Category Archives: Hardware

Twenty-ten: The picks of the litter

Two-thousand-and-ten is almost over. I’ve done more than my share of distro-hopping this year, and not because of a fickle character, but because of a curious streak.

This year's judge and jury.

That curiosity is bent toward very low-end computers though, and it’s not enough to me to just show a pretty desktop at 150Mhz if the overall experience feels like your head is being pressed through a bowl of mashed potatoes.

To that end, some distributions stick out in my mind more than others this year, as good options for low-end machines. A few more I tried are just good options, for any kind of machine.

And some I mention because they are ingrained in my lifestyle now. Maybe I didn’t discover them this year, but in 2010, they became essential to my workflow.

So I have a few end-of-year “notes.” These are not awards so much as recommendations, since I am hardly qualified to award anybody anything. :|

The wake-up call: KolibriOS. In a world of multi-DVD distros, of thousand-dollar operating systems in a half-dozen flavors, of operating systems that require multiple processors and double-digit gigabytes of memory to use, KolibriOS hits you like a ball-peen hammer squarely in the forehead.

KolibriOS: Pocket-sized powerhouse.

It’s hard not to find something to like about a full-featured desktop replete with games, applications, hardware tools and even networking support that sits in a meager 1.44Mb of space.

And thus it’s hard not to include it in a list of things to love about 2010, considering that KolibriOS in its latest rendition is a stern lesson in software design and how to put together a truly ultralight desktop.

Granted, this is minimalism to the nth degree, lightweight to the point that you can’t conceivably pit this against any other “modern” desktop without feeling almost foolish.

But let’s be frank: Why is lightweight and conservative software such a crusade — in Linux and in other operating systems — when KolibriOS stands as such a stark counterpoint?

Why does the search for a lightweight operating system begin and end with racks and racks of desktop environments, window managers and alternative desktops, and page after page of lighter upon lighter applications, toolsets and support libraries?

Why is it such a carnival to say out loud, “I have a machine that dates back a decade, but still works great and I’d like to find modern software that will run on it”?

I’ll let you decide, but deep down I think we all know that software demands push hardware upgrades, and upgrades in turn allow for bigger, fatter software. In that way, everybody makes money.

It’s a vicious circle, but it’s hard to reach any other conclusion when I can hold up a decades-old floppy with a complete operating system on it. It’s not for lack of skill or ability or time or even desire.

KolibriOS is proof that it’s possible. Just as much as it is proof that perhaps everyone else is going about things the wrong way. Probably so they can take your money. :evil:

A chicken in every pot: Slitaz base. I’d love to say that I have a Slitaz CD perched at the ready, any time I need to jump into a live environment on any machine in the house.

But that would be a half-truth, since I don’t use the standard Slitaz ISO to do that. I stick to the base version.

Slitaz base: What it looks like inside your computer, with the lights turned off.

You won’t like it. You’ll be dropped at the command line without a stitch of help from a mouse or a pointer, and feel rather cold and naked and alone. Welcome to the underbelly of your computer.

But you’ll get there on a meager 12Mb of RAM or less, meaning that this disc can get almost anything with a working CD drive up and running and with a minimum of resources. It’s amazing.

And what you do from there is up to you. Install Slitaz, or use that hovering OS to transfer files across a USB port (or entire operating systems), or repair or recover a dying hard drive.

True, there are other distros that offer these same tools on bigger and better and more complete CDs, but the resources they will demand and the time it will take to get them moving is likewise bigger. And not necessarily better.

So for a lightweight tool that I keep coming back to, and for a full-featured console environment that will fit inside a sliver of memory, it’s tough to beat the Slitaz base version. I can think of no higher praise. :|

Knight in shining armor: Clonezilla. Clonezilla is crack for the distro hopper.

Clonezilla: So yummy, it should be illegal.

Clonezilla is going to eat your life away in small pockets, leaving you with dozens of archived systems, waiting on an external hard drive.

Clonezilla will save your life, when calamity strikes.

Clonezilla makes it too easy to backup and restore entire systems, and isn’t afraid of anything.

