Can I make my custom locked-down computer more “open”?

Forum Forums General Tips and Tricks Can I make my custom locked-down computer more “open”?

  • This topic has 4 replies, 3 voices, and was last updated Jan 26-9:05 pm by Brian Masinick.
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  • #98043
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    seaken64

      Can I make my custom locked-down computer more “open”?

      I recently acquired an old computer branded as a WOW! computer. This computer brand is marketed to seniors who are not comfortable using computers. (Here’s a site that mentions it – https://www.elderguru.com/wow-computer-for-seniors/) The basic idea is that the computer is set up by the mother company with a locked down set of programs, running on top of a Linux distribution that is less susceptible to viruses and malware than the computer systems most people use (Windows & MAC). You get 30 days of free support while you are learning to use the machine to check your email, look at photos and Facebook, etc. Then you pay about $10/month for continued support. If anything goes wrong you call the support number and they help you. You can also have someone log in remotely to solve your issues for you. No computer “techy” knowledge is necessary. Just turn it on and use it and then turn it off.

      Some people love it. Some people hate it. It is fairly expensive at about $1200 for a rather entry level piece of equipment (low end AMD processor) and less RAM (2GB) than would normally be desired in todays computing environment. Any person who understands computers will find this price for this equipment as overpriced. But for those who just don’t care to learn computers and are afraid of malware and viruses and fixing computers they gladly pay the price for some peace of mind.

      One of the biggest drawbacks for this system is that it is locked down to the point that the user cannot install any software. And the user must use the software that was provided for them. There is no choice. And if the user decides not to pay the $10/mo they are on their own. There will be no local help since it runs a customized Linux that no one among their family and friends will understand so they will not be able to help. Another issue that is often mentioned as a problem is that the system only supports HP printers. No other printers are supported. If you already have another brand of printer you are out of luck. HP printers only.

      So, what can be done if someone buys into this computer and then becomes disallusioned and wants to make a change? Or what if the user passes away and the family wants to give this computer away to someone or give it to the senior center? Can this computer be upgraded? Can it be used my multiple people? Can it be switched to Windows or MAC operating system? Can it run a standard Linux distro like MX or antiX?

      I set about to find the answers to these questions by diving in to learn all I could about this Wow! computer that is now in my collection of old computers. Maybe I can put it use. Or maybe I can help others who got this same computer but are confused about what to do with it if they don’t like the closed system it runs on.

      I don’t know if this particular Wow! computer is the same as other locked down systems being sold and marketed under other brands. But I am confident that any marginally competent computer nerd can repurpose this machine and/or modify it to be more open for those who want that option.

      When you first turn on this Wow! computer you are greeted with a MSI logo (MSI is the manufacturer of this Wow! computer) and a little bit of text in the lower left corner that tells you what keys to press to get into the BIOS or Boot menus. For this computer the DEL key is pressed while this screen is displayed to get into the BIOS setup screens. I don’t know if this screen is always shown or if this is a setting that can be turned on or off by the manufacturer. At any rate, it was pretty easy on this machine to get into the BIOS setup screens. It may be a little harder on some other systems but in my experience it is usually possible to boot the machine into the BIOS setup screens.

      Once in the BIOS setup you can set the boot settings to boot from either a CD/DVD drive or a USB key drive. Using that setting I was able to boot into antiX off a Live USB. Once antiX was booted I was able to check that all the devices worked, such as sound and wifi, and then I used Gparted to look at the hard drive and determine how it was partitioned and formatted. In this case the hard drive was set as an MSDOS type and had three partitions already setup. One was a boot partition, one for the general Operating System, and one for a Swap partition. I was able to “shrink” the main OS partition and open enough room for a new Extended partition. Then I created a new Logical partition and formatted it with a Linux EXT4 type. Then I shut down and rebooted to the antiX Live USB to set the new partition table.

      After I confirmed all the devices were working, and connecting to my wifi, I installed antiX-22 to this new logical partition I just created. I chose to allow the installer to install the grub bootloader to the MBR of the hard drive. Then I rebooted again and chose to boot from the hard drive. I was expecting to see antiX-22 and the Wow! systems on the grub menu. But the Wow! system was not listed. So I booted into antiX and ran boot repair and rebooted. Again, Wow! was not listed. I again booted into antiX and I mounted the Wow! partition and looked at the boot partition and found the grub boot configs. I could see that the grub that was used by Wow! was an older version and used the wrong syntax for the current grub 2 system being used by antiX-22.

      I modified the /etc/grub.d/40_custom file and added the grub lines from the Wow! boot config files and adjusted them with the current grub 2 syntax. Then I again ran antiX Boot Repair and rebooted. This time the Wow! system was on the list at boot time. I selected Wow! and it started up normally. From the Wow! software perspective this system is the only system on the computer and it doesn’t know about antiX.

      So, this is the solution for anyone who wants to either keep their Wow! computer running but also make the computer more “open” and “normal”, or someone who wants to repurpose the machine and install another Operating System and never use Wow! again.

      It is always my practice to keep the original operating system on the computer when I get a new “old computer”. This is partly for historical purposes. But it also so that I can access the original setup files that the original manufacturer may have installed. I usually do this with a Windows system. But this works just as well with this Wow! computer. And it will work with any other hard drive installed system. (I have found that this approach does not work with ChromeOS systems since Chrome does not like to share the drive. On those systems you need to add a second drive if you want to keep the original ChromeOS).

