As always, opinions in this post are solely those of my own, and not necessarily those of any organization I am currently affiliated with or have been in the past.

First posted 2/13/2021

Over the next month or so, I’ll be focusing on a series of posts I’ve wanted to do for a very long time: making the case for ham radio operators to start using Linux on cheap hardware as a replacement for any pre-Win10 Windows computers in their shacks. Here in the Chicagoland area, I hear at least one conversation a quarter on the local repeaters about someone still using Windows XP/7 on the internet for one reason or another. As someone who’s been highly interested in cybersecurity & Linux for almost 2 decades, I think there’s never been a better time than now to give Linux a chance to replace your shack’s Windows computer if it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. While Microsoft is sunsetting support for the old 32-bit computing world, Debian-based Linux may actually run faster on the old 32-bit hardware than Windows 10 can! I hope this article will inspire others to try the things from this post series as a way to both fight pandemic boredom and make their shack more awesome:

But what’s so bad about WinXP/7 in the shack?

It’s been awhile since I’ve gone to an in-person hamfest due to this darn pandemic, but nearly every hamfest I’ve attended had a vendor hall with someone trying to sell “technical debt” computers running Windows XP or Windows 7 to hams who are stuck in their old computing ways. This is totally fine if you never plan on hooking these old 2000’s clunkers into the internet. However it feels like quite a few hams are still connecting these machines with insecure operating systems into the world wide web, and that’s a bad idea in my opinion. I’ve always been a huge Linux fan ever since I first saw it on ZDTV, but Windows XP/7 were the operating systems I used the most from 2001-2018. I miss that WinXP startup/shutdown sound too.

These fond memories are great, but I’ve also seen the other side of repairing WinXP/7 systems that have been totally hosed with internet malware, in some cases leading to costly identity theft. I don’t want to see a single ham radio operator have to deal with an identity theft or ransomware problem due to connecting Windows XP/7 into the internet ever again. It’s not worth the risk, and you may scroll down to the conclusion for more reasons why I feel this way. So what should you do if you have an old WinXP/7 computer in your ham shack that’s too old for Windows 10, but you want to keep running said computer on the internet? You have a few options here, but I’m going to focus mostly on option 1:

  1. Get a Raspberry Pi 4 and use Raspberry Pi OS Linux to replace your shack computer
  2. Get a Linux distribution specifically designed for old hardware such as AntiX installed on your old computer
  3. Pour a beverage into that old Windows computer so that you have a good reason to buy a newer Intel NUC that can run Linux & Windows 🙂

I’m happy to report that I’ve had to edit this paragraph on Feb 21 to say QTel is capable of doing Echolink client operations in Linux (thanks WA0SBU for pointing this out!). At first I thought there was no good way to do Echolink on a Raspberry Pi, and QTel works well. Another item I’ve learned about since initially posting this is the HamPi project which might be a better fit for some hams using Raspberry Pis (thanks VE3DRS for pointing this out!). HamPi is awesome, but in order to comply with its license, you must run the BOINC client which donates your Raspberry Pi’s spare cycles to various causes. While I am a BOINC fan, I don’t have a physical fan on my Raspberry Pi, so that BOINC stuff adds quite a bit of unnecessary power draw + heat to my setup. For this reason, you might want to look at KM4ACK’s Build-a-pi solution, especially if you plan on running your Raspberry Pi without a fan/heatsink or off a battery.

The only big thing that I can’t do as good in Linux as Windows is interacting with my DMR radio. Although qmdr is promising, it does not have compatibility with my particular DMR radio. There also does not appear to be a way to upgrade Anytone firmware via Linux, you’ll have to use their closed source software for that. Now that we’ve addressed the DMR concerns, let’s dive into my 3 options for replacing that WinXP/7 boat anchor:

Option 1: Raspberry Pi 4 (aka RPi4)

As of this writing, the RPi4 model B is what most people have in mind when they think Raspberry Pi these days. By the time you’re reading this, there might be a newer model available, but I’m expecting this series of articles to still be relevant on future hardware. I won’t get into all the technical reasons why the RPi4 is super cool, but I will cover the reasons why I bought the specific kit I purchased: value for money