Clonezilla turns on a dime, needs less than the average memory available to a Pentium III to get started, and even comes in a i486 flavor, for weirdos like me.

Clonezilla boots from USB, boots to memory, boots to anything with a keyboard and an LCD attached, and won’t quit until you tell it to.

And what it does is free up your life to think about other things. New things. Fresh things. Knowing full well all the time that you can always go back to your old way of thinking.

Technically it’s not an operating system, so you can throw stones if you want. But if you’ve tried it, and you know it, you won’t make that big of a noise if I include it here. You’re a believer. You know you are. :twisted:

Tried and true: DSL. When I peel away the frustration and dismay, I have to admit a solemn reverence for a distro that manages so many convolutions in setting up this computer, and doing it so well, and being about a year or two out of development.

DSL, even at this late date, does things for ancient hardware that my best efforts still can’t. Maybe I’m just not well educated enough (no CS degree on my resume, pal). I am more than willing to admit my ignorance.

DSL: The ghost of Christmases past.

But the 60 seconds it takes this 5-plus-year-old distro to start, configure and announce its presence with authority are more than enough to spellbind me. Audio, video, network and peripherals, all moving at a good clip and with no sense of weariness.

It’s almost infuriating. I’ve been inside and out of the machine, probed its inner recesses and researched everything I can think of in terms of arranging and configuring. And an out-of-service, 50Mb distro beats me, with one hand tied behind its back.

Touche, sirs. For that, a small tip of the hat. I wish I could do as well, left to my own devices. :(

Service with a smile: Debian Lenny. I haven’t mentioned it much, but the Debian server I built to run at 133Mhz has convinced me to keep an otherwise superfluous computer and a network card I thought unworking. And that’s saying something.

Debian: The magical stuff that binds us all together.

Given the chance, Debian will perform back flips at the snap of a finger, and provided you don’t overwhelm a machine — of any architecture — you’re more or less assured of top-shelf performance.

Even so, combining a 13-year-old 133Mhz Pentium with only 32Mb, a RaLink-based PCMCIA network card and a gift-from-god 120Gb 5400rpm hard drive sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But like the rug that pulls the room together, Lenny makes it all work as a file server and torrent slave … with only a small bump in software for complete and perfect usability. No hiccups, no flukes, no spotty hardware performance.

And with uptimes in double-digit days, it shows no sign of stopping. You want a reason not to throw out an old machine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Debian Lenny.

Not for the faint of heart: Crux 2.7. Source-based distros are not for everybody. That should go without saying.

But of the ones I’ve tried, Crux — and most recently in its 2.7 version for the i586 — is by far my favorite.

Crux 2.7 i586: You too can be an Internet hero.

Linux From Scratch is educational, but becomes esoteric for me. Gentoo seems overcomplicated, when compared with Crux’s spartan arrangement. Of the others … well, I should probably look a little more before saying anything.

Suffice to say that Crux has just enough automation by default to keep it from becoming obtuse. But it also skimps on a lot of other points, which keeps you on your toes.

I mentioned the other day that I learned more about Linux from a 450Mhz K6-2 running Crux than I ever did with any more powerful machine. That’s very true.

But you could probably substitute almost any hardware for that rotten little K6-2, and still learn heaps and mounds more than what Ubuntu or other distros have to offer.

I’m no expert, and your way is always the right way. But if your goal is to figure out what makes your hardware tick, I can think of no better suggestion than Crux.

And best of all, I can guarantee with 99 percent assurance, that any speed improvement you might remember if you moved to Arch from Ubuntu, you will see again if you move from Arch to Crux. Believe you me. :shock:

Up and coming: ConnochaetOS. It’s probably not fair for me to highlight a distro so recent in my mind, because there is an observation bias that can’t be avoided.

But let’s be honest. I have a half-dozen computers I’ve used in the past year, and the majority of those predated the Pentium II. What do I really want out of life? An Arch Linux for i586s. dried up more than a year ago, but the DeLi Linux project morphed into the latest i586 effort built on Arch. And I am 100 percent on board with that.

ConnochaetOS: A promising future on the playing field.

Any Arch veteran who has an old machine in the house is going to wipe a tear from her eye if there’s a living, breathing version of i586 Arch out there. Time saved in compiling is the first reason.

