Category Archives: Hardware

One existential crisis at a time, please

Not everything I keep around the house is an absolute winner. I do feel like I can pick and choose the machines that stay with me, and which ones go on to new owners and new lives. But sometimes there are machines that really test my principles.

Here’s one. This is a lowly Dell Inspiron 4000. And it’s definitely not a model specimen.

2014-09-14-insp-4000

Quite to the contrary. This machine is a veritable best-of list for everything that can possibly go wrong with an old laptop. When it came to me,

  1. It had no memory.
  2. It had no battery, and no power supply.
  3. It had a CD player, but the door mechanism is broken, and if you don’t hold it in, it doesn’t read the CD.
  4. It had a floppy drive, but I shook so much dust out of it that I’m seriously concerned about jeopardizing one of my few remaining floppy disks by testing the drive.
  5. It has no rubber feet left, and what remains causes it to rock on a flat surface.
  6. The screen is in good shape, but takes a while to warm up. Until then, the display has a red tint to it.
  7. It has one — only one — USB port, and that’s a version 1.1 port, so it’s phenomenally slow. To make matters worse, it feels like the port is losing its grip on the motherboard, because the port flexes when you push in a drive. Scary.
  8. About a fourth of the keys — mostly in the upper right quadrant — don’t work. Either the keyboard is on the fritz, or the signal isn’t being caught by the machine. I guess the former.
  9. The CMOS battery is dead, so you have to set the date each time the machine boots. Which is tricky, because again, a quarter of the keys don’t work.
  10. It has no built-in network port, or rather, this particular model has a plastic shield over the ethernet port, which usually was a sign that the board didn’t carry that port.
  11. It has more than its share of cracks, dings, scrapes, gouges, split seams, broken corners, busted lips, scuffs and scratches.

It looks a great deal cleaner now than it did when I got it. It still needs a complete disassembly and scrubbing — if it stays, of course.

And that’s where the existential crisis comes in. Because in spite of all that damage and all those deficiencies, it still works. Its saving grace is the the fact that it belongs to the Dell C-series, which means that laptops from about five or six years before and five or six years after it all used compatible parts — including this one.

So, after calling in some favors for a 256Mb stick of PC100, then borrowing the battery and a modular DVDRW drive from the 8200, I turned it on, and it came back to life. The Windows 2000 installation was still in place and functional, even if it was hideously slow. The touchpad is in good shape. And the screen is clear and free of flaws.

I gave it an Atheros-based PCMCIA wireless card, and started it up with a PLOP CD and the Arch Linux install ISO on USB. From there I could ssh into it and work up a system, for as long as the battery would last. And as you can see, after some slight delays, it’s functional again.

But from here it becomes a question of worth, because at its core, it’s still a 600Mhz Celeron, with only 256Mb of memory, a lowly 30Gb hard drive … and all-over barely functional. Sure, it has all-Intel guts and an ATI Mobility card. But it’s not something your day-to-day computer user, circa 2014, wants to take home to meet the family.

So the jury is still out on this machine. I still haven’t tried it with a proper power supply, and I need to know for sure that the keyboard issues are just in the keyboard. I have a feeling that it will cost me more than the value of the machine just to find that out, which is why I’m debating disassembly for parts.

I hate doing that, but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. :|

The masses have spoken: The ’41s

I wasn’t expecting the avalanche of replies and e-mails asking — sometimes demanding — to hear more about the hardware I have in the house right now. I’m flattered, and just for the record I wasn’t being self-deprecating or fishing for compliments when I said reading about my old junk would be boring. I honestly thought it would get a bit tedious.

But apparently not. So I might as well drag out a couple more basement dwellers, and show them the light of day. Here are a couple I refer to obliquely as “the ’41s.”

2014-08-19-kl-mkc96-t41 2014-08-19-lv-c5551-x41

Through some twist of fate I came up with two Thinkpads from the same release era: the X41 tablet on the right and the stock T41 laptop on the left. Every picture tells a story, so here’s a little background for each.

The X41 was a deliberate purchase that coincided, ironically, with my plan to transfer all my personal electronic documents to an encrypted live system. This is a true Centrino, with the 915 graphics card, a 1.5Ghz processor and PRO/2200 wireless.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM/GMS/910GML Express Processor to DRAM Controller (rev 03)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller (rev 03)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.3 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #4 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev d3)
00:1e.2 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.3 Modem: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Modem Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 03)
00:1f.2 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) SATA Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) SMBus Controller (rev 03)
02:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5751M Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 11)
04:00.0 CardBus bridge: Ricoh Co Ltd RL5c476 II (rev 8d)
04:00.1 SD Host controller: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C822 SD/SDIO/MMC/MS/MSPro Host Adapter (rev 13)
04:02.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 2200BG [Calexico2] Network Connection (rev 05)

It’s a good combination for Linux in particular; I haven’t seen a thing on this computer that required more than the tiniest measure of configuration. About the only hiccup I ever see is a recent hesitation by the 2200 card to keep connections under Arch Linux. I see this in other machines though too, so it’s not specific to this computer.

