Category Archives: Hardware

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: )

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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.

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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:

Welcoming the new encumbrance

The bulk of my daily “work” is done on a 12-year-old Pentium 4 machine. I’ll save the gory details for later; suffice to say that it is a bit of a classic, and one I enjoy using immensely.

I have noticed though, that in spite of running svelte and light, as you would expect me to do, that there are some significant slowdowns.

Originally the machine came equipped with Windows XP, a meager 1.6Ghz processor and a lowly 1Gb of memory. Nothing to write home about.

I upped that to 2.6Ghz and 2Gb with Arch Linux, not so much because it needed it, but because it’s cheap now, and the machine itself is easy to upgrade.

And it handles most everything I need it for — surfing, online transactions, browser-based word processing or data analysis, and perhaps running VICE for a distraction or two. ;)

In fact, short of intrinsic hardware improvements — like more processor cores or finer screen resolutions or solid state drives — there’s not a whole lot that has really changed between this and most “modern” laptops. Sure, mine is a little slower by necessity, but all the same core parts are there: motherboard, drive, video adapter, display, and so forth. Twelve years have been rather patient with this machine.

But there are specific times when it’s definitely moving slower than, for example, the weatherbeaten Dell D830 I keep on the desk nearby. Not on the start, and not in file management or music playback or even 3D animation. Heck, I get something like 2000fps in glxgears. And that’s with a mid-market video card that was obsolete in 2004.

But there’s a lurch or a drag now that, to be honest, I don’t remember seeing even five or six years ago on a lowly 1Ghz Pentium III.

And the culprit is … the Internet. :shock:

Navigating the web is hands-down the biggest, densest chore, and at its worst, it’s almost spine-chilling. Long page redraws, fans at full tilt while rendering an image. Not just on this machine, but on others too.

And that’s where the cold sense of impending doom creeps in, because there’s not much remedy for it. It’s outside our control.

Six years ago I insisted those slap-happy lightbox effects were a drudge. More than once, in fact.

But six years ago I would have chalked up a slurred effect to the operating system — blame Windows, that was obviously the problem. If you couldn’t get tip-top performance out of a machine as powerful as a Pentium 4, then your bloated operating system was at fault.

And the core of that issue was easy to read: Microsoft makes no money unless you re-buy their product. It’s defective by design. It’s programmed obsolescence. Create a product that self-destructs over the course of two or three years, and you have a chance to glean a little more revenue, periodically. Just like light bulbs, or televisions. This is nothing new.

Only now I’m not sure that’s the source of the problem. Yes, Microsoft and Apple are still sticking it to the uneducated consumer. And yes, John Q. Public still thinks computers are like brake pads that have to be bought over and over again, over time.

But this new limiting factor — bogging down the web with clutter and flair — that’s the wave of the future.

It doesn’t matter any more what operating system you run, if it has two cores or four, if it has this much memory or more. If the new Web-based culture is the least bit impeded by Firefox’s degrading ability to show pictures of cats. … Well, then: Time for a new computer.

To me, this makes a lot of sense. The PC market is dying, a generation of smartphone users are reaching the age of majority, and the contract-and-renewal system embraced by the cell phone industry is far more appealing than the traditional slap-and-dash shiny-new-desktop re-buying gimmick.

So long as the content is dragged to a crawl by lightbox effects and worthless glitter, then declining performance in online applications and cloud-based computing become the new delimiter. Can’t get to your Facebook status quite so fast any more? Maybe it’s time for a new gizmo.

Personally, I welcome this new encumbrance with the same aplomb as I have in the past, when 800Mhz machines were called old, or hyper-threading P4s were castoffs. Your loss is my gain. I have bought Vista-era dual cores in perfect condition for less than $50, and received outstanding performance at the cost of no more effort than clicking a few buttons in Linux Mint. Albeit there was that same dragging effect, when rendering pictures of cats. :???:

It’s a little disconcerting that this new trend places the burden beyond the reach of the computer user, in a place where there’s not much they can do about it. But it’s a big world and we have a lot of time stretching out in front of us. I’m sure someone will come up with a solution. In the mean time, you can send your leftover core duo machines to me. :twisted:

The Weird Sisters

It’s definitely very strange having so many powerful computers in the house. In the space of about a week, I went from a low-end haven to a mid-range fleet.

