process: PC Restore for Windows XP. This will erase all the data currently on the laptop, so you should back up any files you want to keep.

However, large companies tend to erase whatever the manufacturer installs on Windows PCs and replace it will their own disk image. Your Dell may no longer have a hidden partition for operating system recovery. If that is the case, you will have to reinstall the operating system from a CD, following the instructions at Manually Reinstall Your Windows XP Operating System. To do this, you will need to obtain the correct Dell Software Recovery CD (SRCD) for your laptop. You can try asking for one via the Dell Support page How To Request Backup CDs for Your Dell Computer.

Once you have a clean installation of Windows XP, and before you connect to the interenet, you must click Start, then go to Settings and Contol Panel to run the Security Center applet. Make sure that your PC has a firewall turned on; you can also turn on Automatic Updates. When you connect the internet, click Start and then select Windows Update. You may need to download several years of security updates, including SP3, and this will take some time. You may also need to go back to the Dell Support site to check for updated drivers.

Once you have updated your Dell, back up the hard drive so that you can easily return it to this condition.

Of course, Windows XP includes many features that you may not need.
Since you don't know how to limit or remove these, you could try a utility such as XPlite to trim it down. However, I'm not sure there is much to be gained, for your purposes.

You haven't said how much memory your laptop has, but you will need 1GB to run Windows XP Pro SP3 for email and browsing. If you want to run more programs at once, think about upgrading to 2GB or more.

Crucial's website offers the Crucial Memory Advisor tool, which will tell you how much RAM is installed and how much it would cost to upgrade. Dell's website has a similar service, How do I identify and upgrade the memory on my Dell Computer?. (You can, of course, shop for memory chips wherever you like.)

Laptops, unlike most desktop PCs, are usually difficult to upgrade, but you should be able to install RAM modules. There are YouTube videos illustrating the process, such as How to add RAM to Dell laptop and Dell Inspiron Memory Upgrade .

There's also another way to get an old laptop up and running. Many versions of Linux are available in Live CD format, which means that you can run it from the CD or a USB thumbdrive without installing it or changing your Windows hard drive. Obviously it will not be a fast this way, but it will give you the chance to try Linux with relatively little pain. Usually, I recommend the Ubuntu version of Linux, and you can Download Ubuntu Desktop Edition. However, for your purposes, I'd suggest using the smaller, faster Puppy Linux instead.

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