Anniversaries always throw me into a retrospective mood, and since August will mark the third birthday of this blog, I have been thinking a little bit about the machines I’ve worked with since I switched to Linux.
I can’t count the number of computers I’ve worked with over the past three years. I’ve installed (or at least attempted) installations on everything from Pentium machines to dual Xeon Pentium 4 servers to OLPC laptops, all with varying success. There are a few that stand out in my mind and particularly fun or particularly gratifying …
This is the machine I wish I had kept. Pristine quality, good screen image, flexible hardware, easy to open and maintain, a chain of industry-standard core components, and enough options to keep your standard laptop geek busy for a while.
I got my hands on this though the IT staff at a previous job, where this had been sitting on a closet shelf for almost a decade, doing nothing. They were more than happy to turn it over to me, and giggled furiously at the idea of actually putting a 120Mhz machine to use. Giggled, that is, until I brought it back to work a week or two later, armed with a very sparse Linux installation running a media player with graphic visualizer, wireless connection and a load of other goodies. They were instantly jealous.
Jealous because early Presarios (and possibly even new ones, I don’t know) were armed with JBL speakers and sound quality was unparallelled. After they saw that it was actually functional, actually usable, they realized they had made a huge mistake in giving it away.
It was a mistake I duplicated not long afterward though. In those days I was inundated with hardware, and one more laptop in museum-quality condition wasn’t worth keeping. I realize now that was the machine I needed to keep on hand for a few more years, but at the time I couldn’t spare the space. Perhaps one day I’ll get my hands on another one of these, and be able to make up for the mistake of selling the first one.
Dell Optiplex GX150
Dell made an entire series of GX machines aimed at businesses and government clients, and for the most part these were rather droll, ordinary desktops with no real spice to them whatsoever. But the GX line was strictly a lemons-to-lemonade phenomenon, as this should show.
With the maximum 512Mb of PC133 memory and 1.4Ghz Pentium III processor, the GX150 was suddenly a high-end desktop with a physical footprint no bigger than an encyclopedia. (There were three sizes, if I recall correctly.) Add a low-profile 64Mb Geforce 440 graphics card, and suddenly you have a machine that can run Neverwinter Nights at 1600×1200, Compiz, any desktop application you like … and look exceptionally good in the process.
The mini-case models used laptop optical drives, which meant you could supplant the standard CDROM with a dual layer DVD if you really had to, or pop in a standard size hard drive too. This was a neat split between the parts seen in standard desktop machines and common Dell laptops.
And Linux couldn’t be happier on it. Ubuntu, Arch and a half-dozen other distros that were current at the time all ran smooth as silk, with no hiccups that I recall. Maybe those are rose-colored glasses that I’m wearing, but I have nothing but fond memories of that machine.
I am tempted to also label this one as a “should’ve kept,” but to be honest, these machines were so prolific and still are so common, that you can easily put together an identical computer now, and end up spending less than US$30 for everything … including the cans of paint. Whereas the Presario was clearly an antique, this one could be mimicked in less than a week, and at minimal cost.
I was torn between listing this one and the Inspiron as a number three choice. The Inspiron has been on my desk for well over three years and is generally the house workhorse, but the Thinkpad has been more of a learning experience, and more of a success story — particularly recently.
Part of my endearment to this machine is just that it is in such impeccable shape, but another large part is the fact that I’ve learned to do so much with it, and rely on only a sliver of its resources. Hardwarewise it’s a bottom-feeder, and yet everything that goes into this blog, all my e-mail correspondence, chatting, IMing, personal schedules, desktop wikis, to-do lists, torrent traffic, music streaming … you name it, this machine is where it happens.
I suppose that alone is not enough to rank a machine in a “best-of” list, but there’s more than that. It’s hard to explain, but this Thinkpad, and others I have had or used, have a “solid” feel that is somehow reassuring. I know, for example, that it only has a CDROM in it, and I know that 192Mb is the most memory it will ever have. And that 800×600 screen would be an irritation to anyone else, and everyone looks down on Celerons.
But this thing has a die-hard feel to it. It’s nobody’s dream machine, but Linux on this has been nothing short of liberating. No qualms or eccentricities (unless you count that siliconmotion driver issue, which is no longer an issue really), and function way beyond what Microsoft — and maybe even IBM — ever anticipated.
I use that phrase a lot though, so maybe it has lost some of its punch. Suffice to say that this machine has been more of a surprise and more satisfying than a lot of the others. That’s reason enough.
So there you have it. Three years on, these are the machines that stick in my memory the most. There have been countless others, but these are the hall of fame inductees. For my own part, that is.