Simple ease of use, a minimal starting point and an easy-peasy configuration system are others, and are all hallmarks of Arch proper. All three of those are gold to an antique computer enthusiast.

So while there might be a curse attached to i586 renditions of Arch Linux, I’m hoping ConnochaetOS can ride it out, in part with its history as DeLi Linux, but in part because it’s got what Arch users are used to.

My fingers are crossed for this one.

Big toys for big boys: Linux Mint Debian. What I’ve mentioned thus far all has the potential — if not the promise — of running on extremely low-end machines. Pentiums. Maybe even i486s.

But if you were born after 1992 and you think a single-core machine is sluggish, then your idea of “antique” is quite different from mine.

No matter: I have one more candidate for you, and this one should run on anything from a Pentium 4 up, and suffer no setbacks at all.

And heck, you can even strip the machine down to (a no doubt frightening) 256Mb and still get plenty of use out of it. Put in those hours at Free Geek, because your reward will no doubt perform with Linux Mint Debian.

LMDE: All of the flavor, none of the fat.

Distros like this one should put fear into the hearts of big-name projects like Ubuntu or Fedora or OpenSUSE. Why? Because all the flash (dare I say “Flash”? :lol: ), all the glitter and all the goodies are instantly available for us peons suffering with leftover machines.

How can LMD be doing things so right, and all the others be doing things so … not right? I don’t know.

But spend a week with LMD and you’ll probably never walk back to Ubuntu. And you’ll probably never walk into another computer reseller either, because the machine you use now (I feel safe in saying) is powerful enough to run it.

And Mint’s reputation for making Ubuntu even easier … ? Well, what can I say. Back in August I dropped Mint into a neighbor’s Celeron, with the hopes that it would be easier and cleaner to manage than — but just as speedy as — Arch.

And it ran without a complaint — no, really: without a stitch of attention from me — for three full months. What do you make of that? :D

P.S.: Get yourself some floppies. What is life without floppies?! :mrgreen:

(All right. You asked for it, you got it. :evil: )

How to finally say goodbye

I’ve said goodbye to more than one computer this year, although I round out 2010 with a net change in the census of about … zero over last year. So much for progress. :roll:

And sometimes it felt sad to see a machine go. Sometimes it felt disappointing. And sometimes it was … well, somewhere in the middle.

The hard part is knowing when to quit. You can clutch feverishly at a machine that isn’t doing anything, calling it sentimental value. But there comes a point when even sentiment has a hard time justifying it.

I know, I’ve been there. I can sympathize.

I can’t spare you the heartache of having to decide to finally, ultimately, permanently put a machine to rest. I can only tell you how I’ve made the decision in the past.

The most obvious reason to dump a machine is simply because it doesn’t work any more. That was the case with the 300Mhz Celeron this summer, when more things were falling off than were hanging on.

Sometimes a machine just gets so worn down that there are few real benefits to keeping it. There is no single law of the universe except entropy, and it pains me to say it. One day all these things must crumble to dust.

The obvious repartee here is, how do I know when it can be repaired? And what if I can’t do the repairs myself?

Well, you have to balance the overall value of the machine (not in terms of money, either) against the cost of keeping it running. Plain and simple.

For example, in the case of my dearly departed Celeron, a mechanical fault could have been promptly attended to. No doubt about it.

But in the case of a hinge that was torquing the motherboard and LCD and splintering the bezel at the slightest touch … well, I had to acknowledge the signs.

Cost has a curve too. In my own experience, parts start high as machines are released, then fall sharply over the course of the first couple years. After about five or seven they bottom out, but begin to peak again by 10 years.

Beyond that, you’re paying crippling prices to some shark in Nevada, who has been sitting on a dusty pair of 32Mb PC66 laptop memory sticks for a decade, and is dying to get top dollar for them. :roll:

To compound the issue, it’s sometimes hard to explain the value of a machine (again, not in terms of money) to someone outside your frame of reference.

The average computer repair person, for example, sees so many weather-beaten, neglected and mismanaged machines that your box is simply one in a long line of frightening experiences. No matter how many Hello Kitty stickers you have on it.

