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. 🙄

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. 😯

23 thoughts on “Catch and release

  1. Doug

    Question for the teaming masses, if I might.

    I have a circa 1998 Micron PII 266 MHz, 192 MB, 40 GB laptop in decent working condition, except for an inoperative CDROM. No wired Ethernet, but PCMCIA Ethernet works. USB 1.1, but BIOS won’t boot from it. I can pull the HD and have access to an external enclosure so that I can attach the HD to another machine via USB.

    I’ve tried Damn Small Linux and Tiny Core Linux on the Micron and all seems to work, including networking. Didn’t try PCMCIA WiFi, but that would be desirable.

    Which distro would you recommend for this box, given the need for (very) occasional web browsing and SSH access to other systems? I’d be happy with console mostly, but need occasional graphical web browsing. (I’m really not up for building Crux.)

    My (not recent) experience with lightweight browsers was that Midori was terribly buggy and Dillo was not very capable. Suggestions?


  2. Dan

    If you try to boot with the HDD removed does it give you an option to press a key to enter the BIOS?
    I had an old Toshiba that I had to use the no bootable media could be found trick with. Unfortunately not all models seem to offer to let you into the BIOS when they cant find a disk to boot.

    1. Doug

      Yes, I can boot into BIOS. I should have also mentioned that I can boot into floppies.

      I did try Syslinux (IIRC – maybe another boot utility) via floppy boot and that did not allow boot via USB. Micron has early, primitive USB HW that works with DSL & Tiny Core, but not boot utils.

      My options to install another distro appear to include using a floppy-based Linux, the existing Tiny Core install, or pulling the HD and using the external enclosure with another Linux system.

    1. Doug

      Impressive hack, Dmitry. Extremely efficient coding.

      The Damn Small Linux boot floppy let me boot DSL, which let me install Tiny Core to HD via USB, so I’m a bit further to my goal than today’s Kolibros would get me. (For some reason the Tiny Core boot floppy didn’t work for installing TC via USB, but that was circa version 1.x)

      I’m really looking for the optimal lightweight Linux and graphical browser for the Micron hardware. Are there other distros that I should explore, or is Tiny Core likely my best bet?

      SliTaz, while excellent, has outgrown its earlier memory limits and appears to be unsuitable: “SliTaz GNU/Linux is a mini distribution and live CD designed to run speedily on hardware with 256 MB of RAM.”

  3. Thumos

    Try this:

    1. Turn on computer by Holding down power button while pressing the ESC key.
    The machine will beep, then display:
    Check System, then press [F1] key.
    2. Release ESC key
    3. Press F1 key

    1. Doug

      Pressed and held ESC, powered up, machine displayed boot prompts, eventually started beeping repeatedly, never got a “Check System” prompt, released ESC, pressed F1, got Boot Menu.

      Boot Menu: 1. Removable Devices, 2. Hard Drive, 3. ATAPI CD-ROM (note: CD drive is broken), 4. .


      Setup Menu: IDE 0 Master — [8455 MB HD, actually 40 GB but the BIOS is old], Primary Slave [None], IDE 1 Master [CD-ROM], Default Boot order – Removable, HD, CD. (Boot order still set to prefer floppy boot)

      Machine is Micron TransPort TREK 2, Model NBKU370. Pheonix BIOS 4.0, Release 6.0, latest copyright 1998, PCMCIA Ethernet is based on RealTek 8139.

      Cold boot, no keys held, gets GRUB “loading stage 1.5” prompt, GRUB menu, and then successful boots to Tiny Core 2.11., SliTaz 2.0, and Debian Lenny/LXDE (pretty darn slow, but usable).

      So, a decent antique machine that can still be useful with the right software. Proven to work well with Linux, despite the install difficulties due to bad CD drive.

      What distro & graphical browser would you folks recommend?

  4. Doug

    Ooops, WordPress “nuked” the Boot Menu option 4 “Setup Menu”, apparently due to angle brackets.

  5. m7stic

    Those old toshiba laptops were known for their inaccessable bios. The bios is designed to be accessed from a windows program, i have an old toshiba satellite that does the same thing. If you’re hard pressed to mess with the bios, use winxp on it long enough to use the windows too to get the bios how you want, and then start over.

    I have no advice on getting the native res to work, toshiba used graphics chips that nobody supported during that era. Personally, i use that laptop as my rtorrent/mediahost box. It hides rather well behind the entertainment center.

    Good luck, and happy hacking!

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      Thanks m7stic, those are useful clues. I’ll keep poking around and see if it’s worth installing an ad hoc Windows system, just to wrangle the BIOS.

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