I went with this kit mostly because I’m a Chicagoan that wanted to buy something from Chicago Electronic Distributors, and also because I thought the fanless design of their SecurePi case is pretty neat. If you’re using the RPi4 for processor-intensive things, this case is probably a bad idea as the heatsinks can still get too hot without fans. If you’re using the RPi4 for lighter things like Logbook of the World, radio programming apps and email, odds are the fanless case will be fine. When you buy a kit like this, Raspberry Pi OS comes ready to go on the SD card! It should be noted that although the Raspberry Pi is more than capable of being used to surf the web and replace your desktop computer, the major disadvantage is it’s pretty slow when compared to a standard desktop these days. The ARM processor inside of the RPi4 is quite powerful, but it’s just not quite enough to tackle a high-quality Zoom experience or day-to-day web browsing in my humble opinion. I wrote the rough draft of this post entirely on the Rpi4’s built-in Chromium browser hooked into my 4k monitor. It works just fine, but it’s a bit slower than I’d like, even with the 4GB memory option.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the RPi4 is the fact that the community has centered around Raspberry Pi OS for the hardware, which comes with all the drivers & libraries you need to get things working immediately. As someone who’s occasionally used Linux as a desktop operating system for almost 2 decades, I can’t describe in words how frustrating it can be spending hours trying to get PulseAudio or Xserver to run on wacky old hardware. Since there’s only a handful of RPi flavors out there, you’re unlikely to run into any hardware compatibility or driver problems (as long as you’re not plugging in wacky USB things). This is a much bigger win than I think most people realize. I don’t even want to know how many hours of my life I’ve spent trying to get desktop Linux working with good audio/video on my laptops over the years…

The final big advantage I’d like to mention is the low power consumption & smaller footprint of the RPi4. You can leave this thing running 24/7, and it will use a tiny fraction of the power required for a full-size desktop machine or older laptop. I know “going green” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to buying a new techno-gizmo, but when you think about all the negative impacts of e-waste and power consumption due to computer stuff, this tiny RPi4 with USB power adapter is way better for planet earth than a full-size desktop will ever be! While it is very easy to argue that using an older computer for as long as possible is the best way to avoid e-waste; all too often older computers are far less energy efficient than the newer RPi or NUC alternatives.

For this series of posts, stock Raspberry Pi OS (Buster) with all current updates as of early 2021 will be used as the main example Linux platform. I’m sure the syntax of certain things will slightly change over the years as newer RPi hardware and OS versions are released, but the general idea should stay the same. The RPi ham radio community is likely to continue growing for a very long time, and I feel like using a Raspberry Pi in the ham shack is going to be much more common going forward, so might as well get started early!

Option 2: AntiX Linux on the computer currently running WinXP/7

Let’s say the RPi4 is either not something you want to spend money on, or you just really want to hold onto that old computer with internet access for whatever the reason. If running Windows 10 is either too slow or not feasible, I feel like your next best option is to run a Linux distribution specifically designed for being fast on older hardware. How to pick a particular Linux distribution may become a very opinionated discussion which is far beyond the scope of topics covered here at kd9cpb.com. While there’s other options such as Lubuntu out there for older machines, I’m choosing AntiX Linux as my distribution of choice.

Why AntiX? The main reason is it supports 32-bit processors, something that Lubuntu stopped doing in the most recent versions. Although (as of this writing in Feb 2021) you can still run Lubuntu versions that support 32-bit for a little longer with good security updates, the writing is on the wall that support is coming to an end quickly. AntiX plans on supporting 32-bit for the foreseeable future, and comes with some handy tooling to monitor the performance of your old computer built-in to the desktop by default. Someday 32-bit desktop computers plugged into the internet will be a distant memory, nobody will be doing it simply because they’re so old. However, there’s a large number of 32-bit only machines from the mid 2000’s which are still capable of running AntiX safely on the internet for years to come, therefore I’m very much an AntiX fan.

The biggest problem with any Linux distribution on any older desktop/laptop in my opinion is the hardware support. You may need to jump through fiery hoops to get a sound card working, or only use a wired internet connection because the wifi driver isn’t quite a perfect match. If you have the self-discipline & technical know-how to iron out these issues, that’s fantastic. If you don’t, that’s perfectly fine too, just be advised you might be better off with another option or buying USB audio + wifi adapters that are better fit for Linux.

For this series of posts, I will be duplicating all the things I do in Raspberry Pi OS on an ancient mid-2000’s 32-bit IBM Z60 ThinkPad laptop running AntiX 19. Since both Raspberry Pi OS and AntiX based on Debian Linux, there shouldn’t be too many things I have to do differently, but there’s bound to be a few minor differences here and there. When that happens, I’ll make sure to put some highlighted text in the post so it’s abundantly clear that AntiX behaves a little differently.

