Category Archives: Hardware

Five generations of junk

I realized something rather odd the other day, and as a result, I think it will lead to a few interesting experiments. That’s what I call these little adventures … “experiments.”

It’s a little bit generous to say it in some places, but I believe I now have at least one machine across five different “generations” and 15 years of PC hardware — from Pentium 1 to multiprocessor machines.

The X60s is a core duo, and the newest machine in the house.

This Celeron, while not a speed demon, is puttering along at 2.5Ghz and part of the Pentium 4 family.

Its little brother, a 700Mhz Coppermine Celeron, is representative of the Pentium III bracket.

And it’s a wee bit of a stretch, but as a high-end K6-2 and a Super Socket 7 machine, this Sotec was meant to stand up to Pentium IIs.

True, it’s not really a 686 and so not exactly in that class, but it’s somewhere in that range. And its inception date is about right.

Last but definitely not least, this machine and this machine and this machine are all holdovers from the first Pentiums, at 150Mhz or below.

Below that? I’m afraid I hardly ever see 486 machines any more. It may just be an aversion to 15-plus-year-old hardware in the mind of Japanese consumers, which keeps them out of the recycling shops.

Or it may be that they’re all just finally wearing down and disappearing, as must happen to us all.

In any case, it’s been a very, very long time since I even saw a 486-based machine, let alone one is good enough condition to put to work.

But I would if I could. :twisted:

So the next question should be obvious: What do you do with an assembly of machines that span a decade and a half of hardware evolution?

Well, the answer should be obvious too: Install the same brand of Linux on all five creatures … and complain about it! :mrgreen:

The worst best torrent client list

I had another one of those proverbial coffee-spitting moments this morning when I got a link to PC Magazine’s list of the best torrent clients for 2011.

Setting aside the fact that 2011 is all of about 25 days old, which makes it tough to pick out the best of the year, the four listed — BitTorrent, Deluge, uTorrent and Vuze — are hardly representative of what’s available.

And the fact that Vuze somehow gets a little yellow and red “EC” as some sort of award as editor’s choice … well, that’s just horrific.

It’s like reviewing four of the best cars available for 2011, and picking a Hummer as the top model. It defies all logic.

But who knows? Me and my rack of outdated computers don’t really understand — and don’t really want to understand — what passes for popular technology in 2011. I’ve been down this road before.

If Joe Shmoe with zero computer knowledge wants to download a movie or something, then maybe point-and-click Vuze, with its plethora of unrelated options (free trial DVD burning! gasp! :shock: ) is the answer for him. I won’t argue the point.

Somehow its sad though, that PC Magazine could only come up with four torrent clients, and picked quite possibly the worst of the lot to highlight and endorse. Stop me before I cringe again.

P.S.: No, I don’t actually drink coffee. Blech.

It never rains, but it pours

It figures. Only days after I am effectively overwhelmed with leftover computers, and after I get them all arranged in some semblance of order, and after I worry about what will happen next … the unbelievable occurs.

Quite nonchalantly and without so much as a by-your-leave, my boss says yesterday, “No one is using that old grey computer. You should take it home.”

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Two years of surreptitiously using it as a Linux test bed, another year of shelf life, and out of the blue it’s suddenly mine to work with. I need a smiley that smacks itself on the head in disbelief.

Oh well. There’s naught so queer as folk.

So there it is. The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave is back, and it looks like it’s for good this time.

Another mixed blessing, it seems. What in the world am I going to do with this one … ? :shock:

Bring out the rack!

A couple more photos, just to see if I can make my fellow geeks jealous.

 

I am nearing critical mass in terms of the number of homeless computers I’ve taken in. This wheeled shelf and a rather pricey six-slot power strip seem to keep things organized though.

My wiring and strapping isn’t the best, but I wanted something I could keep organized and still pull apart at a moment’s notice.

Clockwise from upper left, the big dog of the rack, the 2.5Ghz Celeron, which is the media center for the house. Right now the palmrests are the only places those speakers will really fit.

Next to it is the scallywag 700Mhz Celeron, which looks a little better after a cleaning.

One odd thing about this machine, if you look close, is that the speakers are actually mounted on the hinge. It means the lid doesn’t block the sound when it’s closed. Ironic, therefore, that they sound awful. :roll:

Below that is the Pentium — the torrent slave and in-house nfs server. That’s what I use to pass stuff between machines, and is also where I keep my collection of ripped DVDs.

Finally, at lower left is the Mebius, which is really just resting there after being a surrogate two or three times over the past week or so.

Oddly enough, it was just as useful (although dreadfully slow) to install Debian for the Celeron on that machine, as it was to install it for the 120Mhz Pentium I’m using now. Of course, that means the Celeron is running i486 Debian. …

Altogether, my desk is pleasantly free of junk right now.