So don’t be surprised when they try to talk you out of a repair, or seem uninterested in your darling K6-2. Or if they try to pull a switcheroo on you, or suggest you look into another computer.

It’s not the sign of a bad technician. It’s just the sign of someone who doesn’t have the same experiences as you, with your computer. Be patient. Make your emotions clear.

But someone who persistently upsells, or tries to talk you down, or ignores what you’re saying … well, that is the sign of a bad technician, and a red flag that says “try someone else.” Stop. Take back your machine. Walk away quickly. :(

For me, the other reason to get rid of a computer — nothing to do with it — is a bit sticky. Saying you don’t have a reason to keep a machine is a sign of something bigger … that maybe you have too many machines.

In that case, I would suggest going about things a different way — try to figure out which computer is doing the least, and consolidate its roles into another.

It may be that you’ve already singled out the weakest link and I’m asking you to repeat something you already did, but please be honest. If you have to think about these things, then maybe that’s another hint.

I will admit however, that I have sent machines into the ether because they were doing jobs they weren’t really suited for. Calling your Pentium II an entertainment center is one thing, but really …

There are only a few things that can trump these points, from my perspective.

The first is rarity. If you have something so exquisitely uncommon that it simply must be handed down between generations … well, there is no limit to the time you can keep it. Take it with you to your grave.

The next is condition. I have run across very few museum-quality laptops in my time, but don’t make the mistake I did and blithely send it off to e-bay. I kick myself daily over that.

It can be the most common computer ever made, but if it’s in such phenomenal condition that it hurts your eyes to look at it … then for goodness’ sake, keep it.

The last is that overweening, omnipresent gush factor, sentimental value. That warm and slushy feeling when you think about that Pentium desktop you had ten years ago, and all the good times you had with Windows 95 and the shareware demo of Diablo.

I offer my unreserved support for sentimental value; in fact, I earmark it as one of the best reasons to avoid buying a new computer.

Let’s be real though: Sometimes sentimental value is a crock, as I can tell you firsthand. Don’t tell me how much you can’t bear to part with your old 486 laptop, and then tell me it’s out in the garage, under a half-empty can of forest green house paint.

But that last one is the most powerful one of all. And the best advice I can offer: If it doesn’t tug at your heartstrings to think of parting with a particular computer, then you can turn it loose.

On the other hand though, if it makes your stomach sink to imagine life without it … well, you’d better keep it. :D

Surprise, surprise

Well this is a welcome surprise. It seems that the month-long delay I was expecting for Internet service at home was trimmed down to about 12 minutes.

That being the time it took me to clone Windows XP back on to the X60s, install the proprietary network setup software, feed it my account information and click a few buttons. Wow.

That’s quite the change from the month or so it took to get things arranged and working last time. I guess there’s something to be said for keeping the same connection and service provider. At this rate, I should be able to get the rest of the house in order in an hour or so.

And perhaps in a day’s time, the rest of this site will be ready to go. Good news, that. :)

P.S.: A small slice of irony: Literally minutes after I posted this, XP bluescreened. I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough before it had rebooted itself. Total uptime, about an hour. Sigh … is it any wonder I use Linux?

Two new wireless cards

I haven’t mentioned a pair of PCMCIA wireless network cards I brought home the other day, mostly because they were only slightly different from the ones I already have.

The recycle shop yielded up a Corega CG-WLPCCL11 as well as a Logitec Skylink LAN-WAG/CB. The Corega card is limited to B range, but the Logitec is marked for G and A access as well.

The reason I say they’re only slightly different is that the one uses the orinoco module, and the other is ath5k-driven. And considering I already have two cards with those guts, there haven’t been many surprises.

I do notice that the Logitec card tends to freeze when used in the Mebius, but doesn’t when used in the 133Mhz Pentium, so it might be a hardware inconsistency that’s causing it.

The Corega card however, is just as reliable and flexible as the Linksys card I own, and for that reason I consider it a worthy addition to my small collection.