Courtesy of inxi:

System:    Host: lv-c5551 Kernel: 3.13.0-32-generic i686 (32 bit, gcc: 4.8.2) Desktop: Gnome Distro: Ubuntu 14.04 trusty
Machine:   System: IBM (portable) product: 18665GU version: ThinkPad X41 Tablet
           Mobo: IBM model: 18665GU Bios: IBM version: 75ET34WW (1.05 ) date: 09/07/2005
CPU:       Single core Intel Pentium M (-UP-) cache: 2048 KB bmips: 1197.1 clocked at 600.00 MHz 
           CPU Flags: acpi apic bts clflush cmov cx8 de dts est fpu fxsr mca mce mmx msr mtrr 
           nx pae pbe pge pse sep ss sse sse2 tm tm2 tsc vme 
Graphics:  Card: Intel Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller bus-ID: 00:02.0 
           X.Org: 1.15.1 drivers: intel (unloaded: fbdev,vesa) Resolution: 1024x768@60.0hz 
           GLX Renderer: Mesa DRI Intel 915GM x86/MMX/SSE2 GLX Version: 1.4 Mesa 10.1.3 Direct Rendering: Yes
Audio:     Card: Intel 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller 
           driver: snd_intel8x0 ports: 1c00 18c0 bus-ID: 00:1e.2 
           Sound: Advanced Linux Sound Architecture ver: k3.13.0-32-generic
Network:   Card-1: Broadcom NetXtreme BCM5751M Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express driver: tg3 ver: 3.134 bus-ID: 02:00.0
           IF: eth0 state: down mac: 00:0a:e4:3b:c5:b2
           Card-2: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG [Calexico2] Network Connection driver: ipw2200 ver: 1.2.2kmprq bus-ID: 04:02.0
           IF: eth1 state: up mac: 00:13:ce:86:7f:18
Drives:    HDD Total Size: 40.0GB (9.0% used) 1: id: /dev/sda model: HTC426040G9AT00 size: 40.0GB temp: 31C 
           Optical: No optical drives detected.
Partition: ID: / size: 36G used: 3.4G (11%) fs: ext4 dev: /dev/sda1 
           label: N/A uuid: 01e3748a-7b12-457b-b480-32d25b36afa8
           ID: swap-1 size: 1.60GB used: 0.00GB (0%) fs: swap dev: /dev/sda5 
           label: N/A uuid: f1d61a8b-cd4a-4d44-8acd-b1accc79dd11
RAID:      No RAID devices detected - /proc/mdstat and md_mod kernel raid module present
Unmounted: No unmounted partitions detected
Sensors:   System Temperatures: cpu: 46.0C mobo: 39.0C 
           Fan Speeds (in rpm): cpu: 0 
Info:      Processes: 152 Uptime: 10 min Memory: 334.2/1499.9MB Runlevel: 2 Gcc sys: 4.8.2 
           Client: Shell (bash 4.3.11) inxi: 1.9.17

Yes, that does show Ubuntu 14.04 on it; the photo is a much more agreeable Arch Linux system. But I’ve never used a tablet computer for any length of time, and I have talked down the Unity interface for so many years, I figured I should at least test it in a tablet/smartphone style before continuing to deride it.

It’s more or less what I expect: It’s completely unintuitive for me as a regular desktop user, the application search tool is particularly obtuse, and I really, really dislike the injection of so much Amazon and online searching crap. But it’s not intended for me, so my complaints are moot point. Perhaps some other time I’ll tell you what I really think about it.

Here’s it’s bigger brother, the T41:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation 82855PM Processor to I/O Controller (rev 03)
00:01.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82855PM Processor to AGP Controller (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 01)
00:1d.1 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 01)
00:1d.2 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 01)
00:1d.7 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-M) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 01)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev 81)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801DBM (ICH4-M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 01)
00:1f.1 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801DBM (ICH4-M) IDE Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) SMBus Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.5 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.6 Modem: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Modem Controller (rev 01)
01:00.0 VGA compatible controller: Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. [AMD/ATI] RV200/M7 [Mobility Radeon 7500]
02:00.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI4520 PC card Cardbus Controller (rev 01)
02:00.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI4520 PC card Cardbus Controller (rev 01)
02:01.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation 82540EP Gigabit Ethernet Controller (Mobile) (rev 03)
02:02.0 Ethernet controller: Qualcomm Atheros AR5212 802.11abg NIC (rev 01)

And from inxi:

System:    Host: kl-mkc96 Kernel: 3.15.8-1-ARCH i686 (32 bit gcc: 4.9.1) Desktop: N/A Distro: Arch Linux
Machine:   System: IBM product: 2375FU1 v: ThinkPad T41
           Mobo: IBM model: 2375FU1 Bios: IBM v: 1RETDRWW (3.23 ) date: 06/18/2007
CPU:       Single core Intel Pentium M (-UP-) cache: 1024 KB bmips: 3191 clocked at 1600 MHz
           CPU Flags: acpi bts clflush cmov cx8 de dts est fpu fxsr mca mce mmx msr mtrr pbe pge pse sep sse sse2
           tm tm2 tsc vme
Graphics:  Card: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD/ATI] RV200/M7 [Mobility Radeon 7500] bus-ID: 01:00.0
           Display Server: N/A drivers: ati,radeon Resolution: 145x55
Audio:     Card Intel 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Audio Controller
           driver: snd_intel8x0 ports: 1c00 18c0 bus-ID: 00:1f.5
           Sound: Advanced Linux Sound Architecture v: k3.15.8-1-ARCH
Network:   Card-1: Intel 82540EP Gigabit Ethernet Controller (Mobile)
           driver: e1000 v: 7.3.21-k8-NAPI port: 8000 bus-ID: 02:01.0
           IF: enp2s1 state: up speed: 100 Mbps duplex: full mac: fc:1f:19:e1:a9:0d
           Card-2: Qualcomm Atheros AR5212 802.11abg NIC driver: ath5k bus-ID: 02:02.0
           IF: wlp2s2 state: down mac: 00:05:4e:47:fd:c4
Drives:    HDD Total Size: 30.0GB (94.1% used) ID-1: /dev/sda model: IC25N030ATCS04 size: 30.0GB
           Optical: /dev/sr0 model: MATSHITA UJDA755zDVD/CDRW rev: 1.20 dev-links: cdrom
           Features: speed: 24x multisession: yes audio: yes dvd: yes rw: cd-r,cd-rw state: running
Partition: ID-1: / size: 28G used: 27G (96%) fs: ext2 dev: /dev/sda1
           label: N/A uuid: dcff29f5-b72d-40dc-9535-704e57eea88e
           ID-2: swap-1 size: 0.21GB used: 0.03GB (16%) fs: swap dev: /dev/sda2
           label: N/A uuid: f93b41a6-efd1-4cc1-9248-ed09f27d26b0
Info:      Processes: 71 Uptime: 6 days Memory: 139.1/498.4MB Init: systemd Gcc sys: 4.9.1
           Client: Shell (bash 4.3.221) inxi: 2.1.29

The T41 has a little more interesting history: I literally pulled it out of a trash heap a couple of months ago. The hard drive had been physically ripped out, taking with it a chunk of the palmrest, and there was no power cord. But the battery was there, and everything else was intact.

I took it home, diagnosed its shortcomings and checked on replacement parts. A meager US$16 later, it had a new palmrest, a new drive caddy and cover, and a compatible after-market power supply. Reborn, from the ashes of its previous self.

It has a few eccentricities though; most recently it has become somewhat hesitant to start. The normal Thinkpad lamp test finishes, the battery light illuminates, but the BIOS logo screen never appears. It’s a little disappointing, but the problem seems to revolve around using the power cord and battery together — start from battery alone and it’s fine; start from power cord alone and it’s fine; connect both at the same time and there’s some sort of unhappiness in there.

But I’m still pursuing that. I am a patient person; if it is suffering through the last of its short life, I’m willing to work with it and offer palliative care. ;)

That’s about it for now. Machines come and go in this household; I divested myself of two dual-core Latitude machines just a week or so ago. Don’t ask about those; I’m doing my best to keep you up-to-date, and a week makes a big difference around here. :mrgreen:

The trailing edge of the wave: The CTX EzBook 800

For as many times as I’ve introduced old laptops on this blog, you’d think I’d have a formula or a template page tucked away somewhere.

But I don’t, and here we are again with another underdog to report. I hope it’s not too dull for you; if it’s any consolation, I have three or four other laptops that I haven’t bothered to mention, because I imagine it to be terribly boring for you.

This one though, I feel is noteworthy. Not because it’s a cherished acquisition, like this one is, but because it’s such a curmudgeon that I have a feeling someone, somewhere down the line — probably me — will need information about it in the future. So I put it here, to avoid slogging through all the quirks again. And because that’s what this site was originally for. ;)

2014-08-06-ezbook-800-bootup

This is a CTX EzBook 800, the top-of-the-line model for EzBooks of 15 years ago. It’s a pure K6 machine, meaning it lacks a lot — and I mean a lot — of the requisites that most people saw in the computers of a decade ago, let alone now.

