I realized a day ago, that I needed to bring my perspective into line a little bit. For about two years now, maybe more, I’ve been holding on to a somewhat-useful axnet-cs-based wired PCMCIA card, because it was occasionally in a good mood and would connect a really old laptop to the Internet, and sometimes save the day.
Truth be told, its success rate was under 50 percent, but I always assumed it was an issue of configuration, that I could probably rely on it in a pinch, and that it was worth keeping around for compatibility issues.
So imagine my surpise earlier this week, when I bought a second leftover PCMCIA wired LAN adapter, and brought it home and plugged it in, and found that it too used the axnet-cs module, and that it too dropped connections when the traffic spiked. I dug the old one out of the trash, and stashed them both in the closet, for emergencies.
And then I started to think about it: Why stand on ancient PCMCIA cards that I know to be less than useful — and in some cases actually the source of problems — when there are literally bins full of leftover PCMCIA network cards at the recycling store? Why suffer these quirky leftovers when 10-year-old network cards are only about 95 cents US, and sold with a smile?
I can afford to sink a few dollars into finding one that’s not axnet-based, that doesn’t need a dongle and is mostly reliable, I told myself. And while I’m at it, there’s no need to keep the unworthy floppy drive for the 560e in the closet, when there are two or three spare IBM external floppy drives floating around in those same bins, and not one of them is more than US$3.
So I went to the recycling shop yesterday and scrounged around until I had found two cards that I was fairly sure would be CardBus-free and probably work with Linux (of course, with hardware as old as what I seek, it would be terrifically rare to find something incompatible). The first was an IODATA-branded PCET100-CL, which needs no dongle and immediately lit up like a Christmas tree when I stuck it in the 560e. Debian pounced on it, pointed its finger, shrieked “NE2000!” and assigned it to eth1.
The other was a Planex ENW-3503-T, in its original box and with a faded TurboLinux sticker on it (“OK!” says Tux, while holding a lightning bolt). That proved to be a winner too (Tux doesn’t lie) when Debian found the pcnet-cs module for that one, configured it and assigned it to eth2. I’ll probably use the first one though, since the second needs a dongle, and I dislike those.
So there were two cards, both avoiding hardware chipsets (or software drivers, I suppose) that are less than helpful to me, and neither one costing me more than a few US dollars, relatively speaking. Why I never did that a year ago is still a mystery, considering the dozens of times I tossed them aside while digging around in the recycling store.
(I was a little less lucky with a leftover Thinkpad floppy; it powers up and the drive will spin, but it too doesn’t read the floppy, which could mean that it’s not compatible, or maybe not working. I can try again; I saw at least one more while I was there on Friday.)
Wait, though: The best part of the story is coming. When I originally bought the 560e, there were two PCMCIA cards still stuck in the ports. One was some sort of IBM emulator card (I think it was a token ring adapter) and the other was an Intel PRO/100 PCMCIA card. I jumped for joy to see the second one until I remembered there was no dongle, which made it into a worthless hunk of plastic and aluminum.
Making a long story short though, the Planex dongle fits the Intel card, and while the lights don’t turn on while it is running, it gets sustained download speeds of well over 500kbps, and possibly more if I use a fast, in-country server. It feels good to watch a Pentium download an entire Ubuntu ISO — a file that takes up one-third of its hard drive — in less than 18 minutes.
So now I have three working wired network PCMCIA adapters, none of which shows any difficulties and all of which show nice, fast, consistent download speeds. What happens to the old axnet-cs cards? I’m not sure. I don’t like throwing stuff away, but I don’t like pawning off less-than-reliable hardware on someone else. I suppose it’s a buyer-beware situation anyway when you’re working with stuff this old, but if I can convince myself that the lifespan of those cards is expired, I might send them on to the aluminum reclaimers.
I guess the moral of the story here is simply, “When working with out-of-date hardware, there’s no reason to suffer through poor performance.” That might sound odd, but it makes sense if you think about it: There are so many cheap, leftover replacements for certain accessories that unless you’re strapped by virtue of location or function, you can afford to employ a scattergun approach, and buy two or three at a time and take your chances. Provided the hardware still works, it’s fairly safe to say that Linux will too.