To anyone else it probably looks a bit primitive still, but either of the two P4-era Celeron machines is capable of handling anything I’m used to doing, alone and by itself.

Not that that’s saying much though. I have made the same claim against 120Mhz Pentium machines. :roll:

But with two high-end (to me) machines around the house, and with a flaky wireless router which is invisible to some machines and blatantly obvious to others, and with one or two with very good networking jacks, an unusual arrangement has unfolded.

One Celeron, the VersaPro, is sitting in the other room, at close range to the router, and connected by cable. That one is catching torrents, and using its connection to download and seed at better speeds than PCMCIA wireless usually offers.

Of course, this is not the first time I’ve allowed the full Ubuntu desktop to take over that role.

The other, the Satellite, is on my desktop, and is working as an entertainment station, hooked into these speakers and showing my meager collection of DVD rips on its Big Fat Screen. Quite nice, really.

Which means the only other two — the Mebius, which is command central for all practical purposes, and the X60s, which is guinea pig — are standing by, waiting for action.

The oddest part of this entire arrangement is that both Celerons are using Ubuntu 11.04. I know: Crazy, isn’t it?

I can’t offer any rationale for that, other than it was the way things panned out, when I decided to put them to work together. The VersaPro has a large drive in it, seeds ISOs with Transmission and serves up the web UI to anybody listening.

The Satellite is hooked into it via nfs, and I can stash music or ripped DVD files there, and stream them over the wireless connection.

Ordinarily, Ubuntu’s desktop is the less-than-ideal choice for either of these roles, in my opinion.

Both machines can run it, but not the Unity desktop (thank goodness). Logging in with the traditional desktop with no effects makes them quite perky though.

And while the tools are there (meaning, in the repositories) for these machines, it’s a wee bit odd to be using a behemoth desktop like that, and relying on only a few small tools on either one to do the job.

I don’t think this arrangement will last much longer; I find it a little unnerving to use Ubuntu on either machine, even if it seems to be working. Every day, something new, I guess. …

The ebb and flow

Lots of changes are afoot in this tiny corner of the planet, which accounts in part for the silence over the past few days.

First of all, one of the computers I was expecting to inherit has arrived on my doorstep. I can properly introduce the NEC VersaPro VY22X/RX-M, or just vy22x, as I like to call it.

This is the 2.2Ghz Celeron I mentioned oh-so-many times over the past year or two. It’s not at all a bad computer — ATI graphics, 512Mb and more is possible, 1024×768 in a nice big size. …

It’s of very similar dimensions and specifications as the Toshiba, although it is obviously a completely different computer.

The hard drive is another ancient creaking wheel though — 20Gb 4200rpm, the omnipresent Hitachi MK2023GAS I keep finding — and will be the first thing to go.

The chassis needs a cleaning, and the previous owner liked to slather stickers on everything in the house. So I’ll need to scrape away some glue and goo.

Otherwise it’s in pretty good shape, and should be fun to experiment with.

But where there is an ebb, there must be a flow … so the 120Mhz and 133Mhz Fujitsu laptops are out of the house now, having moved on to a new owner.

It felt a little sad to see them go — particularly the slower of the two, given as many adventures as I had with it.

I was tempted to convert one or the other into some sort of photo frame or wall clock, but their value was in their completeness and good condition, not their Frankenstein factor.

I did not, however, include the CF cards. Those I intend to use in future machines.

I should also mention, though it’s a lesser point, that I’ve moved everything back to Arch Linux on the fastest machine.

That noisy romp through the Ubuntu betas was instructive, but not particularly productive. It was nice to see how some of those distros do things, but it reinforced where my preferences lie.