And since both of them appeared in the store in their original boxes and with all their paraphernalia, I can hardly quibble at a price tag of around US$4 each. Thank goodness for cheap hobbies. :)

In praise of floppies

Behold the floppy, a miracle of post-modern technology! Does your computer still have a floppy drive? Count yourself among the lucky!

This is just one kind of floppy.

This is a floppy.

Why? Thousands of reasons! Do you have an ultralight lifestyle? Are you a maximalist? Are your computing needs sufficiently sparse to fit your entire home directory into less than a megabyte and a half?

If so, then you too can use floppies to back up your personal files! And if you are daring, you could even run your entire system with a floppy as the home directory. Yank that floppy out, and bingo! your precious data are safe and secure!

Even better, with two machines with floppy drives, you can synchronize systems in a fraction of the time it takes to string cables, set up network interfaces, configure wireless keys, install a networking protocol, configure a server and client, get them handshaking, manage groups and permissions, and then synchronize. Floppies save you time!

Floppies are cheap! Chances are, someone will give you a floppy — how many times has someone given you a USB drive that didn’t include some sort of blatant advertisement, or preinstalled crapware? No crapware on floppies!

And floppies are versatile too! You’re not limited to using an out-of-date, obsolete, archaic filesystem with floppies. You can use ext2, ext3, ext4 and even the newest, coolest filesystems on the block! Don’t want journaling? With floppies, you can skip journaling altogether!

Floppies are disposable, and sometimes even recyclable! Tired of your floppy? Make a clone of your floppy, and move it to a new one in seconds! You can decorate a floppy with colored markers! You can slather it with stickers — but not the puffy ones! :lol:

Floppies are available in thousands of colors, dozens of styles and themes. If you’re lucky, you may even find — gasp! — the holy grail of floppies: the transparent floppy! :shock:

Floppies are universal! You don’t need a proprietary interface or a conversion cable or a rubberized palm guard to use a floppy. Do you have a floppy drive? Congratulations: You can use floppies!

Are you a Linux guru? Do you want to be a Linux guru? You’ll dazzle them at your Linux guru job interview by mentioning that you always install grub to a floppy, so your computer is unbootable without it. It’s like a primitive boot lock!

And don’t forget, you can still install one of the greatest operating systems in the world … with only floppies! That’s right, you can get your system online and surfing the Web with only a few floppies and an hour or two of time. It’s magic!

Yes, there’s still plenty of use for floppies. Don’t let angst-ridden teenage geek wannabes and turtlenecked pseudo-minimalist artsy-snob-types tell you otherwise: If you’re not using floppies, you’re just not cool! :P

Paid for by the Committee to Re-Elect Floppies.

An Android in the family

I’ve mentioned in the past when family members get Linux-driven computers, so I suppose I can mention this as well.

Astute Reader Number One sent this picture the other day of a Samsung Fascinate (I think that’s the proper link), which is new to the household. I know almost nothing about these fancy phones, but I do understand this to be an Android-based gadget.

Maybe in about 15 years, when they’re out of date and completely unsupported, I’ll get one and string it into the rest of my archaic home network. It can’t be worse than this. :roll:

Poor man’s SSD: Test results

Well, for the past 17 days, for 24 hours a day, I’ve been running dban on a compact flash card, in hopes of finding it’s weak point, making it crack, and watching it go boom.

And I have nothing to report. No failures, no issues, no faults. Nothing caught fire, sizzled down to a puddle of plastic or even stopped responding to orders. It ran as instructed, then ended with a smile, asking for more.

How disappointing. :|

The drive size is still reported the same, there are no bad blocks, and I had no consistency or validation errors. Data rates ranged from 5775Kbps to 11900Kbps, depending on when and where it was writing or reading.


What can I say? Sound as a pound.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t go screwy the next time I turn it on. Component failure is just an ugly reality that there’s no circumventing, really.

The CF card I have in my main Pentium machine has been in use for months now without a hiccup, but certainly suffered less stress than the second. And I have no guarantee it will work tomorrow.

I have had two or three hard drive crashes in as many years, and some of those drives were only a year or two old. And I have some that date back to 1997, which are still working — slowly and noisily, yes, but working.

