Saturday, March 5, 2016

Getting my dad on Linux

source:freestockphotos.bizI'm worried about my dad catching malware on the net. The threats are escalating and he does nothing to protect himself. He's also 78 yo. If something were to happen, it would be up to me to fix whatever came up. I wish to make his surfing experience as painless as possible, have him protected and have me avoid as much as possible any tedious cleanup.

Up till now I've had him surf with Sandboxie and it has worked great: no infections or data loss. However, there have been some compatibility issues, such as Word documents not working at all, and cryptic notification messages from the program appearing here and there. On the whole the experience with it had turned from fine to kludgie. What's more, conceptually, being just one program, Sandboxie is a thinner layer of protection than what can be put together with just a bit more effort and with better end user experience. 

I decided to get him to use Linux within a VM.

This are the benefits I see going for this solution:

  • Linux is by itself is of a different DNA than Windows, so Windows-specific malware will just not execute.

  • Linux, as I see it, is now close to prime-time, meaning that the switch and maintanance is less confusing and awkward than it used to be (and not that long ago).

  • A VM keeps the physical system clean and out of harm's way frequently for free.

  • It also makes it easy to restore a given state quite speedily. So, messing up the guest is no problem.

  • In my experience, there's no discernible loss of performance, if given reasonable resources (RAM and cpu cores)

The only problem, other than getting used to the few extra steps for the user, is getting files out of the system. We'll talk about that later.

Why not entirely Linux?

Mainly because inertia. I already know the limits of how much I can push Windows and how if something wrong happens to it, how to fix it. Not so, with Linux since I'm a newbie myself. I'm sure this will gradually change with experience. The other part is compatibility. Even with Wine and all, I want to be able that one program for him when he  or I need it. With Windows on the physical machine, I know I can count on native compatibility.


For the host machine a brand new Dell Inspiron 3647 small desktop ( core i5-4460S, 8 gb 7200 hd) running on Windows 10 (upgraded from 7). As a parallel project, and to get him better loading times, I changed the spinning hard drive for a Samsung 850 evo SSD. I crossed my fingers for the SSD to not fail on us and I was not disappointed. Curiously, loading times for the snapshots were slower when I assigned three cores to the machine rather than two.

Virtual Machine:

Virtualbox. It has the features I need, its free and has a great company behind it, hopefully keeping it up to date for many years to come.


Linux Mint 17.2. This is because all that he could  immediately need is already there: flash, office, vlc for media playback, printer support and more. For web browsing I eschew Firefox because I get a clunky feel from it, and because my dad did not like it on a previous run some time ago. Chrome feels slicker, also has pdf reading support, and my dad is already invested in the Google ecosphere, so that went in instead. Bodhi Linux for the guest as a whole felt like a good alternative and I gave it a try to see if I could build a slimmer guest by adding just the software I thought my dad could need and I did. However, I could not wrap my mind around its philosophy, which resulted in a less than optimal experience in my test run. I still think is worth checking it out for the very reason of building from its base up, but didn't pan for me this time. I saw no reason for other distros, because the system already could handle Mint flyingly, and what's the point? For myself I choose Crunchbang.

As additional software Dropbox. Getting the Brother 9970cdw to print from within the VM was straightforward.


Getting files out of the guest is the weakest part of my solution. There is not the easy drag-and-drop functionality I have got accustomed to from Virtual PC 2007. Sharing folders is possible, but there is no way I'm going to leave a hole open in my defenses.  Unfounded or not, I'm worried that something else will want to invite itself in for the ride. I'll have to look into this matter more closely later.

The best I can come up with for now is check  whatever file my dad wants to keep with Virustotal and then upload it to his Google drive and download it back from to the host. I'm willing to do this the first few times  and then teach him to do it by himself later. Not optimal, but I hoping for the moment that this awkward solution won't be needed enough to be a headache. From the other end, I set up another hidden "person" where there is  a live session of his Google account from which he can upload files, mostly scans for attachments.

But was he willing to learn?

With regards to technology he usually takes the path of least resistance. However, I have something to leverage my project with: his email. Most of his computer use is for email messages and if I can give him a better experience, let me tell you, he's all in for it.

Results so far

I am sad to say that the change was not a swimmingly as I had envisioned… And I'm mostly to blame.

When the computer was all set up, I thought I had the VM ready for a test run, but I had not thoroughly checked this time around all the things he might need. And right away, on the first use, he could not open a PowerPoint presentation. When I tried to fix that, he began to look discouraged at all the typing I was making, at the entering passwords and such. Then, VLC, which has a fine reputation for playing anything, began crashing the virtual machine right away, which was odd: I had tested it without a hitch previously, but now it wouldn't behave. Apparently there is something not quite working in the combination of Windows 10+Virtualbox 5 + Linux Mint 17.2+VLC. Had to change the setup back to totem. Days later, some encrypted presentations failed to open altogether owing that Libreoffice is entirely unable to deal with them, which was totally unanticipated. Up until now, it had dealt with anything that I had thrown it.

The worst part was me not being able to keep cool and patient with my dad. His complaints were: why change? It was easier before. Where is my background?

Windows 10, for its own part, had its own quirks that had to be ironed out. The worst offenders were the color scheme and the lack of an explicit shutdown button.

Took me a few extra days, but eventually the setup began to behave well,and he began using it regularly as he did with his old machine. He doesn't appear to care about the underlying platform as long as it does what he wants it to and Chrome has had a large part in this for its relative ease and familiarity.


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