Buying a name

I dropped a hint the other day, when I mentioned that “none of my Pentium machines” would boot from a 120Gb hard drive. I wasn’t just speaking metaphorically; I did actually pick up another Pentium machine at the recycling store: This time, a Thinkpad 560e, again for the price of roughly US$10.

I know, I need another Pentium laptop like I need a hole in my head. But I promised myself a long time ago, if I ever saw another workable Thinkpad for cheap, that I would make a point of buying it. Based on my experiences over the past few years with Thinkpads, I could only expect a positive experience by buying the name.

Buying the name is what I did, and a positive experience is what I’ve gotten so far. This is an Intel 430MX-based system with a 166Mhz Pentium MMX in it. Video is a Trident 9660-series VGA card and audio is an old ES1688 ISA sound card. PCMCIA bridge is a Cirrus Logic 6729, which is important, since beyond that, there’s almost nothing to report. No ethernet. No USB. No CDROM.

It does have an AC adapter, which is critical, and a battery, which has a life of around three minutes. It also has a floppy drive which connects via proprietary cable, but I’m a little worried that it might not be working at 100 percent. I put a couple of floppies in it that I thought had something on them, and got nothing.

But best of all, it has a massive, enormous, gargantuan, more-space-than-I-will-ever-need 64Mb stick of PC66 in it. Okay, I admit it, that was why I bought it. Quite obviously I was searching for a 64Mb stick of memory, and got one with a free computer wrapped around it. I am not ashamed.

Beyond that, everything is else is functional, and that’s a bonus. I swapped out the noisy 2Gb drive for a spare 40Gb one, and used the 600m to install a couple of different things, including command-line Ubuntu systems (which is what you see in the picture), Slitaz CLI and X-based systems, and a couple of Crux installations which proved unbootable. (It takes me a little while to get things working just right.)

Unfortunately the drive has to be swapped out each time, and that’s about the only thing I don’t like about this machine: The hard drive is cased under the left palmrest, and you have to take out no less than 14 screws from the underside before you can get to it. Apparently, the Thinkpad reputation for being technician-friendly took hold after this model was designed.

But my 40Gb drive works fine and boots plenty quick. This is not a night-and-day difference from the 100 and 120Mhz machines I’ve used in recent history, but it does feel a little more “perky.” Ubuntu booted fast at 1.4Ghz, and is relatively fast at a tenth of that speed. Start time from the Grub menu to the login prompt is around 40 seconds, which is a considerable improvement over the old days of three-minute boots with Dapper Drake.

Slitaz is likewise speedy, but hasn’t proven to be the golden child on this particular machine as it was with the Fujitsu Pentium. For whatever reason, I couldn’t find some of the framebuffer support in the Slitaz kernel (or its supporting packages), so the magical 800×600 display that I saw with the Fujitsu is not happening here.

And occasionally, because I don’t have as much experience with Slitaz as I do with Ubuntu or Crux, I find it a little obscure or difficult to pin down. For example, I needed the usermod command (I’ve forgotten why), but apparently it’s in an outside package, maybe a coreutils derivative.

Ubuntu is not without its eccentricities, when it comes to this particular model. I assume the tridentfb module is for Trident video cards, but that one just spews forth scrambled screen garbage. uvesafb says it won’t bother itself with pre-VESA 2.0 hardware, and both vesafb and vga16fb can only force a 640×480 area. So once again, I’m trapped in a porthole effect screen.

But that’s not a terrible thing. I use the Fixed font at 13 points (as configured in /etc/defaults/console-setup and triggered by setupcon) and I have enough space to do some work at least. All the same software I like (with the exceptions of the stuff I have added personally to my Crux systems) is available in the Karmic repos, so I’m not lacking for my fave-rave programs.

On the other hand, the Linksys WPC11 wireless card — which is only the most valuable network connection I have, because it’s so flexible and easy to configure — spits out bizarre errors and drops signals if I don’t install wireless-tools (which I can sometimes run without. That’s how great that card is — I don’t even need wireless-tools to connect to an open network. Run out there and buy yourself one or two because they’re great 😉 ).

I haven’t tried a graphical system in Ubuntu and I probably won’t. I did it in Slitaz and got it working nicely with both Awesome and dvm, but ran into issues with fonts — namely, it was taking so much processor heft to draw the text on screen that it could do very little else.

And while the audio worked fine in Slitaz (or as fine as could be expected for a 166Mhz machine churning through ogg files encoded at an upper level of quality), Ubuntu is still spitting weird errors at me about ALSA. This may require research.

Ultimately my goal with this machine is to bring it into line with the old X-driven terminal-based system I used on my Fujitsu during late summer last year. Physically this 560e is not in nearly as good a condition as the Fujitsu, and so I plan on taking it to work to use as a note-taking and scheduling machine, but not much else beyond that. It’s very lightweight and sufficiently portable to warrant traveling with, even if it lacks the connections to make it usable alongside the office computers.

But there’s one small thing about this computer that makes it a keeper, even if “keeper” isn’t practical over the long run. There’s something this computer doesn’t have that makes it special. Look closer … closer … closer. … What’s missing?

Aha! No Windows key! Excellent! A machine that is physically free from Microsoft’s stain. Now you’re jealous, aren’t you? :mrgreen:

12 thoughts on “Buying a name

  1. lyyx

    Mhmm, but that spacebar looks awfully tiny. Doesn’t that cause trouble? It’s just what you’re used to, I suppose.

    I’d love to own a Japanese hand-me-down, but I’m over in Europe, so the shipping would just kill any advantage I’d gain! Such a pity.

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