I got this as a castoff from a friend, who is also a bit of a technophile and prefers to work with out-of-date machines for a number of reasons. My friend is primarily a Windows person though, and I have a feeling this was such an underperformer that he was glad to see it go. I know he considered putting Linux on it and even asked a few questions online, but was out of his depth and didn’t see much future in it.

Apparently he paid about $1 in an online auction for it, plus the cost of a new power adapter. Not bad.

This is not my first EzBook, and that was one of the reasons I agreed to adopt it. I have had 700 and 700E models in the past, and if I remember right, that 700E was one of my first test runs with Linux. It didn’t go well, but I lacked the experience then to make it work.

And it seems that I still lack some experience now, given my rather lackluster success at getting the 800 version to sing along. Not that I have terrifically high expectations, but I do have a reputation to preserve. :???:

Here’s a rundown on the guts, and I can explain the implications later.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 03)
00:10.0 VGA compatible controller: Neomagic Corporation NM2160 [MagicGraph 128XD] (rev 01) (prog-if 00 [VGA controller])
00:12.0 ISA bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev c1)
00:12.1 IDE interface: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 11) (prog-if 0a [SecP PriP])
00:12.2 USB Controller: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. Unknown device 1234 (rev 03) (prog-if 10 [OHCI])
00:18.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)
00:18.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)

The hard drive is a Fujitsu MHD2032AT, and the optical drive is a TEAC CD-220EA. My friend maxed out the memory at 128Mb, which complements the 300Mhz K6 quite nicely. I’ve had good success with NeoMagic cards (better than the Tridents, that’s for sure >:( ), and having USB ports on a machine this old makes it an absolute treasure. Phoenix made the BIOS, which is important because the USB ports and a few other things are enabled or disabled through that.

There are some critical points in there, if you’re fighting with a similar machine or one from this era. Please bear with me, and I’ll work through them slowly.

My friend said he could get no modern version of Linux to work on it, and even though I suggested both Slackware and Debian, he still claimed no success. I can attest to that now: Both Debian 7.x and Slackware 14 ran into problems either locating the CDROM or hard drive, or both. You can add these to that list:

  1. Alpine Linux 2.7 for x86, which boots and will configure itself to the live CLI environment, but can’t find the hard drive.
  2. Puppy Linux, slacko in the non-PAE version, which spit out errors demanding a CPU with cmov.
  3. TinyCore, in its newest version, which reached text mode but couldn’t find the hard drive or CDROM.

In most cases, those were dealbreaker attempts, because the live or installation environment couldn’t find hardware I would need to move forward. Here are some others that fell flat, but for slightly different reasons.

  1. Crux Linux 2.7, which was the last i586 rendition. Refused to boot past connecting to the CDROM and ended in the jaws of the mythical “can’t access tty; job control turned off” error.
  2. Debian 5.1, which installed but boots into a soft lockup and seems content to spend eternity reporting its hopelessly frozen state at 90-second intervals.
  3. *buntu versions after 6.10, which usually didn’t get so far as Debian 5.1, and reported no hard drive or no CDROM or both.
  4. Slitaz, the 4.0 release, which booted into text mode and would allow me to install, but locked on boot.

Just out of curiosity, I also tried:

  1. ReactOS 0.3.16, the live rendition, which amazingly worked better on that machine than any other I’ve tried in recent years. I reached a Windows-esque blue desktop and a brief show of some wallpaper, but then it hung and became unresponsive. That may have been a low-memory complication.
  2. FreeDOS 1.1, which took an exceptionally long time to install, and would boot with the assistance of the installation CD. From there it would need the obvious additions of useful software and perhaps a graphical desktop.
  3. Clonezilla in recent 486 versions couldn’t find the hard drive, which is only important because it means any system I build on there will have to be dd’d off via USB1.1 for backups. :shock: Oh well, it’s not the first time. …

The real plot twists come here:

  • Ubuntu 6.06.1 and Xubuntu 6.06, both of which would find the hard drive and CD drive, and install over the course of an hour or so. The resulting desktop was forced into 800×600 (on a 1024×768 screen), and was marginally useful. I tried hand-editing the xorg.conf file but only managed to bork the display so badly as to require starting over. No network access through the PCMCIA port, which sounds familiar.
  • DSL 4.4.10 would of course work, but I ran aground again with the system freeze on wireless insert bug, which I blame on the 2.4 kernels. I used to suspect the PCMCIA-to-CardBus switchover for that, but it seems even CardBus PC cards inserted into a CardBus bridge will trigger it. My only orinoco-based card just doesn’t respond with DSL. :(
  • Crux 2.4 for the i586, which includes kernel 2.6.23.9 by default but could have a newer one implanted. Booted, found CDROM, found hard drive, and installed without major incident.

