One existential crisis at a time, please

Not everything I keep around the house is an absolute winner. I do feel like I can pick and choose the machines that stay with me, and which ones go on to new owners and new lives. But sometimes there are machines that really test my principles.

Here’s one. This is a lowly Dell Inspiron 4000. And it’s definitely not a model specimen.


Quite to the contrary. This machine is a veritable best-of list for everything that can possibly go wrong with an old laptop. When it came to me,

  1. It had no memory.
  2. It had no battery, and no power supply.
  3. It had a CD player, but the door mechanism is broken, and if you don’t hold it in, it doesn’t read the CD.
  4. It had a floppy drive, but I shook so much dust out of it that I’m seriously concerned about jeopardizing one of my few remaining floppy disks by testing the drive.
  5. It has no rubber feet left, and what remains causes it to rock on a flat surface.
  6. The screen is in good shape, but takes a while to warm up. Until then, the display has a red tint to it.
  7. It has one — only one — USB port, and that’s a version 1.1 port, so it’s phenomenally slow. To make matters worse, it feels like the port is losing its grip on the motherboard, because the port flexes when you push in a drive. Scary.
  8. About a fourth of the keys — mostly in the upper right quadrant — don’t work. Either the keyboard is on the fritz, or the signal isn’t being caught by the machine. I guess the former.
  9. The CMOS battery is dead, so you have to set the date each time the machine boots. Which is tricky, because again, a quarter of the keys don’t work.
  10. It has no built-in network port, or rather, this particular model has a plastic shield over the ethernet port, which usually was a sign that the board didn’t carry that port.
  11. It has more than its share of cracks, dings, scrapes, gouges, split seams, broken corners, busted lips, scuffs and scratches.

It looks a great deal cleaner now than it did when I got it. It still needs a complete disassembly and scrubbing — if it stays, of course.

And that’s where the existential crisis comes in. Because in spite of all that damage and all those deficiencies, it still works. Its saving grace is the the fact that it belongs to the Dell C-series, which means that laptops from about five or six years before and five or six years after it all used compatible parts — including this one.

So, after calling in some favors for a 256Mb stick of PC100, then borrowing the battery and a modular DVDRW drive from the 8200, I turned it on, and it came back to life. The Windows 2000 installation was still in place and functional, even if it was hideously slow. The touchpad is in good shape. And the screen is clear and free of flaws.

I gave it an Atheros-based PCMCIA wireless card, and started it up with a PLOP CD and the Arch Linux install ISO on USB. From there I could ssh into it and work up a system, for as long as the battery would last. And as you can see, after some slight delays, it’s functional again.

But from here it becomes a question of worth, because at its core, it’s still a 600Mhz Celeron, with only 256Mb of memory, a lowly 30Gb hard drive … and all-over barely functional. Sure, it has all-Intel guts and an ATI Mobility card. But it’s not something your day-to-day computer user, circa 2014, wants to take home to meet the family.

So the jury is still out on this machine. I still haven’t tried it with a proper power supply, and I need to know for sure that the keyboard issues are just in the keyboard. I have a feeling that it will cost me more than the value of the machine just to find that out, which is why I’m debating disassembly for parts.

I hate doing that, but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. 😐


4 thoughts on “One existential crisis at a time, please

  1. Foz

    Unless the need for a server is required, disassemble.
    My rule of thumb is: it is cannot be used independently (and the keyboard immediately strikes that off), then your choice is as a server (torrent, website, file, whatever) or for parts.

  2. Rudi Pittman

    I picked up an entire Inspiron 4000 with 256mb and a 10gb hd for $25 on ebay….it will run light system’s and with 512mb if you use zram and set the vm.swappiness to 5 it’s more responsive…suitable for checking email and using a web browser like midori. You can also flash the latitude bios on it and make it think it’s a latitude c510 (for the celeron 700mhz) or c600 for the p3 700mhz….the advantage there is you can use those cheap c/dock docking stations on ebay for $10 that come with network card etc. I’ve tried LXLE on it with success and have plans to put linux mint xfce on it. a pcmcia card with some usb ports might be useful vs the 1.1 port and those are pretty cheap.

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      Yes, that Latitude/Inspiron C-series was a very good design. I’ve had 4000, 8000 and 8200 machines, as well as a few oddballs like the CPi and a CPx J750GT. All of them were solid, fairly easy to set up, and performed very well.

      Unfortunately this one suffered more damage than I had thought. A new power supply wasn’t working, so I tried to pull apart the casing to check the plug port.

      Apparently at some point in the past the machine had been dropped and the entire rear corner had been superglued back together. It was a mess, and I didn’t have the patience to bring about a recovery.

      It’s a shame really, but some of the parts I can use, and others I can stash for future C-series machines that come my way. πŸ™‚

  3. Pingback: Ghosts of the machines | Motho ke motho ka botho

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