I think what I’m trying to say is, if there is a limit, I didn’t bump up against it. After 400-plus hours of constant reading and writing, reading and writing, I didn’t see a failure.

Personally, I can comfortably put that into the day-to-day use category without worrying about it degrading or crashing or shrinking or spitting out errors. I would suggest that the myth is just a myth.

If something happens to it from this point on, I can only ascribe that to the same bad luck that killed the other drives. I won’t blame it on the medium if it does.

It’ll just be fate. :)

Principia Mathematica Corporatica

I know Intel has had trouble with math in the past, but this might be a more grievous error.

A huge thank-you to WARvault, for sending that along as a special order. Apparently, to Intel’s marketing department, one calendar year is about 32 1/3 years to a computer. Which means my Pentium is a whopping 452 years, 8 months old. Who knew.

Gee, maybe I should run out and buy a new one. :roll:

I can only hope nobody falls for that nonsense. To remain strictly educational, this is what I mean when I talk about advertising pressure and marketing gibberish pushing you to buy a new computer.

You don’t need to buy a new computer. Microsoft needs you to buy a new computer. Intel needs you to buy a new computer. These are multibillion-dollar corporations that don’t make money if you don’t spend.

And if they don’t make money, they fail. As simple as that. So they will push you and plead and instill any sense of fear or guilt they can invoke, if it means they’ll continue to make gobs and gobs of money.

They don’t care about you. They care about money. And the easiest way to make money in this day and age is to release shoddy products and convince people they need to buy them.

If I came up to you on the street and shrieked in a panicked voice, “You need to buy a new computer!” you’d think I was imbalanced. You’d probably phone the cops or the guys in the white suits, and spend the rest of the day wondering what was wrong with me.

But for some reason, corporations have some twisted shred of authority when they splash posters like this around town, and the same shriek from them sinks deeper into your skull. No one even questions it.

Well, I’m not falling for it. I hope you don’t either. Learn to use yours more efficiently and completely and you can go for four, six, eight or maybe even 10 years without having to buy a new one. That’s 323 years to a computer, you know. :D

One more anniversary

It’s not all sad news around the house today though. This month has been chock full of anniversaries and milestones, and yesterday I noticed another one: the “birthday” of the Pentium I use on a daily basis.

Yep, a year ago I found a museum-quality Pentium computer in a thrift shop down the road, dropped a single 1000-yen note on the counter top and brought it home.

Since then it has supplanted just about every other machine I’ve owned in the past decade, accomplishing the same day-to-day tasks on a fraction of the power and resources, and hopefully inspiring a person or two in the process.

It’s taught me a lot about usability, function, power and efficiency, and even served as the guinea pig for one of the most gratifying experiments I personally have ever conducted with a computer.

So here’s a first-anniversary snapshot, just for the record and to preserve a memory. Ladies and gentlemen, the Fujitsu FMV-5120 NU2/W. Fourteen years old and in its prime. :)

Cheers, and may all your prized possessions likewise last beyond their intended lifespan. :mrgreen:

So depressing

Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

I didn’t do anything to deserve this, meaning it wasn’t dropped or smacked into a door frame or something.

I had noticed a tiny hairline crack creeping around that hinge mount there, and today when I opened the case there was a terrifying splintering noise.


It looks like someone stabbed it with a box cutter. :(

Very depressing, really. This is the machine I bought almost three years ago in a recycling shop on the other side of the island, at what seemed like a rather trivial price, for what I was getting.

At first I thought this wouldn’t affect its function, but now I’m not so sure. The hinges and screen must be torquing the motherboard or power connections, because now when I try to push in a USB drive, power drops immediately. That top picture is the last one I have with the power working alongside USB.

The smaller irony here is that I had an inkling that I might give this one away in the near future. It has a legitimate Windows ME serial number, even if that’s something of a curse.

The thought was that any of the machines I keep as “spares” could probably take over the two or three jobs this one does, and this could possibly work for someone else as a fully functional machine.

That’s just impossible now. It’s visibly damaged and behaves badly. Scarred machines don’t have much appeal, even when the price is zero yen.

I guess I’ll keep using it for as long as I can suffer to look at it, in its new, battered state. Things like that just make you feel bad though. :(