For me, what is at issue here is the evolution of PC hardware away from ISA-based components to the standards which are more common now. Along with that, there was the shift away from the old kernel support for PATA hard drives to the newer SATA-style code. Add to that an ATAPI CD drive, and it’s easy to see why some distros just didn’t work, and others worked reasonably well.

You can almost pick out a month and year when the trailing edge of the wave fell away. This machine seems to have ridden the far edge of that crest, and as a result finds itself drifting on the other side. :sad:

My proof for this is in the kernel configuration for Crux 2.4, where the old-style ATA options are enabled and all the drives are found. That should correspond to the mid-2000s versions of Ubuntu, where the last support for those same drives is found. After 6.10 or so, the machine falls off again.

I can’t account for Lenny’s soft lockups though, and I don’t see much help online for that particular issue. I tried the old noacpi gimmicks from a decade ago, but whatever plagued the 5.x versions of Lenny persists.

But all is not lost. If I absolutely gut Crux’s 2.6.23.9 kernel, I can compile it in about 45 minutes at 300Mhz, and best of all, I can boot to a graphical desktop with blackbox, which comes by default. (Now you understand my recent affection for blackbox. ;) )

In fact, short of getting a CardBus network adapter to respond, the entire machine works fine.

And depending on how CDs I’m willing to burn, I could conceivably hopscotch my way up from 2007 to circa 2011. The bulk of those packages is precompiled and available on the ISOs, with the exception of the contrib ports. And I have time these days to babysit it, as it churns away at the code.

There’s a little voice in my head that keeps telling me to yank the hard drive and install it externally, and then replace it. Usually there’s another little voice right after that one though, that says I’m too clumsy to get the case open on this without cracking or scratching the body somehow, and it’s too pretty as it is.. And of course, there are no service manuals online any more. … :(

So while all is not lost, this is definitely on the verge of falling through the cracks. And let’s be clear: I have no aspirations of bringing this machine into the 21st century, or for that matter, playing a YouTube video with it. Those days are over, friends. We have the Internet to blame for that.

I can’t deny it’s a terrific challenge though, and I am enjoying smacking my head against the screen for hours on end. But it does feel good when I stop. ;)

Poor man’s SSD: A cryptic twist

If you’ve suffered through this site over the years, you will recall there was a time in the previous decade when a little idea paid off big, and an ancient laptop got a nifty upgrade.

Fast-forward to this year, and again, a little crablike thinking seems to have paid off.

Let’s start at the beginning. Remember this machine? It’s humming along nicely, and with only a few shortcomings, I expect it will last quite a while into the future.

Among those shortcomings are a lack of USB2.0 ports, and nothing to interface with SD cards. For some reason Dell never swapped out the USB1.1 ports that were part of the early 8000 line for the higher-speed ports that were more common with Pentium 4 machines. Design flaw, or programmed obsolescence? You decide.

Regardless, the obvious solution is a PCMCIA-to-USB2.0 card, which costs all of about US$2 these days. They’re literally recycle store giveaways, to be honest.

Which means the two omissions — USB2.0 and an SD card reader — are related in an odd way: From PCMCIA to USB2.0, to USB-to-SD reader, to an SD card. It’s not as ungainly as it sounds, and really, I’ve done much worse in the past. At roughly US$6, something like this was well worth the price.

And with a lot of leftover SD cards lying around — mostly from the same camera I’ve owned for about seven years now — this is a good way to pick up a little extra storage space, in oddball sizes.

Now shift gears for a little bit, to a larger, grander scale. Online privacy is something that I think about a lot more these days, and I hope you do too. Knowing that most anything that’s transmitted unprotected is likely to be archived somewhere by someone for sometime has, in short, caused me to retract just about anything I kept on the web — everything to the lowliest .conf file — and either keep it locally or repost it encrypted.

A few months ago I decided the best way toward physical security for that data was to dedicate one entire machine to the prospect of data storage. Starting with the operating system, I wanted something that could encrypt without excessive entanglement, require several passwords to access, be more or less impervious to environmental issues, be self-sufficient and not need network access or frequent updates.

No, I’m not Edward Snowden. I just have a hope of protecting electronic documents, and I don’t think I’m too far from the target.

Hopefully the picture in your mind at this point is about the same as the one I had in mine. I decided to use one of my many leftover machines for the purpose, and even went so far as to purchase a small, inexpensive SSD to avoid the pitfalls of data errors or drive crashes. I installed Linux Mint 17, encrypted the entire drive, encrypted the home partition, and even password-protected grub. I turned the wireless switch off, put it in a generic black laptop sleeve and set it on a bookshelf next to a copy of Walden and a can of compressed air.

