An old computer (we’re talking 4-5+ years old) can still be useful in a netbook-style capability. The only problem is that oftentimes older computers have either no optical drive (by design) or broken optical drives. Following the instructions found here did the trick–no physical media required and, to top it all off, the installation was still very, very speedy. In my particular case, the computer, after being fulled wiped, was getting a fresh copy of Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty). For some reason, only the 32-bit version worked properly. The 64-bit version should have worked (the processor supported it) and it may, in fact, have been OK with more hours of tinkering, but frankly it didn’t matter since the mobo only supported up to 2GB anyway.
There were a few problems which cropped up after installation, one of which was the lack of a non-CLI interface. I had told it to install the ubuntu-desktop package, but it seemed to have ignored me or something. Also, upon first boot, it gave me a
udev_work[XXX] open /dev/null failed: no such file or directory
message. This was fixed by running
sudo update-initramfs -c -k all
after logging in. The first problem (lack of GNOME/Unity) was fixed by running
sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop
After that finished downloading and installing, running either
sudo /etc/init.d/gdm start (likewise, stop to stop)
did the trick to get it up and running. One other nifty thing I learned is that if your computer only has 1 OS installed (like just Ubuntu, no Windows), if your wait time before selecting an option is 0 seconds, or if something is just plain screwed up, you can hold Shift to make GRUB appear at boot.