      This solution of multi-booting another operating system along with the Wow! system should solve most of the complaints that I mentioned above. If the user, or a “nerd” who is helping out, installs a mainstream Linux distro in another partition, and sets up grub to have a menu of choices that the user can select from, then the user can choose to not use Wow! all the time. But Wow! will still be there if they want to use it. Just switch back and forth between Wow! and the mainstream Linux. Use the mainstream Linux for the non-HP printers, additional software, and anything else a regular Linux system can provide. Or maybe the wife wants to use Wow! and the husband wants to use Linux, or visa versa. It is not hard to teach the user what choice to make at the grub menu. And both systems can be multi-user.

      I suspect that most of us who use antiX or MX would not enjoy using a Wow! computer. And we probably would not suggest our friends and relatives to buy one. But if they do, and they ask for our help, we may suggest that they let us make their computer more “open” by multi-booting with antiX or MX. They will thank us for liberating them from the locked down Wow! system. And they can stop paying the $10 per month!

      #98057
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      Xunzi_23
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        Hi seaken64,
        thanks for interesting post, I had never heard of the wow mafia, $1149.00 plus shipping $49.95 plus
        unlimited VIP tech support $9.95 each month. impressive for what buyers get :-(.
        Seems much of the budget goes for advertizing in magazines for senior citizens…

        https://www.apple.com/shop/buy-mac shows even some mac books are in that price range, at least within USA.

        Seems this is present spec.
        With 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM,

        The computer’s screen is 21.5 inches wide,
        Other features include:
        Double wow, Stereo speakers
        Built-in microphone
        Intel Celeron Quad Core Processor
        Flash drive with 32 GB of storage
        8 USB ports for device connection
        WiFi capability
        camera

        Hope I never get so senile and gullible to fall for that kind of trap.

        #98332
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        seaken64
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          Hi @Xunzi_23, some people have gone so far as to call this a scam. I think it is a matter of perspective. For the computer literates, yes, this seems like a scam. But there are many folks who just want to do stuff without having to know how it works and they are willing to pay the price as long as it works for them. It does work for some folks.

          The problem is being restricted and locked down to the WOW! system only. Once it breaks you’re done. Once you outgrow it and decide you want to be more ‘techy’ and start doing ‘computery’ stuff, like installing applications and peripherals or changing browsers or file managers, you’re out of luck.

          This is where antiX can keep the machine alive. Heck, you’ve already spent your $1200 and $10/mo. antiX turns the computer into a regular computer that you can use however you want. You can either keep the Wow! stuff installed or install antiX only.

          Don’t worry, if you turn senile and buy one these things you won’t even be aware of it!

          Seaken64

          #98333
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          Brian Masinick
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            I’ve probably said this AT LEAST a HUNDRED times over the course of my career.

            Whatever computer systems, operating systems or mobile devices people obtain is THEIR choice. I’m very grateful for Linux software.

            I used to primarily a UNIVAC 1110 mainframe computer as a computer science undergraduate student in the 1970s, but I did have a few opportunities to use other options – a true real-time laboratory computer, a Digital Equipment PDP-8 minicomputer, and just before I graduated, a Heathkit H8 microcomputer. This taught me that there are many different types of systems. Also in high school I was able to access a county wide minicomputer with dial in access to a very simple environment with BASIC, just enough to get an initial interest in computer systems.

            My first professional job was at a large corporation writing short tools to analyze corporate telephony data, initially long distance phone traffic and later the emergence of a variety of software and hardware that changed the way we communicate with phones and computers.

            This work allowed me to get into the use of PCs, minicomputer systems and exploring emerging network technology and it also gave me a chance to get involved with UNIX systems.

            A few years later this background allowed me to move to Digital Equipment Corporation. At the time the company as a whole wasn’t very interested in UNIX systems but one major group of customers were: AT&T and the recently divested Bell Operating companies, all of whom were major Digital customers!

            Our Bell Accounts Systems Engineering team worked closely with these important customers and made sure that UNIX System V worked with our hardware. Every time we created new hardware we’d write UNIX drivers to support them. Millions of dollars were involved when all of the companies were considered.

            Within a decade UNIX became an important operating system for any major computer systems manufacturing company. Our company built one of the early (though not the first) 64 bit UNIX operating system. In the early days of 64 bit systems we felt that ours was one of the most completely 64 bit versions available because the other options were ports of earlier 32 bit systems and ours was a complete rewrite to take full advantage of the 64 bit address space.

            That’s all academic because the window was short lived. In the nineties Linux already existed. Once the Beowulf project began even inexpensive 64 bit systems could be transformed into massively scalable supercomputer systems so DEC’s window was very short. Hewlett Packard bought both Digital and Tandem, plus Compaq Computer and went head to head with IBM for leadership.

            Naturally with inexpensive systems available to scale greatly, Dell and others also joined the party…

            A few people at Digital were interested in Linux. A guy named Jon “maddog” Hall was one of them. Jon and I used to meet near a microwave where we’d pop up a bag of popcorn and talk about ULTRIX, UNIX System V and later Linux. Jon left Digital and was a founding member of Linux International. Both of us could clearly see that Linux done right could work on big systems, small systems and mobile systems (like smartphones) that Telco companies were salivating about, looking for a profitable way to move on from their dinosaur networks!

            I moved on too. I found Y2K (Year 2000) was a good way to get a few short term contract positions. For me it was also a way to move to financial services firms who also were moving from UNIX to Linux systems.

            That’s what I turned toward later in my career: testing and migration of software to new technology from legacy systems. Once I did that I conceded my place to younger, more nimble young engineers.

            Brian
            Or "The Mas"

            #98334
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            Brian Masinick
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              The reason I told that overly long story is that one size does not fit all and things are constantly changing.

              Let’s remember that and use what we have to fit in where others can’t or won’t.

              Brian
              Or "The Mas"

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