And then I got to thinking: Now I’m dependent not just on that drive, but on all the components that keep it running. Why did I lock myself into that particular computer? Just because it was available? Only the drive is important.

So I took it back down off the shelf, unscrewed the case and took out the drive, and put the drive back on the shelf between Walden and the canned air.

And then I got to thinking again: Now I have to put that drive into the computer, every time I decide to move a file on or off of there. That’s terrifically inconvenient.

So I took it back down off the shelf, took out an old USB drive enclosure, dropped it in, and started screwing it back together.

And then I got to thinking, and this was the last time: I only really need about 20Gb of space, for family photos and scanned documents. The drive is three times as big as that, and the remainder will basically go unused.

I have SD cards that are plenty big for that. And while some machines won’t boot from a card reader, almost anything after 2002 will boot from a USB port. And I have a USB-to-SD card adapter. Why couldn’t I just reinstall everything to an SD card?

It’s much more portable. It’s easier to back up. And prices on SD cards are falling. A 128Gb SD card, at the time of this writing, was only about US$60. That’s as much as the value of Vista-era computer I was using, and I spent almost as much on an SSD.

You can figure out the rest of the story. I re-ran the entire installation and encryption process on a leftover 64Gb SD card I got from a family member last year, and it works like a champ. I transferred all my sensitive files onto the SD card, put it back in its teeny-tiny plastic case, and put it on the shelf between Walden and the can of compressed air.

I’ve tried booting that same SD card on a half-dozen machines now, the fastest being a 2.4Ghz core 2 duo Penryn-based machine, and the slowest being an old, 1.6Ghz non-PAE Pentium M (a good reason to rely on 32-bit versions). Perfect performance, every time.

Great security too: Knowing the grub password might grant access to recovery mode, but doesn’t give you access to the drive, and knowing the drive password doesn’t give you access to the privileged user’s home folder. And if I encrypt anything inside there, that will be one last small measure of prevention.

And no hardware issues, since Mint is smart enough to adjust itself to the hardware of the host machine, no questions asked.

I know there are some downsides. It takes a little while longer to boot across a USB port, particularly on that Pentium M. And there’s the rumor that SD cards have limited read-write lifespans … whatever that happens to be. :roll: And besides: I might start up from that card once a week at most, probably less. I’m not real concerned about lifespans right now.

But I’m satisfied at present with this arrangement. It streamlines the entire process and doesn’t lock me to one particular machine into the future. I can drop that card in my pocket, I can dd between two cards and have a duplicate in a matter of hours, I can mail it cross-country without worrying about someone intercepting it, and I can lose it without fear of anyone picking through my 2011 vacation photos. :roll:

So there it is: The poor man’s SSD strikes again. Perhaps I shall sit around for a little while again today, and try to dream up new uses for old ideas. :D

Never the twain shall meet

There’s a joke that says there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who can count in binary, and those who can’t.

There’s another way to divvy up the population of the earth, in technophile terms: those who absolutely fret over minute details of performance in their games, and those who don’t.

I belong to the latter group. My last real gaming addiction was Neverwinter Nights, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I still occasionally start it up again for a day or two at a time. That game is at least a decade beyond its prime, and hardly going to stress any of the hardware available today.

It’s true, I do occasionally lose a few hours of my life slapping around the computer in an eight-way free-for-all in Warzone 2100, or dabbling with 0ad. But I’m no hardcore gamer, not by a long shot. Heck, the games I play most these days rely on text and telnet.

I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of shepherding more than one gamer into the shallow waters of Linux adoption. I say “unfortunate” because I would guess that 90 percent of the time, if not more, it ends in a dissatisfied customer.

And the reason again goes back to those two kinds of people, and how much they’re willing to sacrifice in performance terms. Players who measure performance by fractions of frames-per-second are, in my experience, generally unwilling to make the leap if it means suffering through 198 frames per second with Wine, instead of 206 in Windows 8. Even though your eye probably can’t see the difference. :roll:

In my meager opinion, what’s at play here is actually a sidelong game of geek poseur, and suffering an 8-frame-per-second hit is a blackball to the upper echelons. That doesn’t surprise me.

But I know enough now, and I’ve seen enough failed converts to realize, that there’s no point in offering up enlightenment if the applicant is going to measure their satisfaction in hundredths of frames per second. I don’t sell life stories to have them divided up into individual words, and rejected as statistically insignificant.

I’ve even gone so far these days as to make a complete 180-degree turn on the issue, and shy people away from Linux if I suspect they belong to that first group of people. I know, the revolution needs converts, but something tells me the candidate’s heart isn’t in the game. Or maybe it is, and that’s the problem.

But it wouldn’t be fair for me to give advice I wouldn’t follow myself, so I make a clear division between the games I’ll play in Linux, and the ones I devote to a leftover Windows machine.

Yes, I keep a castoff XP laptop in a closet, and when the time comes, I bring it out and dust off the cover. It’s not networked, it holds no personal information, I don’t worry about anti-virus software, and I’ve stripped out everything but the essential drivers. I’m comfortable with that.

My point is, at this stage of life, it’s most convenient to me to have a Linux side of the house, and an abandoned XP machine in the closet for those rare times when I can dawdle with a game of Deus Ex. And never the twain shall meet.

That may be a solution for you too. There’s no shame in it. I said a long time ago, if you want to eat toast, you buy a toaster. And I’m guessing your kitchen has more than just a toaster in it. ;)

Express your individuality, but within these confines

My own personal Two Minutes Hate that came in the wake of the Firefox 29 release last week subsided in just about that much time. I saw enough to know that for my purposes, Firefox no longer fit the bill, and immediately sought out a different solution.

For what I’ve seen around the web, I was not the only one disappointed in a Chrome-like redesign. I’ve tried Chrome, and even used it in the office for a short period a couple of years ago, but I wouldn’t ever adopt it at home.

Chrome, and a lot of modern web-based tools, are quickly slanting toward smartphone users, and I don’t belong to that trend. I’ve had touchscreens and ultralight laptops. I even tried a tablet computer once, but I know what I like. To each his own.

It doesn’t really bother me if Firefox tries to meld with Unity or some other cellphone-ish desktop, or if dropping the window size down below 800×600 causes the WordPress.com backend to contort and grow giant thumb-sized buttons.

I don’t even mind it terribly when someone sends me to a mobile Wikipedia page. It’s an oversight and a slight hassle, but I don’t care. It’s just not something that is aimed at me, so I don’t sweat it.

But I’m not part of that crowd. I do my work at glorious 1600×1200, and smartphones don’t appeal to me. Carving the interface to fit a phone’s dimensions tells me where Mozilla’s priorities are, and I can nod and walk away calmly.

That nonchalance isn’t shared in all corners though. At more than one site that I peruse (under a pseudonym, of course), most questions or complaints about FF29 were met with a lot less tolerance.

People seeking alternatives were told to simply learn to use it. Quit your complaining. Shake it off and move on. I even saw a few threads locked and removed by moderators, who apparently were unhappy with the angle of the criticism.

All that is beside the point, since it’s a sad day for Linux when someone with a legitimate request for a substitute is told to stop complaining and “learn to use it.” Haul in a potential Windows convert, and suggestions on alternate software rain from the sky like manna from heaven.

But express distaste with an arbitrary interface change though … and you’ll just have to get used to it. It’s not that big a difference. This is progress. It’ll grow on you. Keep your mouth shut. Conform. By all means, express your individuality, but keep within these confines.

That’s human nature I guess, and I blame biology more than culture or society. But out of deference to those who might prefer something else, I collected quite a few links on how to fix What Mozilla Hath Wrought.

Provided your machine has adequate muscle, you have the option to pull in a couple of extensions that supposedly give better control over the interface.

  • The Classic Theme Restorer not only allows you to resculpt the UI, it allows you a lot of control that otherwise is only avaiable through about:config. In that sense, it’s worth installing even if you like the new arrangement. This might be your best option overall, especially if Mozilla itself suggests this in their support pages.
  • Australis Slimmr also gives you control over spacing in titlebars and so forth, plus a few other options. I found I didn’t need this as much as I initially thought I would.
  • Tabs on Bottom restores the bottom tab arrangement, which to be honest, I’d be shocked if someone still used.
  • Status-4-Evar is another extenion worthy of including even if you like the new interface. This adds options for your status bar that you probably didn’t even know existed.

There are lots more, but I won’t list them because honestly, my hardware begins to suffer if I bog down Firefox, which is already a pig, with too many extensions. Start times grow longer, basic functions start to lag, and overall performance takes a hit.

Short of overloading Firefox with corrections to Mozilla’s tectonic drift, you could downshift and stick with Firefox 28 — and that was my initial reaction, if I must be honest.

Reinstalling in Arch is as simple as pointing pacman -U at the old package, and for what I hear, life is even easier with Debian and Iceweasel. Ubuntu users should probably read through this for advice.

It’s also worth thinking about complete alternatives. I gave Opera a try during my exodus from Firefox-land, and to be honest, it was quick, snappy and replete with features. If I had taken the time to find analogues for Disconnect.me, HTTPS Everywhere and Adblock Edge, I daresay I would I have stayed there.

But in the end, the browser that shyly held up its hand and stole my patronage was Pale Moon. Everything I had used in FF28 was (more or less) supported in Pale Moon, and I didn’t have to do much more setup than I usually do with a fresh copy of pre-29 Firefox. Extensions all worked, bookmarks obediently shuffled into place, and the UI was what I knew and wanted. Don’t bother wrapping it up, I’ll wear it out of the store.