So all of this means there needs to be a few updates around this site. A couple of machines are new, a couple more are gone … life goes on. :)

Changes in the air

Now that the lurch of console programs are out of the way, I have two minor changes to report.

First, I am considering options for reducing the number of computers in the house by one, perhaps two. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Spring is the season for relocating, and as a result a number of expatriates in my area are pulling up stakes and shifting to new locations.

So I am expecting to be the beneficiary of at least one computer, and maybe more. And so I need to think about thinning the herd. And to be honest, it would be nice to have a change or two.

I am a little attached to some of these computers though, so it’s going to be hard to decide. I have three sub-150Mhz Pentiums though, which is probably about two too many.

So some might go. And really, having a 120Mhz, a 133Mhz and a 150Mhz system in the house is only a curiosity to me. To anyone else, it’s a little bizarre.

The other news of note is a random string of misbehavior coming out of the laptop-turned-wall-clock. I had seen it acting strangely even during teardown and buildup, but the problems haven’t magically gone away.

For the record, it freezes during almost any attempt to use aptitude. I am not sure why that alone is the trouble, but it’s the only common thread.

A long time ago I thought it was an issue of faulty memory, but I’ve tried three different sticks now, and it happens all the same. I’m leaning toward a problematic hard drive now.

Not that it means a whole lot anyway. The clock runs, the map updates, the system is fine … it just itches a little bit, to not be able to properly update the system.

Oh, if only all my systems were so lucky. :roll:

Less one … and a half

I should probably mention, just as a side note, that I’ve managed to reduce the number of junk computers in the house by one and a half.

The one is the Dynabook, which I knew from the start just wasn’t a keeper. Too many physical shortcomings, too many esoteric hardware points, and while the screen was beautiful, I couldn’t get anything to show on it except a low-grade flashing cursor.

So it has gone the way of all flesh, which is to say, the recycling shop. It seemed to run Windows fine and I got Slitaz working once or twice, so perhaps someone with more patience or more expertise than me will find a way to put it to use.

I know I should be a little more appreciative of gifts, and at the same time make my best effort to keep a machine in use for as long as I can, but even from the first moment, it was obviously not going to stay around long.

Discarded hardware is a fact of modern culture, and the predominance of machines I see are in tip-top shape. I feel guilty saying it, but I can afford to discriminate.

So a beaten and battered 700Mhz Celeron, while technically usable if I lower my standards, just doesn’t appeal. There are too many near-perfect ones at hand.

And the half? Well, that one is now a clock, of course. So it doesn’t count as a whole computer, just a half. :twisted:

Poor man’s SSD: No news is no news

I haven’t mentioned it, because there wasn’t really anything to report. But since Anton Eliasson noted the six-month anniversary of the CF card installation, I suppose I should acknowledge it.

That’s right, six months with CF cards in two different machines, and a third one ordered a couple of weeks ago. Nothing wrong. Nothing broken. Nothing lost to hardware faults.

In sum, nothing to report. Even on the card that was “stress-tested” for the better part of a month.

For the most part I am overjoyed that the experiment has gone so well. After all, this is one of my personal triumphs, even if it wasn’t altogether my idea. ;)

But to be honest, there is a tiny part of me that’s just a little itty-bitty bit angry. I think it’s the same sense of frustration I had when I finally jumped ship from Windows, years ago.

Seeing through the veil of misinformation — in this case, all the advertising dreck and forum posts railing against the idea as a disaster waiting to happen — is both liberating … and irritating, to a much lesser degree.

So yes, I am happy that I have installed CF cards and adapters in three pre-1998 machines and seen nary a one cough up a fault.

But at the same time, I have to wonder now and again … who else is lying to me about what is possible, and what is not, with my computers?

I guess that’s for me to discover.

P.S.: Total spent to outfit three machines: Roughly US$100. Put that in your newfangled SSD and smoke it. :evil: