Category Archives: Hardware

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. :(

1984 vs. 2007

Not really Linux-related, but a quick thanks to Astute Reader No. 1, who sent along a great three-minute clip off of (gasp!) YouTube from a year ago or so, showing simultaneous boots on a Vista-laden PC from 2007 and an ancient floppy-driven Macintosh Classic from 1984.

Rationalize all you want, it’s still taking far longer for a vastly more powerful computer to get to a workable starting point than a lowly 16-bit floppy-driven machine.

This is the part where I usually insert a long and windy tirade about bloated software and inefficient programming and why it’s ridiculous to waste money on newer faster machines when obviously the old ones will work, if given a chance.

But I’ll spare you. You can use your imagination for that point, and even use a creaky old librarian lady voice if it makes things more amusing. :lol:

P.S.: For goodness’ sake, don’t read the comments to that video. I don’t know what it is about YouTube that attracts the weakest minds on the planet, but. …

Like I need a hole in my head

With so many computers around the house and not really enough things to do with them, you’d think I would make a point of not bringing home another leftover piece of junk.

Unless it’s something I can use as parts, or to improve upon the machines I already have.

That’s what I thought I was doing when I found a Fujitsu NU/13D, a rather banged-up 133Mhz Pentium machine with 64Mb of memory in it, a CDROM but no hard drive.

Ideally, the plan was to scalp whatever was usable — memory and CDROM — and use it in my own Fujitsu Pentium. Alas, it was not to be … in part.

The machine came out of a junk bin in a recycling shop, and some wag had already scooped the memory out of it, or it never had any additional memory to start with. Bummer.

So the CDROM was the only viable transplant, and I say that not having torn apart the machine yet to see if the remaining 32Mb reported by the BIOS is removable. The last Fujitsu-series Pentium I tore apart had the memory fused to the motherboard.

Interestingly, the CDROM is accessible from the operating system and BIOS, but the option to boot from it doesn’t seem to work. It’s possible that it is not completely compatible; the machine is actually a full year older than the one I type on now.

And oddly, it is not an unattractive computer. It’s rough around the edges and needed a vigorous cleaning, but all the parts appear to work and the screen is in good shape. It’s a tiny bit bigger than the one I have now, too.

But the guts are not appealing to me — it also has a dreaded Trident video card — and since the Mebius has USB ports, this new machine is not likely to take over any time soon.

Ironically, I can boot to something like the final release of Damn Small Linux, get a full screen, full color, full resolution desktop, connect to the wireless network with a leftover orinoco/agere wireless card, and all that without a hard drive … and the battery will last an hour and a half.

Too bad that battery is not compatible with the machine I use now though. It will insert, but it can’t draw power off it, and I see where the “model number” on the battery is different. Probably different connections. Oh well.

I also found a rather quaint Corega WLCB54GL2 PCMCIA wireless card, and it apparently is working … sort of. It’s RT61-driven, and it’s been a really, really long time since I fought with an RT61 card.

I can see where the drivers are available in the kernel, but for some reason my kernels can never find the firmware need to run the things. Technically it works (I can get online and surf in Arch Linux) just not when I try to do it myself.

The last thing I noticed was a creepy looking laptop of some sorts: something called a PCsel L7 Avie, if I remember the name right. The screen was minuscule and the size of the thing was suspicious in its smallness.

So I might have been looking at a true antique — maybe a 386 or even 286. I’m sorry to say I didn’t have enough money to take home both that and the Fujitsu, so I left it there.

Of course if I go back now, it’ll be gone. In the wild, wild world of leftover computer junk, you can’t pause to think things over. You gotta move quick. … :roll:

A reasonable investment or two

I made a few upgrades today, this time in the X60s. It’s been about six months since I bought it, and I have yet to be disappointed in anything it does. Start to finish it has been a wonderful machine.

And an evaluation like that means it’s more than likely going to be around for a little while to come. With that in mind, I went ahead and spent US$100 or so on some upgrades: a 7200rpm SATA3G hard drive and the largest memory configuration it can handle, 3Gb.

Now the first thing I get to say at this point is, the machine didn’t run faster with three gigabytes of memory in it. I swapped the 512Mb out first, while I still had a standing Arch Linux installation in place. And you’ll probably be quite disappointed to learn that the boot times and the general “snappiness” of the machine were the same.

I don’t cling to the myth that dumping gobs of memory into your machine will arbitrarily make it run faster. I have in the past, but I never will again. Yes, under certain circumstances you will see improvements with more memory, but a clean boot to a lightweight desktop does not improve by sextupling a system’s memory. Not in this household.

Swapping out the hard drive, on the other hand, made a huge difference. The old one was an 80Gb 5400rpm drive, and while I bear it no ill will, there was a big improvement once I had an identical system in place. No comparison.

But that makes sense. The new drive simply reads and transfers faster than the old one could, by virtue of its technology. And subsequently, anything that relied on drive access (like boot times or installing software) was improved as a result.

The only downside — if it is a downside, which I suppose it isn’t — is that the smallest drive size I could find with those transfer and read rates was a whopping 320Gb. Good grief. I have no idea what to do with all that space. I’m not even using the first 10Gb of it, with system files and a home folder. :shock:

Pricewise I think I did pretty good for myself. An online retailer sold me the drive for less than US$60 with a USB enclosure as part of the deal, and the memory was only US$40 for a 2Gb stick of PC2-5300, and US$20 for a 1Gb stick of the same. All in all, I think the total was around US$140.

Money well spent, I say. I didn’t truly need the extra RAM or disk space (definitely not the disk space). But I am in the habit of pampering the machines I like — like the maxed out memory and giant 120Gb drive in the Thinkpad, or the 80Mb of memory and the 8GB CF card in the Pentium I’m typing on now.

And so long as I intend to keep this machine, it’s worth the extra money put into it. And the speed I get out of it. :twisted:

Poor man’s SSD

I hope your fingers are limber and ready for some exercise, because this next post is either going to infuriate you and trigger all kinds of keyboard action, or get you so wired to reply that you’ll fall into spasms from trying to punch at the “Leave a comment” button.

First, a question: What’s this?

If you said, “An 8Gb CF memory card,” you’re right. Now here’s another one for you:

If you said, “A CF-to-2.5-inch-IDE adapter,” you’re right again. Give yourself a cookie.

Now if you can imagine where this is going, then you’re probably already seconds away from those spasms I just mentioned. But a little history first.

Way back in October, when I went on a short vacation and gallivanted all around the world with a Pentium laptop, I suffered a rather noisy and very unfortunate hard drive crash. In the time that I had remaining away from home, I thought about investing in a solid state drive, but there are two big shortcomings for me: size and price.

Price, because I don’t like dumping US$200 into a 14-year-old computer. I would be spending almost 20 times the value of the machine on a fairly-new technology that hasn’t really settled into a stable price bracket to start with. Pecuniary prudence prevented it. ;)

And size, because to be honest, I don’t need anything in the 200Gb range in a console-based laptop that I only use for writing, scheduling, surfing, e-mail, note-taking, chatting, gaming, troubleshooting, experimenting, blogging, organizing, planning, making presentations, calculating, reviewing and more experimenting, and a few other small things. :twisted: In fact, there’s nothing that I do that would require 20Gb, let alone 200.

So paying a lot of money for a giant sized drive that probably wouldn’t even boot in a BIOS this old would be throwing bad money after good. I’d do just as well with a teensy 10Gb drive, provided it was reasonably fast. And cheap. And light. And didn’t eat a lot of power. And wasn’t hot. And wasn’t noisy.

Well hey, SSDs aren’t much different from giant memory cards. And CF cards are two or three generations removed from state-of-the-art, so they’re pretty cheap. Heck, I can get an 8Gb card off for around US$20, and the connector is only US$14. …

“And that is how I got to where I find myself today.”

I’m US$34 poorer now, and just about everyone who heard about my plan pooh-poohed it as a ridiculous idea, that CF cards would degrade over time, that the IO drag would be a nightmare, that bad luck would follow me like the plague … pretty much everything short of biblical catastrophe would ensue.

But even Wikipedia mentions this combination as an alternative to SSDs. And the XO-1 shipped with NAND flash as standard, although what you see there is just your common ordinary garden-variety CF card, intended for cameras and whatnot.

And really, I think the pros far outweigh the cons. Weight is negligible. Noise level is absolute zero. Speed is on par with the 40Gb 5400rpm drive I usually use in the Pentium. Heat is nil. Power draw is next to nil. And mechanical issues, which drove me to this end in the first place, are next to nil.

Moreover, I consider this an experiment: If it falls to pieces after a few hours, so be it. I lost roughly US$30 and learned something about the way these things work. I would much rather that, than lose US$200 to a drive that didn’t like my BIOS and collected dust in the closet. I’m willing to take a chance.

In the mean time, I’m going to sit back, relax, count and recount the US$175 or so I saved on a full size SSD plus shipping, and imagine how I shall waste that money. :twisted:

McRat’s Z-80 and 486, hard at work

Speaking of outdated technology, I found a note to myself from a couple of weeks ago about a Z-80 machine and a 486 computer that are still in use on a daily basis. McRat generously posted them in the Community Cafe on the Ubuntu forums, in reply to a rather worn-out question: What’s the oldest computer you’re still using?

That question is (inadvertently?) resurrected every month or so, but McRat’s replies might take the trophy just for being still in use. It’s one thing to say you have Babbage’s analytical engine in your garage, but if it’s not actually being used, then … well, then it’s not actually being used. :|

The photos were fun too, and I’ll repost them here for the benefit of the people who aren’t members of the forum, and won’t otherwise be able to see them.


Not bad for machines that are still used on a daily basis. If I can get that much work out of the Pentiums I own, I’ll call myself very lucky indeed. :D

An update: Remy’s Datamini PA40

A few people have asked for an update about Remy‘s Datamini PA40, the rehabilitated 286 machine I mentioned back in April. If you think you were jealous then, you’ll be positively viridian now.

