Getting Ready To Install Debian 9 (Stretch) On An Old PC

I thought it would be an appropriate first post to detail my process on setting up an old home PC with Debian 9. I’m writing this from Firefox ESR in my beautiful new Gnome desktop environment on my not-so-beautiful old PC, but it works incredibly well now. There are several other tutorials out there with bits and pieces of this, but I found that the steps below were glossed over or left out entirely. Let’s get you there, too.

Two USB drives

To begin, you’re going to need two USB drives: one to hold the install medium and the other to hold the “non-free” firmware that doesn’t ship with Debian. One of Debian’s charms is that it takes the ideal of “free software” very seriously. Some of the necessary firmware for our system wasn’t deemed “free enough” based upon review of the various licenses under which it was published. Don’t worry—this isn’t going to cost us a dime.

I used my Mac’s terminal to prepare my install medium. I won’t detail how to do this on PC since the process gets a little wonky and there are some other, better guides for that out there. Debian, themselves, suggest that you don’t use unetbootin to install Debian since it can cause some difficult to diagnose issues once your system is up and running.

First download a copy of the Debian 9 .iso from debian.org. Also make sure that the USB you intend to use for the install medium is in one of your USB slots and find it’s device name by running diskutil list.

Now we can run our first magic command. Sit back; this one can take a couple minutes to finish:

$ dd if=debian-9.5.0-amd64-netinst.iso of=/dev/disk2; sync

If all went well, we now have a Debian install USB ready to use on our new system. Don’t go plugging it in just yet, however. There’s one more step before that.

Now for that firmware…

Now we can head back to debian.org to grab that “non-free” firmware mentioned before. In order for our new system to find the right files, we’ll need to make sure that everything is unpacked in a directory named firmware/.

$ mkdir /Volumes/usb-drive/firmware
$ mv /Users/Bruce/Downloads/firmware.tar /Volumes/usb-drive/firmware
$ cd /Volumes/usb-drive/firmware
$ tar -xvf fimrware.tar

Now we have both USB drives ready for our installation of Debian on our machine of choice. For me, this was a crummy ASUS L402S netbook with a paltry 32GB of storage: barely enough for the mammoth Windows 10 that it was running prior to this post. Make sure to grab your Windows license key before wiping the OS, though. It’s handy to have since you can use that copy of Windows on one machine. I now have that aforementioned mammoth Windows 10 install running in VirtualBox on my quite-capable MacBook Pro, but that’s a story for another post.

You can now power on your target machine with the install USB attached and boot into the BIOS by holding whatever key your manufacturer has decided would be best. For me, this meant holding down the F2 key during post.

You can now follow the very easy and straight-forward instructions given by the Debian installer. Completing these steps is detailed quite comprehensively by other tuts out there. When prompted by the installer, plug in your firmware USB into one of your open ports and select ‘yes’. The installer will automatically grab the firmware it wants and continue on with the installation.

Once the installer is complete, you’ll have an old computer with a brand new lease on life as a highly-functional and usable Linux machine ready for your next awesome project.

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