I’ve also run into a few unforeseen problems, one or two of which might be deal-breakers. In my mind, this machine was the ideal candidate for this job, for a couple of reasons. First, it has a lot of problems.
- It’s noisy. The fan and hard drive are terrifically loud, considering how little power is in it.
- The case is shattered at every corner. It reminds me in some ways of my self-destructing Thinkpad (I still mourn the loss of that machine) last year, because sometimes the plastic will simply shatter rather than release the threads around a screw.
- It has three curmudgeonly keys, namely the G, K and right arrow keys these don’t work unless you smack them with a considerable amount of force — more than should be necessary, for sure.
- The video hardware is tetchy, at best. Late model graphics cards seem to be getting more and more finicky as the software leaves them behind, and it becomes more difficult to troubleshoot drivers, etc. Between this siliconmotion-driven card and the abysmal Trident-series cards, I have more than my share of screwball video behavior.
- There is no built-in networking hardware, which isn’t really the fault of the hardware; that’s just par for its generation. Still, it means there’s an intermediary layer to work through, and any time that can be avoided, it’s a bonus.
- It’s only 16-bit video, which isn’t a big deal either and doesn’t qualify as a shortcoming, but is worth mentioning. Even if the video card is accessible, it requires a little more attention than normal.
Of course, there is a string of positive points.
- The screen is immaculate. No dead pixels, no scratches, no faded spots, no washed out areas. The backlight is strong and even. In total, if you can weave your way through the scramble of drivers and settings, the results are spectacular.
- For the most part, the architecture is Linux-friendly. Video points aside, everything else inside is more or less manageable.
- It’s running at an acceptable speed. Sometimes I can feel my brain leaking out of my ears while I wait for a Pentium to do one simple task. This machine, at roughly three times the speed of my next slowest one, seems like a speed demon sometimes.
- I gave it a decent amount of memory. It came to me with 256Mb in it, but for the job it’ll only need about 24-32Mb. So I’ve yanked the larger chip and given it 64Mb. There’s no difference in performance.
- It has USB ports. This is a minor point of accessibility, but it’s sometimes what I use to separate usable from unusable.
- It has a PCMCIA port, which would be more surprising if it didn’t. I’ve always had better luck with PCMCIA network cards than USB ones, and as a result I have a small collection of cards that I rely on to get connected. The hardware here is easy to handle and can work with CardBus too.
The sad part is, and the reason I’ve mentioned all of this up to now, is that there is a small chain of unfortunate requirements that might make me rethink all this.
I disemboweled the machine piece by piece and made sure things still worked, but what I’m finding now is that the BIOS doesn’t like to be left without a floppy drive.
I’ve checked the BIOS settings but there’s no way to avoid that check, and unfortunately it demands I press a key to acknowledge the issue, before it will boot.
So now I have a choice between keeping the keyboard or keeping the floppy drive, or possibly both. Originally I was hoping to strip all of that away — even the touchpad — and connect via USB if necessary.
I’m wondering if that’s possible now, or at least after the first boot. If something gets turned off, it’ll require the original keyboard to start up again, and that will be a pain.
Similarly, the motherboard itself is only about half the depth of the physical casing, and relied on a thin PCB arm to connect the floppy mount and the battery contact. That arm is detachable, but removing it from the motherboard causes a POST error.
And the processor is somehow fused to the heat sink. I don’t know if it’s glue or petrified thermal paste. The entire business will pull out of the socket if it is shifted in the unlock direction, but it’s creepy that the two can’t be separated after that.
There are some other issues; I’m having trouble shifting from wired to wireless in Debian (yes, I fixed my router ) and while the map and clock will work without a network connection, it would be nice if the two would play together.
In any case, this is still a work in progress. I need a little more time this weekend to see if the entire experiment is a failure, or if I can still get the results I want with this particular machine.
It would sadden me to see it all come to naught, but at least it’s making a spectacular departure from the earth. Or maybe that too remains to be seen.