A clean desk is the sign of a disturbed mind. :twisted:

Of course, if things get any more dense in here I’m going to need to free up that bottom rack, and trap some computers there. That, however, could trigger the herd to panic. … :shock:

Catch and release

I have the good luck to babysit a laptop for the weekend. Or maybe I should say, the bad luck to babysit it.

It’s a Toshiba Dynabook V2/470CRC, and while it was loaned to me as a fixer-upper, I get the feeling I’ll be happy to return it to the owner.

It’s another Celeron Coppermine, this one running at 700Mhz and with a roomy 256Mb of PC100 in it. CDRW, 1024×768 screen, etc., etc. Not a bad computer, technically.

But this is one of those machines that looks good on paper — Intel guts, with the exception of the video card. A smattering of peripheral ports, but no built-in wired connection. Easy-to-get-to memory and hard drive bays, but a battered keyboard.

Some of that’s not the fault of the machine or Toshiba, just a sad history with an indifferent owner. On the other hand, that video card is for-certain a dealbreaker.

Arch can’t get a graphical screen on it, in either vesa, fbdev or the trident driver. Neither can Debian. Or Lubuntu. Or Puppy. Or Linux Mint Debian. Or …

Kernel framebuffer modules weren’t working either. Nothing short of the default font with a horrific framed effect … no matter who tried.

Until Slitaz came along. Yep, not only could Slitaz 3.0 push the framebuffer to its native 1024×768, but could get a full desktop working … with a little nudging. +1 for Slitaz, again.

So I wouldn’t call that video card a kiss of death, but this computer has an even bigger quirk I dislike … I can’t seem to get into the BIOS.

I’ve scrounged the Internet in hopes of finding the keypress that brings up the BIOS menu, but it eludes me. F2, F1, Esc, Del, the left shift key … nothing seems to work. It jumps straight to the first hard drive, no matter what.

Infuriating. Infuriating because that means it completely disregards the optical drive as a boot device. And without a floppy drive, there’s naught to be done but preinstall an operating system, and hope it works.

Which it usually doesn’t. Oh well. At least it’s easy to get to the hard drive. :roll:

So, let’s recap: Battered keyboard, tetchy video card, mysterious BIOS, won’t boot from CD, no wired connection, dirty from disuse, no battery … the list goes on.

No, this is definitely not something I’d like to keep. It’s a curiosity, and I’ll admit I like a challenge, but I have the luxury to pick and choose.

I’ll keep it around for a day or two, but then it has to go back to its owner. Thanks, but no thanks. :shock:

When an old laptop is better than a new one

It’s a very odd situation, but occasionally I need to take a laptop to work.

Currently, with one machine making a smooth, albeit extended, transition between distros, I found myself dragging the fastest (but not biggest) one into the office.

That was a huge mistake.

Mostly because that’s the one that has both Warzone 2100 and Wine-plus-Icewind Dale on it.

The hours ticked by like minutes.

Which was a good thing in a way, because that was part of the problem — large periods of time with nothing specific to do.

On the other hand, I know I should be working a little harder either on job issues or minor tasks.

But that is simply an impossibility so long as the burrows of the lizard men need cleared, or there’s another skirmish waiting in Warzone.

Next time, something so underpowered as to be no kind of distraction. :)

Just for fun: A three-part home media system

It’s a new year, so here’s something fun. I’m going to show you one screenshot, and then another, and then tell you what’s going on. First, this really boring console shot.

Nothing special there. mplayer is running. So is alsaequal; that’s probably unusual enough to note. I keep it on every system I have, just as a way to compensate for the sound qualities of the room.

Next, the Toshiba Satellite J12 bequeathed to me for a song, as I mentioned yesterday. You might recognize it; it’s famous on the Internet. :roll:

What’s worth mentioning is the fact that these are not the same computer — the console image you see there wasn’t taken on the Satellite.

It was taken from a machine that predates it by about 10 years, and is networked into the larger one. mplayer is running on the big one, but it’s being controlled from the small one.

Which means all of the interaction — audio control, position, subtitles, color control … everything — is piped back and forth across the network from the big machine to the little, and vice-versa.

But the video output goes to the Satellite’s screen. :twisted:

And there’s one more thing here that I can’t show you, because there’s nothing really to see. The DVD rip itself — the actual video file — isn’t on the Satellite.

No, it’s being served across the network by still another machine — and this one is almost as old as the control system.

But with an oversize drive and a fast network card, it can serve video data over a wireless connection, which is played on the larger machine, which is controlled by the oldest computer in the house.

(This is the part where I apologize for the post the other day, suggesting that screen and mplayer have a difficult time working together. They did, but the problem appears to have vanished with a fresh installation. My mistake. Sorry about that. :oops: )

More importantly, that means this is another possible use for an out-of-date or ancient computer: as a front-end for a larger one.

And most importantly — to me, anyway — is that the entire circuit, from controller to server to display, runs without the need for Xorg.

You only need framebuffer support on one machine — the display computer, and that one can be as powerful or as not-powerful as you like.

Considering I used to play the same DVD rips on a machine that was running at 550Mhz with only 4Mb of video memory, that’s not saying much. ;)

Here’s a little detail, machine by machine.

Controller: This only needs ssh access to the main machine. I run this with Crux i586 on the second tty of a 120Mhz Pentium, and ssh into the display machine. I also have the Terminus font installed, but that’s neither here nor there.

Networking hardware is an ancient pcnet-driven PCMCIA card, and that’s more than enough since the traffic in and out of this machine is negligible.

Server: A server system can be and do a lot of things, but for my purposes Debian is perfect, and easy to set up too. I put everything in the home directory of a privileged user, and serve that directory as an nfs share.

The network connection is a ralink PCMCIA wireless card, which was rather quirky to arrange, but gets good upload and download speeds, and so is best suited for this situation. Best of all, the power draw is less than a light bulb, it takes up almost no space, and has a battery backup in times of need. ;)

Display: This machine is the winner this time, chosen for its large (to me, anyway) screen, clear display and speedy network access. I using the wired Intel PRO/100 connection because I have a five-meter network cable, and I like the fast access speeds.

This machine needs the most in the way of software, because this is where most of the action happens. To wit:

  • Framebuffer access. If you’re using a modern distro you probably already have this. If you’re using a very old computer, it might be a little tricky to get working.
  • mplayer and codecs, if your conscience allows. I should mention that archlinux.fr keeps a codecs package in its repository.
  • ssh daemon. Remember dropbear is considerably lighter than some other ssh suites. And remember Remy’s ssh dialog, if your connections are stacking up.
  • nfs client access. If you prefer samba or another service, you’re on your own. :|
  • alsa or another audio subsystem, of course. Unless you can read lips, I guess. … ;)

I also include screen and a few ancillary programs, like alsaequal, mc, htop and moc. They’re all useful on the odd chance, or for playing music if video isn’t required.

I mentioned networking equipment for all of these, because that’s where your bottleneck is. I am confident my 133Mhz Pentium can actually serve up those files in plenty of time for the Celeron M.

But if I have a slow wireless card in it, or if there is network pressure from other machines, things start to stutter. So be aware: Skipping playback, in my experience, is probably because of network speed.

(Those new Blue Ray DVDs ripped at 1080p or whatever are going to be tricky. Even my core duo has trouble with those, and that’s if they’re on the local drive. :shock: :| )

That’s all for the hardware I’m using. There are a couple of minor points that should probably be addressed, in way of configuration. First of all, it’s useful to know a few of mplayer’s flags, like …

  • -zoom, to expand or contract the output,
  • -fs, to push the size to full screen, which paints the outlying areas black, as opposed to leaving leftover text on the fringes,
  • -x and -y, to manually force the dimensions of the output,
  • -vf scale=x:y, to scale the output instead, or
  • -aspect x:y, to force an aspect, and
  • -vo, to force a video driver, although with nothing else on the machine, mplayer (in the default Arch version) jumps straight to the framebuffer.

In my case, this is what my ~/.mplayer/config file looks like.

zoom="1"
fs="1"
vf="scale=1024:-3"
vo="fbdev"

The -3 in the vf line throws the y dimension out to a proportionate depth. I think. I can’t find the documentation on it, but I’ve had it around forever and it seems to work. I know, I know: Google is my friend. …

That’s not the last though. This little trick is this coup de grace:

setterm -cursor off -blank 0

Because even with mplayer’s -fs flag, the cursor on a tty screen will blink by itself, in the middle of the screen. Sometimes. But more importantly, -blank sets the default video timeout for the terminal to zero — meaning, never.

Otherwise, after about 20 minutes, your screen will go dark and you’ll have to get up and walk over to the keyboard, and press a key to get the image back. And we can’t have that, now can we? :mrgreen:

That’s all. Let me know if you can get this working with something in the handheld department, because that might be where the fun lies.

I have heard of people connecting to home networks with Sharp Zauruses (Zaurii?) or Toshiba Libretto minicomputers. Something that small … well, it’s practically a remote control. ;)

Just don’t fight over it. :mrgreen:

P.S.: I should mention, if you are more keen on forcing the video into Xorg instead of the framebuffer, to try the xinit command with DISPLAY=0:1 and your mplayer command. And to remember xset s off, which should stop screen blanking. Beyond that though, you’re on your own. … :)