Pac-Man on a 286-era laptop computer is enough to make any geek writhe in ecstasy, but that’s not the only thing it does. Remy sent this explanation:

The Datamini PA-40 which I emailed you about earlier has found its use. It is being used as a kitchen computer. Who needs a touchscreenfridge for that?


My girlfriend makes the shopping lists on it, in WordPerfect. Quite handy, most of the time I need to work early (in a hospital) so when I come back home I read the list she made. I know most people do it on paper but this is just more awesome.


Furthermore while I’m cooking I try to update my Magic: The Gathering card database in Lotus 123. I have a main spreadsheet for it which I normally use, but it is funny to see that when an OpenOffice file is converted it still opens quite fast while fitting on a floppy. :P

I know I have too many computers as it is, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking for something to compete with that one. :twisted:

Not with a whimper but a bang

There are times in life when you have to accept the prevailing winds, recognize the signs, acknowledge that there may indeed be higher powers at work in the universe, and that their plans may take precedence over your own.

I was willing to forgive a row of suddenly lifeless keys, or the rattling fan, or even the thixotropic 4200rpm hard drive. But the list of hindrances mounted quickly, and even in its last burst of beauty, it was obviously time for the Celeron to retire.

That fan rattle has only gotten worse over time, and the spindle or casing or whatever is loose is clacking like a pebble in a blender. At some point soon I really expect it to break completely, although that might be a blessing considering the quiet that would probably follow. Probably.

And without a long string of function and number keys at the top of the keyboard, it’s tough to use. That Arch system I set up a day ago to show off fbterm et al. took a long time to get into place, because I couldn’t use some of the keys I needed to configure stuff. It’s difficult to point your network card at a router when the station ID includes the number “7,” but your 7 key isn’t responding. :roll:

To add insult to injury, the CD drive is kicking back errors now, and it’s usually on CDs I am sure are error-free. Discs I have used in two or three machines in recent history are suddenly suspect, like a Debian install disc. But it’s never the same package or part of installation that reports an error — it’s random and inconsistent. Hmm.

Worst of all though, my Debian Etch boot floppy is now jammed in the drive. I don’t know if I should be angry at the loss of the floppy or the sudden futility of the entire floppy drive. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s a floppy drive.” But hey, that was more useful than you would think.

I admit I bought the machine looking for an underdog, and I got what I paid for. Sound is weak, the hard drive is slow and 64Mb of memory is useful only to someone like me. Just about the only redeeming quality — and this alone is rather surprising — is that the screen is in such good condition.

My brief, two-day solo flight with this machine reminded me that a solid large-size screen with a decent resolution is quite pleasant to look at. My day-to-day computer use is generally with porthole 800×600 machines or with 1024×768 machines compressed into 12″ frames, so this was a nice change.

I had a lot of plans for it, but I feel no remorse. It’s a half-eaten machine with only a few redeeming points, and the month or two it lived with me was a nice swan song. It almost tasted a little fame too, if grafting together a terminal environment with wallpaper decorations and drawing a few clicks can be called “fame.”

It’s time to heed the signs, acknowledge the greater plan for the universe, and set this one free. Who knows, maybe someone wiser and more patient than I will discover it, and it will go on to become even more famous. ;)

Testing a theory of usability

I made a comment a few months ago about conceivably downscaling everything and learning to live off the fat of the land … plus a 300Mhz Pentium II-era machine. Well, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

For the record, the computer you see in that picture is a Celeron, running at 300Mhz with 64Mb of memory. The hard drive is 4Gb and it’s running Arch Linux with screen-vs and fbterm. The usual array of software is installed, with very few exceptions (I think I left out freecell :roll: ). This machine has a single USB1.1 port, is using the finicky Corega ath5k-based wireless card and I have a CD reader as well.

It’s definitely the technology of the last century; I had a faster computer than this before the dials turned on 2000. And in addition to being something of a thumbsucker, I have the added joy of a row of lifeless keys which means the teeny-tiny external keyboard is in the picture too. Luckily I have an ancient USB hub that I got nobody-knows-where, so I can expand on that one port, to a small degree.

If you’ve been visiting this site for a while, you’ll remember that, about a year and a half ago, I shoved everything into the closet and ran at 100Mhz for a week. This is not an attempt to reproduce that experiment, particularly because after that stunt, living at 300Mhz isn’t even a tiny challenge. This is really just a test run of sorts, to get an answer to my theory that 300Mhz would be a bottom-of-the-barrel compromise between practical and minimal, for me at least.

And this is nowhere near as spartan an arrangement as before. I still have my Thinkpad on the other side of the room, playing music and seeding torrents, and I control that through ssh. I will still be checking this site with another computer, to make sure no one is dumping spam image links in here (I learned my lesson :roll:). And I have my addiction to Warzone 2100 v2.3 to feed. :mrgreen:

But maybe for a day, maybe for two or three days, or maybe for a week, I’ll give this a try. A banged up, beaten down, ugly, cantankerous and somewhat functional Celeron with a dozen years of service under its belt might not be a dream machine for most people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do something useful around the house. … ;)