Option 3: Destroy the old computer, giving you an excuse to spend $$$ on an Intel NUC (or similar)

I’m a big Marie Kondo fan, and her “if it does not spark joy, thank it for its service, and part ways with that stuff” mentality. Sometimes I get a bit too attached to some of the old tech gear I’ve used over the years, especially when it comes to retro videogame equipment. Nobody wants to cast off the hardware that’s made them who they are, but sometimes it’s better for that gear to get passed onto a newcomer or electronics recycler. Over the years I’ve done some pretty crazy things to prevent eWaste from going into the landfill as it’s something I’ve always taken seriously from my time in Boy Scouts. Although it can often cost money, chances are you may have a community eWaste facility nearby, and I can’t think of a more honorable way to send off an old computer than drowning it with cheap booze & throwing it into the eWaste facility.

Ok, so it’s excessive to “accidentally spill a beverage on the old gear as a reason to mentally justify getting something new”, but I think most readers get the point that sometimes we need to part ways with old gear, as difficult as it may be. If you’re not in the mood to get your hands dirty with Linux on the old machine or on an RPi4, that’s perfectly fine, check out the Intel NUC product line (or something similar). These boxes are much more powerful than the ARM processor could ever be on the RPi4: while they NUCs cost quite a bit more, you can easily stream multiple HD videos and speedily browse the web on this hardware everyday.

The reason I’m specifically mentioning the Intel NUC is because I think many hams are unaware these amazing little cubes could be a great fit in the shack. For less than a few hundred bucks, you can get a small but powerful cube that will run newer Windows operating systems for many years to come. They even have build-it-yourself kits too! While there’s a plethora of low-cost competitors to the NUC out there, the large userbase makes it easier to find self-support online. Also, you don’t need to worry about wacky driver support as they’re so popular. While these are infinitely more power-hungry than the RPi4, they still use a lot less power than some of the older desktop computers out there.

For this series of posts, I’m not going to spend any time discussing how to make these Linux for ham radio projects work on the NUC. The primary reason is that I’m cheap and told Mrs. KD9CPB I’d keep excess techo-gadgets to a minimum in our condo, so there’s no room for even a NUC 🙂 The secondary reason is you can run the Raspberry Pi OS virtualized on a NUC that’s running a more full-featured Windows or Linux operating system with ease. Virtualization and running different flavors of Linux on the NUC is beyond the scope of kd9cpb.com, fortunately there’s tons of YouTube videos about this if you’re curious.

Conclusion

I’ve always been a big fan of retro gaming & computing, in fact I still have a TRS-80, IBM PS/2, some pre-G4 Macintoshes and even a Windows XP machine in storage. This is fine, because they’ll never be hooked into the internet ever again! While many hams & cybersecurity folks are quick to point out that you can mitigate a lot of ancient operating system security risks if you’re not “doing anything stupid” on the internet and sit behind a firewall or two, you’re going to have big problems with modern web browsers running on old computers. This is because newer protocols like TLS 1.3 are making it more secure to enter usernames & passwords on the platforms we want to access, at the cost of not being compatible with unmaintained old Windows applications. Again, in my opinion, it simply isn’t worth the risk to have these ancient operating systems on the internet, period.

If you’re still going to keep running Windows XP or Windows 7 on the internet in your hamshack after reading this, I’m sorry to hear that, but there is one last thing you can do to mitigate the gigantic risks you’re taking: be 10000% sure passwords you’re using on the old computer are not reused anywhere. Advice about what constitutes a secure password and how often it should be changed is beyond the scope of this blog, but my opinion on passwords is that you should be using a password manager like Lastpass or Keepass2 for everything these days. This allows you to have different passwords for every account, so that if one of your accounts gets compromised, all of your other accounts should remain safe. I’ve seen when someone will use the same password on their Gmail as they’ve used for banks, social media, etc., and this never ends well. All it takes is one of those accounts to get compromised, and the bad guys have the keys to your castle. Don’t let that happen, be super smart about passwords!

I’ll step down from my anti-WinXP/7 and pro-Lastpass soapbox to conclude with the brutal truth that all of this Raspberry Pi + Linux stuff isn’t going to work out for many hams. If you’re more tech-savvy and want to better understand how computers actually work, a Raspberry Pi or older computer running Linux is going to be an incredibly good fit for you! If you don’t really care much for computers and just want to use EchoLink + CHIRP to program your radios from a spreadsheet, you should probably stick with Windows, Linux can get frustrating when troubleshooting. The Raspberry Pi products are a great fit for those who really want to “take the red pill” into technology, jumping head-first into the rabbit hole of computing knowledge. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “taking the blue pill” and staying in Windows Wonderland. I hope after reading all of this, you choose the red pill, because I can’t wait to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes with the following:

THE VOID IS GOING TO BRING US A KICK ASS GHOSTBUSTERS ...
Also recommended to watch The Matrix again if you haven’t within the past year 🙂


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Linux for Hams with WinXP/7 in their shack

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