Best of all, it seems lighter and snappier than FF28 was, on the same machine. I call that a bonus.

Arch users can get this with the AUR package; others might have to wrangle a little bit to wedge it into place. From my perspective, it’s worth it.

So there it is then. You’re allowed to have choices, and you’re allowed to ask for directions when the status quo becomes untenable. Nobody will shout you down or tell you to live with the changes.

And maybe if you’re lucky, the new kid in town will end up being an improvement. ;)

It’s like 2002 all over again

This long and rather rambling observation has its roots in a small, but innocent mistake I made about five years ago. And believe it or not, I documented that mistake here.

I have a lot of favorite machines that stick out in my memory years after they’ve passed on to new owners or the digital afterlife. There is an obligaory parade of forgotten machines, but some are definitely easy to remember.

This was one. And this one, while it was a whipping boy, was not easily forgotten. This one met with an unfortunate end that no one was to blame for. And for my money, there are still not many computers better than this one.

The mistake though, and the domino effect that brings me to this page, was sending this machine on to a new owner.

Like them or hate them, the 8000-series of Dell laptops from the turn of the century were some of the last ones to really tickle my technophile funny bone.

An 8000-labeled machine could handle a mid-market Nvidia GeForce4 440 card at 1600×1200, which in 2006 was more than enough to run Compiz in Ubuntu, or Neverwinter Nights at native resolution in Linux. (Don’t try that with Ubuntu now. :evil: )

The 8000 could hold a Pentium III chip up to 1.4Ghz, if I recall correctly. And the top-of-the-line 8200 machine, with a BIOS upgrade, could wrangle with the manly 2.6Ghz Pentium 4 — and, rumor has it, a 64Mb Nvidia Quadro4 Go GL.

On top of that, removable side and front media bays, support for dual hard drives, and the alternative to connect an external drive by parallel cable. Plus the option for not-just-one-but two batteries, a mini-PCI expansion slot (think: Intel wireless card) … and maybe best of all, the unspoken ability to handle 2Gb of PC2700 memory, although Dell wouldn’t document it.

Even the palmrests could be swapped out for six or seven different colors. :lol:

Short of building your own laptop out of a whitebox, the 8200 was probably the best you could expect to get from a mainstream computer company. You’d need to move into desktops to get something more flexible.

Getting into and out of an 8000-era machine was a piece of cake too. Four screws and the keyboard came off, putting you within striking range of the processor and video card. Three more screws and the screen was off. A few more, and the entire business unfolded like a string of paper dolls.

Dell followed the 8200 with a complete redesign — a shift into the silver casings and slimmer, lighter forms of the 8500 and others. The 5150 was released in 2003, the 8600 soon after. I’ve owned an 8600, and while it was smaller and lighter, it wasn’t nearly as much fun to tear down and build back up.

Around five years ago I decided it was time to part with my 8000, for reasons that sounded good at the moment. Many times since then I’ve wondered if I did the right thing. About six months ago I started thinking that the uncanny valley of computer pricing might put an 8000 back in range, and I started watching auctions.

And about a month ago, I came across an 8200 that was seemed clean and complete, without undue wear and tear, and the price was right … all of about US$60. :shock:

I did not misplace my investment. The seller claimed the machine was clean, but s/he didn’t say it was museum quality. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect specimen. Impeccable screen, not a scratch anywhere, 1Gb of memory, carrying case included. I’ve even been inside the machine twice, and I can’t find any dust. The only sign of use is a small worn spot on the touchpad. (Well, of course the battery had failed. :roll: )

2014-04-22-6m47421-portrait

It’s like 2002 all over again. ;)

I’ve since done the final BIOS update and dropped in that beastly 2.6Ghz chip, as well as a 64Mb GeForce4 440. It’s got a proper wireless card now (I won’t patronize Broadcom, even in a 12-year-old laptop) and a second hard drive. I’m waiting for a DVDRW and a pair of sparkly green palmrests. :roll: And ironically, the system drive it is using right now is the same one I bought years ago, for my original 8000. Imagine that.

2014-04-22-6m47421-icewm-firefox-audacious

It’s a good feeling. It’s one part nostalgia and one part having the luxury of rebuilding a machine to its practical summit at a price that isn’t astronomical. I said once a long time ago that technology prices follow a strange curve, bottoming out after about 8 years and then spiking back up when people start to attach the word “vintage” to it. And nowadays, it feels like the 8000s have reached the trough of that curve.

So putting together everything I’ve described — even with a machine that really ought to have been twice as much as what I paid — has barely broken US$150. And yes, that includes the sparkly green palmrests. :roll: